I recently got a walk-through from Apple officials of the company's new Intel-based Xserve, and then -- again, courtesy of Apple -- I got to actually take one for a test-drive. I can say from the start that this stylish piece of hardware represents a significant improvement over its predecessor, which itself offered amazing value and high-powered performance. Apple went to great pains to deliver design and performance improvements that are evident on first look and use and will be welcomed by data centre managers.

Overview

The new Xserve base model sports two 64-bit dual-core Xeon "Woodcrest" processors running at 2 GHz; 1GB of 667-MHz DDR2 ECC FB-DIMM RAM; a single 80GB 3Gbit/sec. Serial ATA (SATA) Apple Drive Module; onboard dual Ethernet; a Combo drive; single power supply; no expansion cards; a built-in ATI Radeon X1300 PCI Express graphics card with 64MB of GDDR3 synchronous dynamic RAM; and Mac OS X Server unlimited client software. Base price: £1,871.49.

The OS X server software included is a 100 per cent native, 64-bit unified operating system with many of the included applications -- like MySQL and Java Application server -- also bumped up to take advantage of the 64-bit processors. As in previous versions, the Xserve motherboard is held in place by captive thumbscrews that require no special tools to open.

The model I tested is a bit more robust than the standard configuration, and I had it optimised for streaming media. This particular model has two dual-core Xeon processors running at 3.0 GHz; 8GB of RAM (4x2GB 667-MHz DDR2 ECC FB-DIMMs); a single 73GB, 15,000-rpm Serial Attached SCSI (SAS) drive, plus two 750GB 7,200-rpm SATA drives; the built-in Radeon X1300 graphics card; dual power supplies; a dual-layer SuperDrive; a 2Gbit/sec dual-channel Fibre Channel card; a dual-port Gigabit Ethernet card; and the Mac OS X Server unlimited client.

Pricing is still a bit lower than what you would expect for such a loaded machine, but it's not cheap.

Remember, Leopard server is expected to be out in early 2007, so when buying a new Xserve be sure to get the operating system maintenance plan to guarantee you'll get the new server operating system at no additional charge when it emerges from its lair. The plan costs $999 for 36 months.

Now that we've covered the basic configuration, cost and my first impressions, let's take a deeper look inside.

Processors and fans

Removing the two captive thumbscrews that hold the cover on, and then taking out the five Phillips screws to expose the fan assembly yields this view of the Xserve's internal hardware.

The processors are 64-bit with a 256-bit-wide bus and will use a four-channel data path to the FB-DIMMS. And RAM heat sinks -- which can cut down on heat and the constant use of cooling fans -- weren't used as they are in the Mac Pro, where acoustic performance is important. More important, the overall bandwidth of the processor system is up to a blistering 20.1GB/sec. or three times faster than the G5 Xserve.

In a nod to maximising efficiency while balancing power consumption and heat management, the Xserve's seven fans are controlled individually by a microprocessor. If necessary, each one can spin at a different speed so that it cools only the area served by that fan.

Storage

With the new Xserve, Apple is the first vendor to offer both SAS and SATA drives in the same machine. Each technology has a particular benefit in server applications and by allowing for any combination to be used, Apple is offering its customers maximum flexibility.

For example, SAS drives are substantially faster than SATA, so for transactional applications that require fast disk access (like operating system and database operations) a SAS drive is ideal. To illustrate the difference: a SATA drive has a seek time of about 8ms, whereas the 15,000-rpm SAS drive has a seek time of only 3.5ms. The trade-off for that speed is price; SAS drives offer less storage and cost nearly twice as much SATA drives, so they should be used only as needed.

In my configuration, I used the 73GB SAS drive as my boot and Web service drive, and then had two 750GB perpendicular reading SATA drives for media serving. The high transactional nature of the OS and Web server made sense for the SAS drive, and for storing huge media files that the Web app would serve up, I used the SATA drives.

Another item of note: drives are user-installable, so as larger capacities become available, newer drives can be swapped in without needing to replace the drive bays.

Moving to the back of the machine, the Xserve comes standard with two FireWire 800 ports, two USB 2.0 ports, dual Gigabit Ethernet ports, and a DB9 serial port for console access.

Inside, the built-in ATI Radeon X1300 PCI Express graphics (with 64MB of GDDR3 SDRAM) sits on a daughter card of the PCI bus, meaning a slot does not have to be given up for video. A mini video adaptor is included so you can attach a display.

Apple said it uses the mini video adapter for two reasons: to keep space requirements to a minimum and to allow for greater air flow. On reflection, it occurred to me that using the adaptor allows a user to choose either a DVI or VGA monitor. The 64MB of video RAM is enough to drive a 23-in. Apple Cinema Display.

When doing a custom order of the Xserve, the left-hand PCI slot can be configured as a PCI-X slot for customers who have existing investments in specialised cards that use the PCI-X format.

New and awesome

Two of the major gripes that data centre managers had about earlier Xserve models involved power redundancy and lights-out management capabilities. "Apple listened closely to its customer requests and delivered on the most-requested features," said Doug Brooks, product manager for server hardware at Apple. The dual power supplies are load-sharing and hot-swappable, and a second power supply is included in the Xserve emergency parts kit in case it's needed.

As for the lights-out management, it's for real this time.

Apple has incorporated the IPMI standard into its management interface, which allows the CPU to be monitored and controlled remotely by any IPMI-compliant device and software package, such as HP OpenView. The management card has its own IP address and account, but setup is simple and added to the OS build. Initially, the system management account is used to provision the card. Here's a more detailed look at IPMI.

Best of all, Apple offers something small, seemingly insignificant to anyone who has not had to do inventory or determine a MAC address in the dark. Included in every Xserve is a pull-out plastic card that remains connected to the machine. It has room for an asset management tag of standard thickness, with the Xserve's serial number, configuration data and MAC addresses of the NICs all in white -- yes, white -- lettering.

Conclusion

The new Xserve should deliver on all of the performance improvements expected in Apple's move to an Intel Xeon dual-core processor, plus some incredible storage options.

Data centre managers will be pleased to know that they can integrate the Xserve into their standard monitoring packages and be confident of reliability with redundant power supplies. The hands-on server folk will appreciate the new quick rack feature, which simplifies rack mounting and eliminates cage nuts forever.

And if they're like me, they will love that pull-out ID card.

OUR VERDICT

Data centre managers will be pleased to know that they can integrate the Xserve into their standard monitoring packages and be confident of reliability with redundant power supplies. The hands-on server folk will appreciate the new quick rack feature, which simplifies rack mounting and eliminates cage nuts forever.