Apple Xserve: The final review

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 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.

Xserve strikes the perfect chord with everyone from the server neophytes and Windows refugees who want plug and play to the UNIX graybeards allergic to proprietary system software, equipment or development tools. Freed from the never-ending spending of Windows and the do-it-yourself shipbuilding of Linux, every single buyer of Xserve will end up doing more with Apple's server than they had in mind when they bought it. Apple makes it safe and simple to reach beyond the narrow purposes for which individual Windows and Linux servers are typically deployed. Xserve can run its full range of services--which include Web, database, J2EE, e-mail, anti-virus, IM, Windows and UNIX file/'print sharing, VPN, gateway, proxy, and firewall.

Xserve is uniquely easy to deploy and manage on its own or as part of an established heterogeneous network of systems, and yet it is not dumbed-down in the least. It carries the traditional benefits of Apple's "invented here" design, particularly the rock solid stability that OS X derives from being targeted to a limited number of controlled configurations (note that OS X Server runs on client Macs as well). And yet Xserve is an entirely standards-based, open design, but with none of the prefab, seen one seen 'em all engineering that typifies Intel x86 servers.

An appliance for some, a wide-open UNIX platform for others

Unlike other Intel OEMs' boxes, Xserve ships from Apple as a complete server platform, not as a computer. The difference? A server platform is a whole--hardware, OS, standardized services, GUI management, dev tools, server application frameworks, documentation and much more--that emerges from its shipping carton with functionality that fully satisfies the needs of the majority of buyers. When I plugged Xserve in for the first time, it did what I expected: It gave me my choice of services including, but not limited to, Web, database, J2EE, e-mail, blog, IM, Windows and UNIX file/'print sharing, gateway, proxy and firewall. It took about three minutes, with no reboot, to put my services on the air, and they were all immediately configured, reconfigurable and reporting to Apple's Server Manager and Server Monitor GUI consoles.

Linux users are accustomed to wading through several pages of checkboxes to select from among the bulging sack of software--some maintained, some not--burned onto the install DVDs. OS X Server doesn't subject users to that. If you ask for e-mail services, OS X Server sets up the open-source SMTP, Web mail, spam filter, virus checking and list management that Apple selected, validated and, in some cases fixed and enhanced (always giving its changes back to the projects). Apple isn't reticent to count and credit the projects are part of OS X Server. However, by default, projects and versions are abstracted by the install and management interfaces. That abstraction allows administrators to treat each major network service category as an integrated solution rather than a stack of pieces. Server Manager, the multi-server administrative console bundled with OS X Server and available as a free download for running on client systems, presents a unified interface that eliminates the need to configure each mail service component individually and deal with instabilities that arise from conflicting configurations. Apple brings this consistent, centralized approach to the Server Monitor console that handles Xserve hardware monitoring, reporting and notification.

Now, if you're nauseated by the notion of using a novice-friendly server appliance, Apple feels you. OS X Server's cozy GUI desktop and management tools co-exist with--not replace--the OS X Server platform's nuts and bolts UNIX-ness. Xserve will boot to a UNIX VGA text console, to the server's serial port or headless (no human interface devices attached). Xserve can be administered and configured entirely from the command line and script code. And nearly all of the non-user-facing pieces of OS X Server are available as Apple-supported open source published as Apple's Darwin project. Apple's development tools and documentation are free, and like OS X Server, the dev tools have consistent and well-integrated graphical interfaces that you can shove out of the way if you feel like roughing it. Is Apple's Aqua interface too dressy for you? Start X Window Xserve is a whole platform, but it is an infinitely malleable whole that you'll find familiar and not at all confining if you're a veteran of UNIX or Linux. I have yet to find a well-maintained open source project that doesn't list OS X or Darwin (the open source OS on which OS X is built) among its explicit build targets. Two massive open source repositories, Fink and Darwinports, track and package OS X/Darwin compatible projects. As a UNIX box, Xserve not only fast, familiar and standards-based, it is addictive.

Xserve from the outside

Xserve is a 1U, 1.75-inch tall rack server. Its chassis is made mostly of very stiff aluminum, with steel used where extra strength is needed (like the rack rails). Its cooling system is simple and effective: Two huge rectangular, grille-less intake ports, which Apple calls "chunnels," are set between the three removable drive bays. The remainder of Xserve's front panel is sparse. The interactive controls consist of a power button, a chassis/drive bay lock and a system identify button that lights an LED on the back panel to make it easier for someone working at the back of a large cluster of Xserves. The system ID light can also be activated remotely from Apple's server management GUI. The front panel buttons serve as stand-ins for a keyboard when Xserve is running headless. Patterns of button presses can, among other things, force Xserve to boot from the optical drive or from a network image.

LED indicators at the front panel are arranged and colored to make their purposes obvious: Main power, hard drive power and activity and the blue LED array that reports the CPU utilization for each of Xserve's four cores. The Ethernet link lights tipped me off to a small but potentially frustrating anomaly: Xserve's Ethernet ports are flipped. This becomes important when you have to configure lights-out management. For lights-out, channel 1 is the right Ethernet socket, and channel 2 is on the left when looking at the system from the rear. As a workaround, Apple recommends that you install Xserve upside down (no it doesn't).

The front panel also has the opening for the slot-loading optical drive, which can optionally be a Superdrive dual-layer DVD burner. OS X still lacks packet writing and DVD-RAM support, so you can't mount a disc as a read/write volume. Still, many users, myself included, find the built-in burner to be a blessing. Lastly, the front panel has the 400 Mbps FireWire socket for which Xserve administrators have 100 uses. It lets you use Target Disk Mode to mount external Macs' local storage as drive volumes, and Xserve can be a Target Disk Mode target for another Mac as well. FireWire also works as a secure, self-configuring point to point TCP/IP link, and of course, it can be used with FireWire video and audio devices and with external FireWire storage. My pet use for Xserve's FireWire is running Apple Remote Desktop. For most uses, this is as fast as a locally-connected keyboard and display.

Xserve's rear panel is dominated by Apple's power supplies. If you opt for redundant supplies, you'll have two AC sockets to fill. However, Xserve does not sound an alarm if you set the second supply up as a cold spare by not plugging it in. By default, the second power supply constantly splits the load with the first. There's no switching delay at fail-over, and in the event that an unexpected power burden threatens to drive the voltage on the critical +5V rail low, the supplies will compensate. Each slim, lightweight power supply has its own fan that is monitored and speed-controlled by Xserve's System Management Controller. When you remove one power supply, an internal "doggy door" swings down to close the hole.

The rest of Xserve's backside is a continuous grille. A strip across the bottom provides access to a DB9 serial port, a mini-DVI display connector, USB 2.0 ports, 800 Mbps FireWire and two gigabit Ethernet ports. As I mentioned, Xserve will boot to a local serial console. Apple has not yet equipped its lights-out management with the serial-over-LAN feature that would redirect that serial console traffic to an arbitrary network destination. The serial port is also used for uninterruptible power supply (UPS) units that notify connected systems of their power state. You can have the serial console or the UPS hooked to the DB9 connector, but not both. Fortunately, most standalone UPSes now come equipped with USB connections.

There are only two USB ports behind Xserve. This proved to be one too few in my testing, and I wished that there were a USB port on the front panel for human interface devices. The 800 Mbps FireWire port is conceivably useful for external storage, although there aren't many devices that use it. The fast FireWire port's value in my eyes lies in Target Disk Mode, Remote Desktop and dedicated server-to-server TCP/IP links. If you prefer, an 800-to-400 adapter cable will turn the high-speed port into a standard 400 Mbps FireWire port.

The mini-DVI connector uses a pigtail to connect to either an analog or digital display. Both pigtails are included, and the mini-DVI port, though tiny, is very sturdy and grips the connector well. The weight of the VGA or full-sized DVI plug at the other end poses no problem. Xserve's standard on-board GPU (graphics processing unit) is an ATI Radeon X1300 with 64 MB of dedicated video RAM. That's pretty sweet by server standards. It supports Quartz Extreme, Apple's accelerated graphics, and driving OS X's GUI at a graphical console is a pleasure. An upgraded card with 256 MB of video RAM is available, but this occupies one of the system's PCI Express expansion slots and generally heats things up. Don't get it if you don't absolutely need it.

Lifting Xserve's lid

Apple, long known for fancy zoned, heat-piped cooling designs, went for simplicity with Xserve. A wide bank of seven fans, each with dual independent rotors, stand in straight-line formation behind the drive bays. Except for the power supply fans, this long bank of fans produces the only airflow through Xserve. Thermal sensors are scattered around the system board, busses, memory sockets, CPUs and everywhere a temperature is worth taking. Instead, all of the inflow fans, the front-facing rotors, spin up and down in sync. The rear-facing outflow fans run at another synchronized speed.

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