Xserve: Comparing Apple to Apples

The success of the iPod has garnered most of the plaudits for Apple in the past year. Its digital music player is a must have on most teenagers’ wish lists. Its 5.6-ounce box contains 40 GB of music — enough for 10,000 songs.

Though not as high profile as the iPod, another Apple product — Xserve RAID — has seen the company make inroads into the storage marketplace. Containing up to 14 hot-swappable drives and up to 5.6 TB of data in a rack-optimized storage enclosure, Xserve RAID combines Ultra ATA drive technology with a 2 Gb Fibre Channel interface. It is the companion product of the Apple Xserve, a server platform that is now selling more than 10,000 units a quarter, according to Gartner Group.

“Because of the integration points between Xserve and Xserve RAID, it is a viable alternative to NAS and web appliances,” said Gartner analyst John Enck. “This box plays well in any environment that has a good deal of heterogeneity in the client and server environment.”

Xserve comes with up to 8 GB RAM, a 1 GHz front side bus and a 2 GHz 64-bit IBM G5 processor. Although it runs on Mac OS 10.3, Xserve RAID also works well with Windows-, Linux- or NetWare-based servers. You can buy a 1 TB, 2.8 TB or 5.6 TB RAID box. In terms of cost, the 1 TB box costs $5,999, 2.8 TB costs $8,499 and 5.6 TB costs $12,999. This makes Apple storage some of the cheapest on the market, at about $2 per GB.

Each unit comes with 7200 rpm Ultra ATA drives, a dual RAID controller, and dual 2 Gbps FC interfaces in a 3U form factor. Each 7200 RPM hard drive connects to a dedicated Ultra ATA drive channel to eliminate bottlenecks and maximize the 400MB/s Fibre Channel host connection. Indicator lights on the front panel display status for power cooling, RAID controllers and enclosure lock. 46 blue LEDs display activity levels for each host channel, and Fibre Channel indicators show link status.

The previous version utilized only software RAID. The latest version of Xserve RAID, however, includes a hardware RAID card. These boxes can be arranged in RAID 0, 2, 3, 5, 10, as well as other configurations like RAID 30 and 50. Under RAID 5, you get 800 GB and RAID 0 gives you 1.2 TB per unit.


Apple plans to release version 10.4 of the MAC OS in the first half of 2005. By then it will also release a 64-bit SAN file system for the MAC OS called Xsan. This clustered file system includes both a metadata controller and client software. It supports up to eight volumes of 16 TB. Up to 64 concurrent systems can read and write shared storage simultaneously over Fibre Channel. This mode of storage networking eliminates the bottlenecks normally associated with Ethernet-based network file servers. Apple’s SAN software also uses Fibre Channel multi-pathing — a means of using two Fibre Channel cables to connect a computer to the SAN. This offers the potential of an Xsan client achieving a throughput of up to 400 MBps.

Such features make Xsan especially attractive to the company’s loyal installed base of graphic designers and video editors. Multiple editors working on the same project using high-end video clients, for instance, can be hooked up with the server and the storage box. It can also act as a common data store when sharing data among many servers. By pooling storage devices such as Xserve RAID together, each client has direct access to the pool, as well as high performance.

Beta testing on Xsan is currently in its final stages. Once released, Apple expects to price the software at around $999.

“The Apple storage solution is very strong — both in terms of functionality and value,” said Enck. “I think the attach rate between Xserve and their storage products will be reasonably high. However, I don’t think customers will be attracted to Apple based on the storage products alone — I think they come in the door looking at Xserve and leave with Xserve and storage.”

Article courtesy of Enterprise IT Planet

Drew Robb
Drew Robb has been a full-time professional writer and editor for more than twenty years. He currently works freelance for a number of IT publications, including eSecurity Planet and CIO Insight. He is also the editor-in-chief of an international engineering magazine.

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