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SATA-based Xserve RAID prototype escapes from Apple (photos)

It's not often that a prototype of an unreleased Apple hardware product escapes the company's kung fu grip and lands smack-dab in the lap of one of our loyal readers. But hey, that's what appears to have happened. So here's some fresh meat for friday:

What you see below looks like a run-of-the-mill Xserve RAID, though first appearances can sometimes be deceiving. The only noticeable change to the face of the unit is the presence of 6 fibre channel activity lights instead of two. However, a quick peep inside confirms the mounting suspicion. Apple has yet to commission the release of this puppy, which according to some internal stamping is dubbed "Q57."

A label on the unit refers to the hardware configuration as: '512MB/1000GB 4DRIVE/2GB FC'. 

Q57 Xserve RAID Prototype

Prototype SATA Xserve RAID

Changes to the internal hardware include:

Q57 Xserve RAID Prototype

Interior of new SATA ADM

Q57 Xserve RAID Prototype

Backplane of new SATA ADM

The pre-production unit contains SATA drive modules, which appear to be the same as those used with the currently shipping Xserve server component (not the RAID, which still maintains use of Ultra ATA drives). Of the four modules, a number are marked 'Accusys Q57', indicating that they may be marginally different than the SATA drive modules utilized by the current Xserve. Increased maximum bandwidth and lowered power consumption of future SATA drives should both increase the efficiency of the Xserve RAID and allow for cooler operation. 

Q57 Xserve RAID Prototype

RAID Controller Module

Also changed is the RAID controller module, which no longer houses the fibre channel port.  Only the ethernet and UPS interface ports remain.

Q57 Xserve RAID Prototype

Six Fibre Channel Ports

The fibre channel ports are now incorporated in the cooling module.  Matching the increase in front activity lights, Q57 sports six fibre channel ports.

Q57 Xserve RAID Prototype

Xserve RAID Prototype - Backplane

When using the latest version of RAID Admin, the device firmware is reported as:  2.0d32 dev/A3.10. Unfortunately, a large portion of the RAID Admin functionality is disabled. Currently shipping Xserve RAID units are operating on firmware version 1.5 and it appears that, while the administration software recognizes the prototype, it cannot be configured. For this reason, the abilities of the 4 extra fibre channel ports cannot be determined.   

On the currently shipping Xserve RAID, when one Xserve is connected to both ports it has access to all 14 drives. When two Xserves are connected (one to each port), both have access to 7 of the drives.  It's likely that newer RAID Admin software will allow arbitrary assignment of drives to any of six connected Xserves.  It is also possible that these newer Xserves RAIDs have an integrated 6-port fibre channel switch.  This won't be known until an actual release of the hardware when new firmware and admin software is available.

While it's not clear if and when Apple plans to update its Xserve RAID systems to coincide with those advancements present in Q57, the prototype presents a logical progression to their cutting-edge storage solution, allowing the company to standardize the Xserve RAID drive modules with those currently used in the Xserve.

Of course, Apple may also forgo the release of an SATA RAID completely in favor of an SAS-based solution.

Update: A reader points out the prototype consists of only half a RAID.

"There is only one controller in it, as current Xserves are actually two 7 drive RAIDS in an enclosure (when you want to access all 14 drives, you have to connect both controllers to the host, and then strip across the two volumes in software).

So I would assume that in a full Xserve, not a test / demo/ prototype, that it would have 2 controllers, 2 sets of 6 fibre channel ports, etc. as there is only 1 controller and 1 6 port fibre channel bay shown in the photos you have, but the spaces below them are meant to take those additional controllers / fan assemblies.

Also apple could be duplicating the fibre ports, as those are one of the major weaknesses of the xserves, the fibre ports are a single point of failure."