New Apple Xserves – Compelling or Commonplace?

| Wednesday, April 8th, 2009 | Comments Off on New Apple Xserves – Compelling or Commonplace?

Apple has finally unwrapped their new series of Xserves to incorporate the new Nehalem CPU line and, one would imagine, to add new features in line with current trends and technologies.

One would imagine. And while there are definitely some new features, the truth lies somewhere in the middle

What is new and compelling?

  • More cores. Choose from 4 to 8 cores. (with clock speeds of 2.26, 2.66 or 2.93 GHz)
  • Three channels of 1066MHz DDR3 ECC RAM. (This also means a max. of 24GB RAM. But it is faster memory and those 3 channels give you wider bandwidth.)
  • A ‘free’ SSD slot separate from the three internal 3.5″ SATA bays. A very nice addition, indeed. The offered 128GB SSD can decrease boot (and reboot!) times and reduce or eliminate bottlenecks resulting from OS wait time.
  • On-board graphics (GeForce GT 120 w/ 256MB). There’s no slot taken up and/or no card to add/remove. Don’t scoff! Your GPU will become very important, even on your servers, very soon. OpenCL is right around the corner. This is ‘free’ processing power.
  • “Lights Out” power management via an independent service processor. Green it up, y’all.
  • Lower power-to-performance ratio is claimed. Partly from the new CPUs and partly from engineering changes. Touted as an overall ‘greener’ product.
  • 10.5 Leopard Server with unlimited client license included.

What’s not so exciting?

  • Given what’s inside the base model… well, it’s still a little spendy. The base 8-core system is $3599 with a paltry 3GB RAM and 160 HDD. The base 4-core system just doesn’t excite me at all. In fairness, these are Nehalem CPUs which have only just hit the open market, so you will pay a premium to live on the bleeding edge.
  • In-store drives and memory prices are not competitive. At all. $300 for a 1TB drive? That’s about $125 for the tray… which you can’t buy empty…
  • Redundant power supplies still not standard. Although $200 to add one isn’t too bad, it’s really time that a $3500 base box has it standard. Of course, two power supplies means having to publish a higher idle power usage and overall lower energy efficiency rating… So marekting’s probably not crazy about the idea.
  • No. Effing. eSATA ports. Two Firewire 800 ports are as close as you get (and 3 USB2 ports for… a keyboard or whatever). Not so bleeding-edge… Now that Apple is out of the drive rack business, why do they care what we hang off these boxes? Give us some options here. Firewire 800 is nice to have for backups/restores/dumps, but it’s speed-limited. Yes, you can add a internal card, but we really should have at least one eSATA port standard by now.

But, all that being said, if you’re running an OSX Server environment or Xsan or Final Cut Server, this is the machine you want. It’s going to be fast and, well, it’s going to be very fast. If you’re saturating your current Xserve’s memory bus, you’ll find much more bandwidth here. For transcoding video, running large simulations and anything that requires or benefits from large, fast memory, you’ll see the difference. As a web server? Not so much. And if you’re a video professional or scientist or CG house, you’re probably already OK with adding a couple of thousand to the price. A production-ready machine that takes advantage of the new features and is ready to drop into your average Xsan or Final Cut Server environment will probably run you somewhere around $5200-$5400 (8-cores, 6-12GB RAM, SSD, one HDD, dual-channel fibre card, dual power supplies). A competitor in the Linux server space would run you maybe $1000 less. If you run a large farm/data center, that $1000 per unit will add up quick, so you probably aren’t even thinking Xserve at all. Whether that’s smart or not on Apple’s part, it’s hard to say. They have a niche, and they’re filling it fairly well… mostly.

Can I unreservedly say this is a “must have”? No. It is an indication that the Xserve brand will continue and that it will evolve, but it’s not going to be for every Xserve user just yet, I don’t think. Houses using Final Cut Server or Xsan or Qmaster who are ramping up to deal with RED and other 2k/4k footage will find these machines just what they need. Houses dealing with their current workflow and data handling “OK” will likely continue to get by with what they have. At least for now. It’s likely we’ll see a price change in the next 6 months or so as Nehalem gets saturated in the channel and the per unit price goes down. In fact, I’d go so far as to predict we’ll see an 8-core machine at the current 4-core price in 6-8 months and a faster 8-core machine to fit the higher price slot. And then, I think the desire to buy new Xserve will increase for those who are doing “OK” right now.

But… I’ve been wrong before. Unless you’ve got $5k/unit ready to go, you and I can just wait and see.

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