Apple Xserve: Rackmount server with wide range of turnkey features.
We take the Apple Xserve out for a spin and find that what’s under the hood lives up to its glossy exterior — a turnkey server environment that delivers out-of-the-box productivity that enterprise PC servers are seldom able to match.
Apple is known first and foremost for its consumer-oriented technology. The common DNA between products like the iPod or MacBook Air is a consistent, graceful and elegant interface that prioritizes the end-user experience. Dedication to a user friendly formula and modernist design has enabled Apple to claim a successful niche in a computer marketplace crowded with commodity PCs.
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But Apple’s strong focus on lifestyle consumers sometimes obscures the fact that the company also makes and markets servers aimed at business customers. The server room might not seem like a natural habitat for a vendor that puts as much emphasis on appearance as function, but server duty is not as much of a stretch as it might seem for Apple. The visual polish of Apple’s critically acclaimed OS X platform is built on a complete Unix backend, which is certainly no stranger to server racks. In fact, Apple has packaged a server-oriented version of its platform, called OS X Server, which it includes with its rackmount series of servers, the Xserve.
With racks of servers already crowded with products from HP, Dell, IBM, and others and running platforms ranging from Unix to Linux to Windows Server, it is natural to ask where the Apple Xserve fits into the picture.
But the appeal of Apple products has always been the synthesis of software and hardware as a bundle, whereas the PC represents a mashup of hardware and software from different vendors.
The base model Xserve ($2,999) includes one 2.8Ghz quad-core Intel Xeon processor. A $500 upgrade buys dual quad-cores, for a potential total of eight processing cores. The base also includes 2GB of 80Mhz server memory and can support a maximum of 32GB. An on-board controller supports SAS or SATA drives but does not include hardware RAID (the operating system supports software RAID). For that, an $800 upgrade to the Xserve RAID card will replace the base model controller, thus preserving one of the two PCI Express expansion slots. Three hard drives can be installed in the front-accessible hot-swap drive bays, with one 80GB drive included in the base model. The included single power supply can be supplemented with a hot-swappable backup ($200), and you can select between a square or threaded hole rackmount kit for this 1U form-factor machine.
Enterprise users needing massive shared storage can bulk up the Xserve with a Fibre Channel storage controller and Xsan 2, a $13,000 solution that lets multiple OS X platforms pool high-performance storage for simultaneous access.
Up and Running
As one would expect from Apple, out of the box the Xserve is a handsome slab of server. Although it is likely to spend most of its time tucked away in a secure room, the Xserve does offer convenience features like the front-mounted hot-swap HD bays and a front USB 2.0 port for quickly securing a keyboard or mouse if necessary. On its rear side are two gigabit ethernet jacks, two Firewire 800 ports, two more USB 2.0 ports, and a mini-DVI port with included VGA adapter for monitor hookup. An old-school serial port will warm the hearts of Unix veterans who like kicking it ’80s style for direct terminal access.
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Sleek looks aside, experienced IT admins may say that on specs alone, the Xserve is comparable with rackmount offerings from the major PC vendors, such as a similarly configured Dell PowerEdge that sells for hundreds less. But the appeal of Apple products has always been the synthesis of software and hardware as a bundle, whereas the PC represents a mashup of hardware and software from different vendors.
Apple’s 64-bit OS X Server (10.5) is included with the Xserve. It includes an unlimited client license, in contrast to the OS licenses for PC servers that often carry hefty surcharges for large numbers of client connections. If you’ve ever used OS X on an Apple computer, the transition to OS X Server is pretty much seamless. If you have not used OS X before, it may appear to be an unusually glossy interface for a server, since it shares the architecture and design of its consumer-oriented counterpart.
OS X Server extends Apple’s ease-of-use philosophy in two ways. The platform comes bundled with a wide range of server applications that cover most business uses with an added emphasis on media serving. Because OS X is built on a Unix base, many server functions are repackaged open source applications, including Apache, Tomcat, MySQL, Samba, NFS, and FTP. Although most of these server apps are present on almost any Unix or Linux server, Apple adds value by integrating its administration into an accessible, unified interface. Second, Apple bundles servers like Mail, iCal, Wiki, Podcasting, Quicktime streaming and iChat. Duplicating these functions on PC servers would require the expertise to find, install and configure a variety of third-party packages.
Consistent with the Apple philosophy, one does not need an IT degree to administer the Xserve, although some IT expertise is probably necessary to understand what the server applications do. The entire system can be kept up to date simply using Apple’s Software Update utility. All of the bundled server apps can be turned on, off and configured through the central Server Admin interface. Server Admin can also connect to and administer remote Xserves.
In extending OS X from the desktop to the server, Apple has left in some slightly rough edges. For example, the software update utility is actually available through two different tools, and updates applied through one do not always immediately reflect in the other. Xserve includes the open source MySQL database server, which you can enable through the Server Admin. However, there is no GUI for creating and administering database. For this you must either use the included command-line mysql tools or download a third-party GUI.
These are hardly serious shortcomings, and on balance the Xserve delivers a turnkey server environment that offers out-of-the-box productivity difficult to match with enterprise PC servers.
Among the wide range of IT environments, the Xserve will appeal least to organizations whose needs are easily met with standard server apps like file sharing, Web serving, and standards-based messaging. Likewise, the Xserve’s ease-of-use is less likely to be appreciated by experienced IT admins already trained in the labyrinthine intricacies of Linux and Windows servers.
To its credit, the Xserve offers a one-box solution, which is Apple’s bread-and-butter. Organizations with an interest in media serving will find the Xserve an especially facile environment to get up and running with a minimum of hassle compared to PC servers. Smaller businesses without an existing investment in PC servers or expert IT admins will find the Xserve an accessible, low-fuss route to hefty server power. And, of course, for anyone already comfortable with and loyal to the Apple experience, the Xserve provides a familiar environment without sacrificing features or power to its PC-based peers.
Pros: Bundled turnkey solution for a wide range of server scenarios; Accessible enterprise administration for local and remote Xserves with small learning curve; Flexible and extensible hardware configurations.
Cons: Overkill for organizations with basic server needs; More expensive than PC competition on hardware alone; May be an unfamiliar environment for many existing IT admins.