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It's no wonder that people were impressed when Apple's first decent attempt at server-class hardware appeared last year. After all, the company's engineers had done a good job of packing a flexible and powerful dual-CPU workhorse into a 1U configuration. Of course, the original Xserve wasn't perfect. It ran hot and loud - especially when compared with similar x86-based 1U servers - and Mac loyalists even complained about the CD reader, which featured a "coffee-cup" tray.
The good news is that the second pass at the Xserve addresses many of the design complaints customers had. The obvious difference is that the CD reader now has a sleeker, slot-loading design. Less obvious are the improvements in the Xserve's airflow and cooling systems.
Some of these changes are readily apparent from the outside: a few extra perforations in front draw in a little more air, and the holes in the rear of the case are now hexagonal instead of round. This may not seem like a big deal, but the more efficient hexagon offers additional room for air to flow through. It's subtle indeed, but it demonstrates that Apple's designers are trying to wring everything they can out of the sheet metal.
Other enhancements are inside: the blowers in the new Xserve are less noisy than those in the original model, and power-saving functions native to the CPU are enabled when possible in an attempt to reduce the server's internal temperature. The new model also features a faster, 1.33GHz processor, so users have a little more horsepower to throw at demanding applications such as video renderers. In terms of raw clock speed, this falls far behind what's available for x86 servers, which are now running at 3GHz and more. But it's difficult to get a handle on just what the difference between the two may be, since both the OS and the processor are going to be variables in any speed or performance tests.
Like the old Xserve, the new Xserve has its awkward moments. You still have to install a shell to mount the server on the rack (my pet peeve), and the cable-support arm obstructs two accessory slots when installed. But these are minor flaws in an otherwise near-perfect design.
The Xserve's strongest point remains its tight hardware and operating-system integration. This makes the server more manageable than Intel-based machines, which rely on vendor-supplied utilities that may not work well with the server's OS. Even the new Xserve model's LEDs play a management role, by signalling your choice of boot method when troubleshooting. Remote monitoring, restart, and shutdown functions are at your fingertips via an included software application, and you'll find it much easier to manage a rack of Xserves with the built-in tools than to manage anything that exists in the x86 universe. Perhaps the most fundamental of these tools is the SSH secure shell - something you won't find in any version of Windows. SSH lets you perform command-line-based management tasks easily on hardware ranging from servers to desktops.
The Xserve isn't yet perfect, but with the latest tweaks, including a faster CPU and improvements to the cooling and ventilation systems, it just got closer. It's still the easiest server to manage.