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Can Apple Finally Break Into the Big Time with Core Xserves?

Corrected: August 9, 2006

by Timothy Prickett Morgan

While Apple Computer has never been a big player in the server racket, it has in recent years, thanks to the Unix-derived Mac OS X and some very powerful Power-based Xserve machines, been able to win some high-profile accounts (particularly in supercomputing) and satisfy the departmental serving needs of its legions of Mac enthusiasts. The question now, as Apple has this week completed its transition from Power processors to Intel's Core X64 processors in its laptop, desktop, and server machines, is whether or not Apple can extend beyond and actually grow its server business.

Technically, there is no reason why the new Xserve servers should not be as compelling as any other entry Unix server or Wintel or Lintel box. But whether or not companies buy a particular machine usually comes down to what platforms support their applications, what they have historically bought from which vendors (history is a bigger factor than many want to believe), and what operating system options they have on the box they are buying and in the software they want to deploy. In this regard, the switch from Power to X64 processors should make the Xserves more appealing, since in theory, these same machines could also run Windows and Linux, unlike the PowerPC G5 Xserves, which could run Mac OS X and Linux.

At its World Wide Developer Conference in San Francisco this week, Apple duly launched its variant of the Intel "Bensley" platform, sporting the new dual-core "Woodcrest" Xeon 5100 series processors, which will be available in October. Like other Woodcrest designs, Apple is supporting multiple versions of the dual-core chips in its 1U rack-mounted servers, in this case Woodcrests running at 2 GHz, 2.66 GHz, and 3 GHz. The Xserve machine, which is simply called the Xserve as opposed to the Xserve G5 for the PowerPC edition that is basically two years old, can support from 1 GB to 32 GB of 667 MHz DDR2 fully buffer DIMM memory, offering twice the memory capacity of the Xserve G5. The server's eight PCI Express slots offer 2 GB/sec of bandwidth each to drive peripherals. The machine can support up to three SAS or SATA disk drives. Apple is peddling 750 GB SATA drives spinning at 7200 RPM as well as 73 GB and 300 GB SAS drives spinning at 15K RPM in the new Xserve. Customers can also plug in an ATI Radeon X1300 PCI Express graphics card with 256 MB of its own memory if you want to use the Xserve as a rack-mounted graphics engine (as many Mac shops do). The machine has two Gigabit Ethernet ports.

The base configuration of the Core-based Xserve comes with two dual-core Woodcrest chips running at 2 GHz, which have a 1.33 GHz front side bus and which have 4 MB of L2 cache per chip. This base machine has 1 GB of memory, an 80 GB SATA disk spinning at 7200 RPM, and an ATI Radeon X1300 graphics card with 64 MB of its own memory, plus an unlimited client license to the current Mac OS X Server 10.4, code-named "Tiger." This base machine is expected to have a street price of $2,999.

Apple did not provide pricing on faster processors, memory, or disks as part of this week's announcements. And it is not yet selling a version of the machine with only one Woodcrest chip installed. So it is tough to gauge how good of a deal the new Xserve is compared to Wintel and Lintel equivalents. This base price point is, however, exactly the same as the entry Xserve G5 machine, which comes in the same base configuration using a single-core 2 GHz PowerPC G5 processor. Apple sells single processor, dual processor, cluster node, and fully loaded configurations of the Xserve G5, and will likely offer similar options for the Core-based Xserves. And it seems reasonable that the company will try to keep its price points more or less the same and pass on the extra performance in the new Core machines to customers, thereby giving the price/performance leap that customers expect every two years. This is, more or less, what Wintel and Lintel providers are doing.

So how does the base pricing for the new Xserve stack up against the Wintel and Lintel offerings out there on the Bensley platform using the Woodcrest chips? Let's use Hewlett-Packard's ProLiant DL360 G5 as a comparison. The HP box equipped with two 2 GHz Woodcrest chips (that's four cores), 1 GB of memory, a RAID disk controller, and a 72 GB 10K RPM SAS disk costs $3,657. If you want to add Linux to this, Novell's SUSE Linux Enterprise Server 10 costs $349 for the license or $1,499 if you want premium technical support. Microsoft's Windows Server 2003 will cost anywhere from $599 for Small Business Server 2003 Standard Edition (with only five Client Access Licenses) to $999 for Windows Server 2003 Standard Edition (with five CALs) to $3,999 for Windows Server 2003 Enterprise Edition (with 25 CALs). Apple is basically giving away Mac OS X and one Woodcrest chip to its server buyers, and compared to the cost of a Linux Woodcrest server that is self-supported, this is no big deal. But compared to Linux with 24x7 tech support, Apple is very aggressively priced, and compared to the full-on Enterprise Edition of Windows Server 2003, Apple is giving a stunning bargain. Remember, every Windows user above the five or 25 CALs in those base licenses has to pay around $30 to access the system. So, for 100 users hitting the Windows stack (really using the software, not just hitting a Web server), this can add up to another big number.

Apple previewed the "Leopard" kicker to Tiger, Mac OS X Server 10.5, at the developer's conference this week, and expects to ship this software in the spring. Mac OX X 10.5 will include the open source Apache 2 Web server, MySQL 5 database, Postfix mail server, and Cyrus system administration tool, as well as Apple's own iChat Server 2, QuickTime Streaming Server 6, iCal Server (for calendaring), Spotlight Server (integrated search), and a wiki server. The machines will also have Xgrid 2, Apple's grid software for aggregating processing capacity on a network of Mac OS machines so they can support supercomputing workloads.

This story has changed since it was originally posted. The base configuration of the new Apple Xserve has two Woodcrest chips, not one. IT Jungle regrests the error. [Correct 08/09/2006]

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