Xserve me one up

In May Apple made some tentative steps into the corporate market it has long avoided seriously courting. It did so with a rack-mount server called the Xserve and the associated BSD Unix-based Mac OS X Server 10.1.5.

In May Apple made some tentative steps into the corporate market it has long avoided seriously courting. It did so with a rack-mount server called the Xserve and the associated BSD Unix-based Mac OS X Server 10.1.5.

This 1U (4.4cm)-high server box packs in either a single or dual gigahertz PowerPC G4 processor with 2MB of level 3 cache for each processor. In addition to all of the ports found on a regular Power Macintosh G4, the Xserve benefits from the addition of a standard DB-9 serial port on the back for terminal access. In a series of firsts for an Apple product, this model uses PC2100 DDR SDRAM, has two full length 64-bit 66MHz PCI slots, dual gigabit ethernet ports and four independently channelled Ultra ATA/100 hot swappable drive bays.

On the software side the Xserve supports a dictionary of acronyms including full support for Windows file sharing (SMB/CIFS), a full implementation of SNMP2 and software RAID (level 0 or 1). At the announcement, Apple was happy to show off both its own Server Monitor software (which gives full remote monitoring of all key hardware subsystems), and the fact that it is fully supported by HP's OpenView allowing it to integrate more easily into existing server farms. With Oracle, IBM and Sybase coming to the Mac OS X party, Apple is hoping that there will finally be a place for it at the corporate table.

Traditionally analysts have chastised Apple for not attempting to turn itself into a software company, but advantages of its current approach of "building the whole widget" become clear when you realise that the Xserve ships with an unlimited client licence. Putting it all together, it is obvious that the Xserve is very competitive with other 1U high rack-mount server products.

Still though, when choosing a server it can be difficult to make comparisons. It all depends on what is a mission-critical feature for your organisation. The Xserve has already been criticised for the fact that it doesn't support hardware RAID, uses ATA/100 drives instead of Ultra160 SCSI ones, uses non-EEC RAM and doesn't have a redundant power supply. This is without even saying that all enterprise software doesn't yet run on Mac OS X.

A bit of quick analysis, though, can certainly raise questions about the validity of some of these criticisms. The lack of support for hardware RAID and the use of ATA/100 drives internally can be easily mitigated by using a rack-mount RAID level 5 box connected by Ultra160 SCSI or fibre channel technology. The lack of a redundant power supply can be countered by the point that the idea of moderately priced 1U rack-mount servers is to have entirely redundant servers. One possible configuration for maximum redundancy then, is to put the operating system on mirrored disks internal to the Xserve and all critical data on a robust external storage device. This way, in the event of a critical hardware failure, all that has to be done is to plug the storage device into the redundant Xserve and you're back up and running within minutes.

Similarly, the use of non-EEC RAM in an entry level server product like the Xserve is not a deal breaker. This is especially true when it is considered that while some vendors, like IBM, provide a good implementation that uses LEDs on the motherboard to show you where the faulty component is, others certainly do not. In the end though, this simply reinforces the need to look beyond the specification sheets when making purchasing decisions.

With a recent Gartner Group study showing that Macs cost Melbourne University's Faculty of Arts 36% less to support per year than its Wintel machines, it looks like that Apple has a ready and willing market for this type of product. When the Xserve becomes available in New Zealand in August of this year, I know that I will be taking a serious look at it.

Chris White is MIS manager at Cookie Time in Christchurch. Send letters for publication in Computerworld to Computerworld Letters.

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