Apple Goes Quad Core in Xserves and Mac Pros
Published: January 10, 2008
by Timothy Prickett Morgan
Customers using servers and workstations from Apple Computer are finally getting a much-needed performance boost now that the company this week has launched its first machines supporting quad-core Xeon processors from Intel. As the maker of the sexiest Unix machines on the planet, Apple needs to get on the cutting edge of hardware and stay there if it wants to grow its market share for servers and workstations--something that it is perfectly capable of doing now that Apple is the darling of Wall Street and the hip gear in our hip pockets.
The new Xserve and Mac Pro machinery is based on Intel's "Harpertown" Xeon 5400 quad-core processors, which sport the new "Penryn" cores and use a 45 nanometer process technology that allows Intel to crank up core clock speeds to 3 GHz today and higher in the future without overheating the chip. The Harpertown chips used in the Xserve servers run 3 GHz and sport two independent 1.6 GHz front side buses that feed each pair of cores inside the Harpertown chips. Apple customers using Xserves with "Woodcrest" dual-core Xeon 5100 processors will see performance increases in the range of 1.6 to 2.2 moving to the machines based on Harpertowns. (Apple never did ship quad-core "Clovertown" Xeon 5300 chips in its Xserve line, which is a bit perplexing considering that they were on the market for more than a year.) In any event, Xserve customers should see around twice the performance boost for applications that can make use of extra processor cores, and it will allow a server to do more things side-by-side if it cannot, if they move to Xserves using Harpertown chips with similar clock speed.
The Harpertowns are the first of the Penryn family of chips, and is really two dual-core chips that share a single ceramic package with two independent buses reaching back into both pair of cores. (Prior quasi quad-core chips from Intel had both pairs of cores sharing a single bus, which limited performance.) Each pair of Harpertown cores has 6 MB of L2 cache. All Penryn chips include new SSE4 SIMD instructions for boosting multimedia and calculation processing, and they also have larger caches, independent buses, and other tweaks that give them better performance than the predecessor "Clovertown" Xeon 5300 quad-core chips, which have been shipping since November 2006. The Clovertowns and their companion "Kentsfield" quad-core chips have been one of the key reasons behind Intel's resurgence in its battle against Advanced Micro Devices in 2007. AMD's own "Barcelona" quad-core Opteron 8300 series chips came to market late in September 2007 and had a bug in their cache.
The new Xserve machine from Apple comes in a 1U form factor and is a two-socket server like several prior generations of Xserve machines. The new Xserve has eight main memory slots and supports up to 32 GB of main memory; Apple is using 800 MHz DDR2 fully buffered DIMMs. That faster and fatter memory boosts memory bandwidth to 25.6 GB/sec, which is over 64 percent more than the prior Xserve boxes. (That number is based on a STREAM benchmark test Apple ran back in December compared to an Xserve using two dual-core Woodcrest chips.) The Xserve boxes also have two PCI Express slots--one x8 slot and one x16 slot--with up to 8 GB/sec of I/O bandwidth, which is four times that of the prior Xserve. If customers need to support PCI-X peripherals, they can convert one of the PCI-Express slots to PCI-X using an adapter. The Xserve can have up to SAS or SATA disk drives and has an optional RAID daughter card that provides RAID 1 mirroring for two disks or RAID 5 data protection across three disks in the system; this raid card has 256 MB of write cache memory and a 72-hour battery backup for data in the cache. Apple sells 7200 RPM SATA disks with 80 GB or 1 TB capacities or 15K RPM SAS disks with 73 GB or 300 GB capacities in the machine. The box has two Gigabit Ethernet ports, and it also has a single 750 watt power supply and can have another one slapped into the box for redundancy. The server comes with a license to Mac OS X 10.5 Leopard Server installed with an unlimited client license.
Apple is selling configurations of this new machine with a single 2.8 GHz Harpertown chip, two 2.8 GHz Harpertowns, or two 3.0 GHz Harpertowns. A base machine with a single Harpertown processor, 2 GB of main memory, an 80 GB disk, and Leopard Server costs $2,999. A heavy configuration with eight Xeon cores running at 3 GHz, 32 GB of main memory, three 73 GB SAS drives, the optional RAID card, and the redundant power supply costs a whopping $15,399.
The new Mac Pro tower workstation is also based on Harpertown chips, but Apple is choosing faster 3.2 GHz versions for the top-end configuration. As was the case with the Xserve machines, the Mac Pro workstations have been limited to dual-core Woodcrest processors on their two-socket motherboards, so customers moving to the new Mac Pro eight-core box should see about twice the oomph if they have applications that are thread friendly. The new Mac Pro comes with an AMD ATI Radeon HD 2600 XT graphics card with 256 MB of memory, but customers can choose a GeForce 8800 GT card with 512 MB of memory or Quadro FX 5600 card with 1.5 GB of memory from nVidia to get screaming graphics performance. The machine can also gang up four of the ATI cards to drive up to eight 30-inch screens with a single image. That is one heck of a desktop.
A base Mac Pro using the Harpertown processors comes with two 2.8 GHz cores, 2 GB of main memory, the base ATI graphics card, and a 320 GB SATA disk spinning at 7200 RPM. It costs $2,799. Using two top-speed 3.2 GHz Harpertowns, boosting memory to 16 GB, adding the RAID 5 card, putting in four 500 GB disks, and the top-end Quadro FX 5600 card drives the price of the Mac Pro to $12,399. Using four ATI graphics cards on this hefty configuration drops the price to $9,999.
While the new Xserve iron is certainly welcome, Apple still has work to do. As I explained last year, Apple should have very skinny single-socket, quad-core servers in a 1U chassis with lots of SAS disk storage. The new machine sort of fulfills this. But Apple also needs a 2U server with four quad-core "Tigerton" Xeon 7300 processors for handling very large workloads. And 3U variant of this Xserve should have a built in storage area network. Moreover, Apple still needs to have two-socket and four-socket blade servers, and if it can't build them, then it should just license blade chasses and blades from Intel and get the job done.
In a separate announcement, Apple announced this week that Andrea Jung, chairman and chief executive officer at makeup and beauty products manufacturer Avon Products, has been elected to the board of directors for Apple. Jung is already on the boards of General Electric and Catalyst and is a member of the board of trustees at New York Presbyterian Hospital. Jung rose up through the ranks at Avon, which had just under $9 billion in sales last year, through the marketing side of the company, eventually becoming president of global marketing in 1996, an executive vice president in 1997, president in 1998, chief operating officer from 1998 through 1999, chief executive in 1999 and chairman of the board in 2001. Jung is the eighth member of the Apple board, which includes Steve Jobs, Apple co-founder and CEO; Bill Campbell, chairman and former CEO of Intuit; Millard Drexler, chairman and CEO of J. Crew; Al Gore, former Vice President of the United States and Nobel Prize winner; Arthur Levinson, chairman and CEO of Genentech; Eric Schmidt, CEO of Google; and Jerry York, president, CEO, and chairman of Harwinton Capital.
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