As usual, Apple knows something that its competitors don't, and after three weeks with Apple's new Xserve and OS X Server Tiger 10.4.8, I know it, too. Apple is taking a road that pundits will likely insist will lead Apple nowhere: It is doing a server appliance play, but not of a flavor that the market's seen before. While trends, or rather, the analysts who proclaim them, are pointing to the triumph of software as a service, outsourced applications, consulting, node-locked operating systems and other pay-as-you-go approaches, Apple is piloting a rocket-powered sled in the opposite direction.
Apple is going to sell complete server platforms that buyers purchase, operate themselves and actually own. Seriously. The customer pays the advertised price for an Xserve (starting at $2,999) and gets a server loaded and pre-configured with a server software suite (PDF) that alone meets the needs of the majority of Intel x86 rack server buyers. There are no subscriptions, no priority update service fees, and no client, device, mailbox or CPU licenses. None of the services is grayed out pending your purchase of an unlock key. Xserve has no try-and-buy, no time bombs and no trip wires telling you that you need to upgrade from Express this or that to Professional this or that. Xserve never phones home to beg for Apple's permission to use the server software already loaded on your system. And if Apple played the slick pricing games that its competitors do, Xserve's advertised price would be $2,000, with a one-item selection menu on the Buy Now page that reads "OS X Server, unlimited users (+$999)."
Xserve is an Intel x86 Xeon computer, and on its own, it represents exemplary hardware engineering. You'll find my detailed review of Xserve hardware in a previously-posted part of my review. To summarize, in designing Xserve, Apple had more in mind than making a standard Intel x86 server (with the standard defined as "able to run Windows," to which Xserve will stoop if so commanded). Instead, Apple engineered its quad-core Core microarchitecture Xeon server--which it could have purchased off the rack for $0 in R & D--to be an entry-priced server that meets the requirements of mid-level server buyers. In durability, serviceability, manageability and availability, Xserve more readily finds rivals among UNIX RISC servers than commodity Intel x86 systems.
Xserve is the new flag-bearer for the total Apple server platform, which encompasses Xserve, OS X Server, the Xserve RAID storage array, the Xsan SAN file system and the WebObjects large-scale server application framework used for iTunes and most of apple.com. While Xserve the computer more than holds its own among PC servers in its price class, it is the one-price combination of Xserve and OS X Server that dusts the competition.