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Review: Xserve Xeon

The Xserve base configuration offers two 2GHz dual-core Xeon processors, 1GB of 667MHz DDR2 RAM, and an 80GB 7,200rpm SATA hard drive, all contained in a 1U box for a guide price of € 3,199 . Inside you can find two eight-lane PCI Express slots (one can be configured for a PCI-X card), two Gigabit Ethernet connectors, and a Combo optical drive. The Xserve also offers two FireWire 800 ports, one FireWire 400 port, two USB 2.0 ports, and one DB-9 serial port. It can optionally be configured with 2.66 GHz and 3 GHz processors, up to 32 GB of RAM by installing 8 DIMMs, a second power supply, and Fiber Channel and SCSI controllers. The Xserve allows you to install up to three 3.5-inch hard drives, being able to mix or use both 7,200 rpm SATA drives and the faster 15,000 rpm Serial SCSI (SAS) drives. As in the previous version, the product ships with a version of Mac OS X Server with no client limit. For the purposes of this review, Apple has provided an Xserve with 3 GHz processors, four 1GB FB-DIMMs, three 750GB SATA drives, a SuperDrive, two power supplies, and a Fiber Channel card. The final estimated price of such a configuration is 8,960 EUR.

Mounting

The new Xserve is easy to install in a rack. Fortunately, Apple has replaced the old (and fragile) mounting combination with a conventional rail assembly. There are two kits of rails for the connection with round or square holes (be sure to order with the correct kit; Apple indicates that it will replace the kit if the wrong one has been ordered, but better safe than sorry). If your rack uses square holes you can say goodbye to the fixing pieces. Apple rails are designed in such a way that they can be configured to perfectly fit the rack. Just mount the rails and adjust the extender. The server will fit snugly on the rails and the Teflon coating will ensure a smooth slide on the rack.

The new Xserve retains the basic look and feel of its predecessor. It boots from disk, CD, network, or in FireWire disk mode, just as you can expect. The front panel has the same appearance, buttons and status lights, as well as a FireWire 400 port. The drive bays and the extraction system also remain the same design. The sixteen processor status lights are now responsible for indicating the activity of the four Xserve processor cores, using four lights for each core.

The default configuration includes an optional ATI Radeon X1300 video controller with 64MB of dedicated video memory. The video card does not occupy any of the PCI-Express slots, but rather mounts on a mezzanine card. The external video connector is mini-DVI type; including as part of the product adapters for VGA and DVI displays. The VGA adapter worked fine with my KVM Ratian, although I was able to connect it properly after carefully positioning the adapter. I would have preferred a conventional VGA connector on the server.

The Xserve’s new cooling systems are impressive. Variable speed fans blow air to each of the power supplies, processors, and memory. Additionally, Apple uses copper heat sinks in each processor. Considering that the interior of the computer becomes noticeably hot when high load levels are used, attention paid to the cooling system ensures optimum performance.

As a consequence of having the same visual design as the previous Xserve, Apple has lost the opportunity to make a number of day-to-day operations more convenient. For example, many manufacturers include USB and video ports on the front of their servers; for example to boot from a USB key or for those cases in which a monitor and keyboard are needed. The Xserve has these ports only on the back, which means that you’ll have to struggle with cables and noise from the back of the rack. Similarly, it would have been nice if the new management label (containing the serial number and MAC addresses) had been accessible from the front. The Xserve must also be removed from the rack to access the internal parts.

Unlike the Xserve G5, this version does not offer the option of hardware RAID. Since RAID controllers are available from any other manufacturer, and they are usually located on the motherboard, this is a more or less important omission. The software RAID option is noticeably slower, and the Xserve G5’s optional RAID card would have been welcome in any configuration that required data redundancy. I hope that the RAID option will be available in the future, but until then users will have to take a look at external storage solutions.

Remote management

The Xserve and Mac OS X Server have always been strong at remote management, but this time Apple raises the bar with Lights-Out Management (LOM). This means that you can remotely monitor, manage, and even turn the server on or off (even if it has suffered a kernel panic or is hidden in a distant data center). Apple has implemented version 2.0 of the Intelligent Platform Management Interface (PMI) specification. As long as the server is connected to a power outlet and a network cable (and you can access the correct IP subnet), you can access internal hardware systems using IPMI-compliant tools. In fact, Apple’s Server Monitor now requires IPMI access to be able to manage Xeon Xservers.

Lights-Out Management sounds good, and it works fine once it has been successfully configured, but the implementation by Apple is problematic. While the Xserve has two Ethernet ports, it has four network controllers, each port responding to two controllers, one for LOM and one for the normal Xserve Ethernet network. The correct implementation is for the LOM to be on a private network with a secure IP, so you have to either dedicate a physical port to the LOM processor or else embed a complicated (and possibly unwanted) IP subnet and access controls at the network layer. . (Other manufacturers often use a dedicated card with its own Ethernet port.) While most LOM controllers are configured for DHCP over an RFC1918 private address space, Apple supplies it unconfigured. You will need to manually turn on the server and use the Server Assistant to configure the LOM processor. However, even then, I couldn’t reliably access the LOM processor until I shut down the server, removed the power cords, and reconnected them, as documented on the Apple website.