by May 5, 2003 0 comments



Xserve is a rack server from Apple that has a lot of power packed in. Apple’s foray into server-class products started in the late ‘80s, but they never quite managed to make a big dent in the server market. Things might, however, change with the Xserv. How? We took an in-depth look at the product in our labs. Being a rack-mountable server, it can be used for a range of applications right from entry-level to high-end. 

The Apple Xserve inside out

Xserve comes in three flavors: single processor, dual processor and a cluster node 
configuration. The processor(s) used is the 1.33 GHz PowerPC G4 with 256 KB KL2 cache and interestingly 2 MB DDR based L3 cache (per processor) for optimizing multitasking performance. And OS? Of course, it’s the Mac OS X 10.2 server. The main memory can be scaled up to 2 GB, which is 333 MHz DDR SDRAM. Xserve also comes standard with dual Gigabit Ethernet ports, two USB ports and three FireWire ports. It has three PCI slots, two of which are 64-bit, 66 MHz, and one is a regular half-length 32-bit AGP cum PCI slot. One 64-bit slot is already taken up with an Ethernet card. Interestingly, the server doesn’t come with a graphics card, keyboard, mouse or monitor. These are optional and have to be purchased separately if needed.

Four DDR RAM
slots can take 512 MB 

Xserve also sports four hot pluggable IDE drive bays that can take up to 720 GB of hard disks (four drives of 180 GB each). Interestingly, these are all IDE drives, meaning there’s no SCSI. There might be two reasons for doing this. One, of course, is the lower cost for IDE. Second could be the way IDE has been configured on the server. The drives are connected via four independent 133 MHz buses, which can support 180 GB ATA/100 or 60 GB ATA/133 hard drives. Therefore, the peak throughput from these four channels is 400 MB/s. This is higher than using SCSI drives, which are daisy chained (shared) on to a single channel of 160 MB/s (for example, in case of UltraSCSI 160). 

Backview of the
Xserve.
Various connectivity
options include serial port, FireWire and USB 

The OS supports software RAID (level 0 or 1), and a separate RAID module is also available. We got a dual processor Xserve with 512 MB DDR RAM and a single 60 GB hard disk for review. The design is sleek and robust, packing everything into a 1U (1.73 inches) form factor. Its surface area is large measuring 71×44 cm and the server weights 11 kgs. Xserve can be opened or rather its cover can be slid off without using a screwdriver. The server has several LEDs on its front panel and the prominent ones are for CPU usage, network usage, and drive status. An Allen key based lock is provided to avoid accidental removal of the hot pluggable drives. 

Coming to the software, the most lucrative fact about the OS is that it has an unlimited client license. So you can have as many users accounts on it as you want without paying anything extra, making it a very cost-effective option. Since the OS is based on BSD UNIX, it gets some inherent advantages like an existing developer base and the multitasking qualities of Unix. While traditional UNIX systems are notorious for their incomprehensible interface, Apple has given its OS an excellent graphical user interface (Aqua interface), making it very administrator-friendly.

The OS has all the essential software and services needed for a network. So, it can be set up as file/print, Web, proxy, DNS/DHCP, e-mail, database (mySQL), and much more. It provides out-of-the-box support for heterogeneous networks, having connectivity options for Unix (NFS), Windows (SMB), and Macintosh (AFP) file services. For Web it has Apache Web server, Tomcat application server, Perl and PHP. FTP is also present with on the fly compression. POP and IMAP built in support will make any administrator smile. It also comes with Apple’s QuickTime streaming server, making it a choice for audio and video streaming. One drawback though is its basic firewall. The OS also works with any LDAP v3 directory server, and has a built-in Open Directory Server. This enables it to authenticate against a Windows 2000 server with Active Directory. 

The administration can be done in three ways: directly, remotely and through a serial port. It even has a terminal for those die-hard Unix fans who’d rather die than use a GUI. Xserve is basically designed to run in a headless environment, and is therefore supported by remote-management utilities like Server Monitor and Server Setting. One drawback we felt here was that they only run from a Mac OS X client. Ideally, one should be able to manage the Xserve even from Windows clients. Nevertheless, these features are quite feature rich, and you can in fact toggle a system identifier light from Server Monitor to identify a particular Xserve server, in case you’re running more than one. On the user management front, you don’t need to create different user accounts for different services. One user account can be given access to file/print, Web services, etc. One feature specific to OS X clients is caching of user settings locally, which doesn’t disrupt the network operation and security policies even when the server is down.

Snapshot

Price Rs 235,000 (single processor Apple X Serve), Rs 316,500 (dual processor)
Meant for : Heterogeneous network environments
Key specs : All basic functionality built-in for file/print, Web serving and databases
Pros : Administrator friendly GUI with Mac OS X server, unlimited client license, excellent remote management
Contact : Apple Computer, Bangalore.
Tel : 25550575.
E-mail : deepanshu@asia.apple.com

Interestingly, Xserve also comes with a developer’s suite CD for developing Carbon-based (MAC OS X) applications, and gcc 3.1 is the default compiler. Developer’s tools may seem a misfit on a server class machine, but it’s always nice to have your development stuff around in some corner. 

The Bottom Line: The USP of this product seems to be the unlimited client license, making Xserve an extremely cost-effective solution to some competing products, except, of course, Linux. Add to that an excellent GUI and cross-platform interconnectivity, which make it a good choice for any organization. Finally, if you’re interested in migrating from another OS, say Windows 2000, to this platform, then there are third-party tools available for the job.

Ankit Khare

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