The Xserve G5 is the latest in Apple's range of servers. As the name suggests, the box is based on the 64-bit PowerPC G5 processor, and the server is based on MacOS X Server 10.3.3, otherwise known as Panther. We've already looked at the Panther operating system, so we'll examine the hardware in this review.

The Xserve is a 1U rack-mountable server (and in fact it's the heaviest 1U device we've ever come across). Our review model came with a pair of 2GHz G5 processors, plus 1GB RAM (there are eight memory slots, and the machine can accept up to 8GB).

The front panel houses three removable hot-swap drive trays; ours had three 250GB Hitachi Serial-ATA disks. (Note that there's a variant called the Cluster Node, which is designed to be part of a redundant cluster and which has just one drive bay instead of three). There's also a slot-loading CD-ROM drive as standard, though you can have a combined CD-RW/DVD-ROM if you prefer. Also on the front panel are the on/off switch and its associated status LED, the system lock switch (which is used to physically disable peripherals such as the keyboard and mouse for security, though you have to remember to enable the feature in the OS or it simply won't have any effect) and a button/light pair that doubles as both a system identifier and a problem alert lamp. Alongside the alert indicator is a 400MHz FireWire (IEEE1394) port, which complements the pair of 800MHz ports on the back of the box, and then comes a pair of Ethernet link status lights and two rows of blue LEDs that show processor load (there's a row of eight for each processor).

Alongside the FireWire ports at the back are a pair of built-in Gigabit Ethernet (copper) connectors, a 9-pin serial port and two USB sockets, into one of which we connected our wireless keyboard and mouse. There's also a pair of PCI-X-based expansion slots; in our unit one slot was occupied by a graphics card and the other housed a two-port SCSI adaptor.

When you take the lid off, you find the front half of the unit packed with goodies and the back half largely empty. This is because the three drive bays and the CD/DVD drive all live on the front panel, so Apple has had to pack everything in. Behind this kit are the processors, and then you get the eight RAM bays. One thing we found infuriating is that, to get the lid off, you have to slide it back along the entire length of the server – most units of this type let you slide the lid back a couple of inches before lifting it off – though to be fair, this would be less of an issue with the device mounted in a rack than it was with it on our lab bench. On the subject of rack mounting, Apple supplies a variety of mounting options, which lets you use both four-post and two-post racks for your Xserves.

The main management tasks for the unit are undertaken from the MacOS GUI, which includes a plethora of useful management and monitoring tools; although there's a pile of configuration options, there are two key applications for looking after the Xserve. First is Server Admin, which allows you to configure and control the various server applications on the machine (the Web server, email server and so on). The other tool is Server Monitor, which takes care of the hardware side of the management function, providing detail on disks, memory, power consumption, network status, temperature and even the spin speeds of the various fans. Both Server Monitor and Server Admin can connect to other machines over the network, so you can look after a fleet of devices from a single unit – oh, and if you're a Unix type there's always the option of using the standard command-line instructions by using a Terminal window from MacOS or by connecting over the network via SSH.

The Xserve is an attractive 64-bit server with a sensible price tag, decent scalability and an excellent operating system sitting on top.

OUR VERDICT

When we checked, it was slightly cheaper to buy from third parties such as Inmac; if you want to mix and match features, though, the Apple store is more convenient and only a few pounds more expensive.