Assessing options for a post-Xserve world

Xserve users contemplate Windows, Linux, and Mac alternatives to Apple's popular and soon-to-be-retired 1U server

Apple sent a collective shiver down the spine of Mac shops last month when it announced plans to permanently retire the Xserve line. Organizations still have some time to figure out future plans in a post-Xserve world -- Apple will continue to sell the system through Jan. 31 -- but for the time being, uncertainty abounds, according to a recent survey conducted by the Enterprise Desktop Alliance, an association of Mac-using businesses and vendors.

Shops that run Xserve do have choices: They can adopt one of two recommended hardware alternatives from Apple (the Mac Mini and the Mac Pro) loaded with Snow Leopard Server, or they can migrate to Windows or a flavor of Linux. But neither choice is cut-and-dry, which might explain why nearly 33 percent of the 1,200 survey respondents -- from K-12 schools, higher-education establishments, governmental organizations, and businesses both large and small -- said they were unsure of what they will do next. Most respondents did say they plan to hang on to their Xserve systems for two years or more, though.

At first blush, the most obvious choice for organizations where Macs reign would be to simply move to a different piece of Apple-branded hardware that runs Mac OS X Server. According to EDA's survey, more than one-third of organizations -- primarily K-12 schools and small businesses -- intend to do so. The number might, in fact, be higher were it not for a couple of key differences between the Xserve, the Mac Mini, and the Mac Pro.

First off, the Mac Mini and the Mac Pro are not standard 1U rack-mountable machines, and they don't have lights-out management (LMO) or redundant power supplies. Sure, there are third-party solutions available that allow you to slide a couple of Minis into a server rack, while a pair of Pros (the system has a tower form factor) can fit on a rack-mounted shelf in 12U of space. But between form-factor headache and absence of built-in LMO, neither system is a clean plug-and-play alternative to Xserve.

Second, admins will have to do their homework in choosing between the Mac Mini and the Mac Pro, and they might have to invest more in Apple hardware than they've had to in the past. Apple is pushing a 12-core Mac Pro as the closest alternative to 8-core Xserve (PDF) in terms of overall performance. Comparing price tags, the 12-core Mac Pro starts at $4,999, whereas the 8-core Xserve starts at $3,599.

The Mini, meanwhile, doesn't have the same muscle as the Xserve and is best suited for small businesses and work groups with up to 50 users, according to Apple. It can also function as a single-task server for larger groups of users. Cost-wise, a Mini loaded with Mac OS X Server starts at $999, significantly less than an Xserve.

Of course, organizations have another choice: Abandon Mac OS X for another platform, such as Windows or Linux. That choice might prove most palatable to shops that rely on Xserve primarily (or exclusively) as a file server or Web server. In fact, according to the survey, 90 percent of all respondents said they use Xserve as a file server. Still, eight of the top 10 uses for the system, according to the survey, is providing management support for Macs.

EDA's survey found that among organizations considering alternatives to the Apple server platform, Windows is the preferred choice for file serving at just over 25 percent; Linux is the most popular selection among Web servers at just over 25 percent.

Notably, EDA, whose goal is to help organizations integrate Macs specifically into Windows environments, suggests, "Windows server, augmented with third-party tools, supports most if not all of the critical functions of OS X Server on Xserve."

Not surprisingly, the group is pushing specific products offered by its own members, such as Group Logic's ExtremeZ-IP for Mac file, print, and backup server duties, as well as Absolute Software's Absolute Manage to act as an update server and to provide Mac client management from a Windows console.

This article, "Assessing options for a post-Xserve world," was originally published at Get the first word on what the important tech news really means with the InfoWorld Tech Watch blog.