Xserve offers users power, choice in a 'dream machine'

Two words come immediately to mind to describe Apple's Xserve G5: power and choice. The Xserve G5 is a rack-mounted server product designed to work with Mac OS X Server to create a powerful and highly configurable server. And like the original Xserve, the new Xserve G5 continues to illustrate Apple's commitment to a high-performance server platform -- something that until recently was lacking in Apple's product scheme.

The Xserve G5 isn't a product that most mainstream Mac users will find interesting (except for perhaps diehard Mac fans). But it is a product that should appeal to system and network administrators who support and work with Mac clients on a daily basis, because of its power, convenience, interoperability with other platforms and the configuration options it offers.

Like the original Xserve and most rack-mounted servers, the Xserve G5 is designed to run in a server room, allowing average users to take for granted that their network access, server-based applications, e-mail, Web sites and the like will all be there when they need them.

Focusing solely on the hardware, the new Xserve just wows me. It has one or two 2-GHz G5 processors, uses 400-MHz ECC RAM and has a dedicated front-side bus running at 1 GHz (the dual-processor model has two independent front-side buses, one for each processor). Add to that the ability to support up to 8GB of RAM, and you have the makings of the fastest Mac ever conceived. But Apple didn't stop there. Each of the three drive modules contains dedicated 150MB/sec. controllers, and the Xserve supports 100- and 133-MHz PCI-X cards. Rounding out its impressive technology pedigree are two onboard Gigabit Ethernet ports, each with its own dedicated controller.

What does all that power mean? A machine that is up to 60% faster than the original Xserve, which was a powerhouse in its own right. Compared with similar server platforms, the Xserve G5 offers more sheer computational power for straight high-end computing tasks.

In terms of file services, it outpaces one of the fastest Windows file servers -- the IBM eServer x335 running Windows Server 2003 -- by about 20% in high-volume NetBench testing. (This is with both machines providing Server Message Block file services for Windows.) Interestingly enough, the performance difference grows as more clients are connected. With fewer than 12 clients, the IBM eServer provides better network throughput than the Xserve.

But sheer power isn't what impresses me most. That accolade goes to its ease of configuration, monitoring and maintenance. A stock Xserve out of the box is impressive, but it ships with only a single 80GB drive. Adding drives to the Xserve is impressively easy. Simply pop out one of the three hot plug drive modules, put a new drive in it (up to 250GB at present), pop the module back in, and you're ready to go. No powering down the server, no messy opening it up, just pop out and pop back in, with no downtime whatsoever.

Other hardware options include a CD-ROM or combo drive for installing software directly or providing optical backups (although given the situations in which one would use an Xserve, burning data to a CD or CD-RW doesn't strike me as a logical choice for backup or archiving). The option for a Fibre Channel PCI card makes connecting multiple Xserves for clustering -- or to create high performance connections between servers -- not only possible but also easy. It also facilitates connection of an Xserve RAID, which I'll profile in a later column. The two PCI slots also enable the connection of other hardware, including additional network ports. And the two FireWire 800 ports enable the connection of additional high-speed devices for such purposes as backup and archiving.

Monitoring an Xserve can be done by using either the status LED on the Xserve itself or by remotely using the Server Monitor application for Mac OS X Server. Server Monitor places indicators equivalent to the server LEDs on your desktop, just a click away from additional information on each piece of the Xserve's hardware: RAM, drives, power supply, network ports, internal temperature, fans and physical security. A plethora of alert thresholds can also be set, notifying you of any problems with the Xserve with pop-up warnings, e-mails, faxes or pages.

Maintenance of the Xserve is also a great feature. As with the Power Mac line, Apple has made access to every internal component of the Xserve quick and painless. Even better, Apple sells Xserve maintenance kits as part of its service plans for the Xserve. These kits contain replacements for the critical proprietary hardware inside an Xserve. This is a crucial selling point of the product that is easily overlooked and a variation from Apple's typical hardware support. The ability to simply pop in a new power supply or fan yourself rather than going through an Apple service provider saves hours of downtime and quite a bit of potential aggravation.

Finally, one of the most overlooked features of the Xserve G5 that I want to mention is the onboard Ethernet controllers. One of the problems I've seen discussed by Mac administrators is integrating of an OS X Server with clients using multiple VLANs. VLANs serve many purposes, chief among them managing network traffic effectively. However, it can be tricky getting directory services and NetBoot to function properly across VLANs, and it sometimes may not work at all if a Mac OS X Server machine is on a separate VLAN from the clients. The onboard Ethernet ports of the support VLAN tags fully, allowing an Xserve to be a member of multiple VLANs. That at least mitigates problems, if it doesn't resolve them completely.

All in all, the Xserve G5 is not something most Mac users will focus on. But for Mac administrators, especially those in companies and institutions with a high demand for fast, reliable network services, the Xserve G5 seems like a dream machine.

Ryan Faas has been an IT professional and technology writer specializing in Macintosh for nearly 10 years, and currently manages the Mac OS X Server and Macintosh workstations for a community college in upstate New York. He is also co-author of Troubleshooting, Maintaining and Repairing Macs (McGraw-Hill Osborne Media; 2000).
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Copyright © 2004 IDG Communications, Inc.

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