Apple Server Is Impressive

1U Xserve racks up Mac OS X power and flexibility, leverages open source to cut costs.

Apple Computer Inc.s Xserve blends the power and flexibility of Unix with the usability of the Mac OS X 10.2 operating system in an attractive 1U (1.75-inch) rackable server.

The Xserve definitely stands out in the crowd of rack-mountable dense server offerings. Its blend of functionality, usability and cost (when you factor in the lack of user license fees, which make NetWare and Windows systems less appealing) is unparalleled.

Unfortunately, the Xserves shortcomings drop it from MVP candidate to merely Rookie of the Year status.

Apples proprietary PowerPC G4 technology will be one such drawback for some sites. These processors are a requirement that may not appeal to IT managers who already have investments in and experience with common Intel Corp.-based servers running Linux, Windows, BSD, NetWare or any other operating system.

In addition, although Apple has made a name for itself in the workstation and desktop market, the server world is a very different place. Floating-point performance—a strong suit for Apple—is not always as important as the ability to handle I/O and a track record for reliability. (In an upcoming issue, eWeek Labs will put Power-PC technology through its server paces. Stay tuned for the hard numbers.)

As it stands now, the Xserve is a great server for small businesses and Apples established markets (including education, media and research shops).

In eWeek Labs tests, we found that the Xserve out of the box could do practically everything we threw at it, from Web, file and mail serving to networking tasks such as managing Domain Name System and Dynamic Host Configuration Protocol. It even handled some low-level firewall chores.

Our tests also showed that Apple has made powerful open-source applications and services such as the Samba file-serving service and Apache more accessible (and therefore more useful) for nontechnical employees. Configuration and optimization of these components and applications are done via simple point-and-click management tools.

The commitment of enterprise application vendors—including Oracle Corp. and Sybase Inc.—to port their databases to Xserve should make it even more accessible to businesses and will probably attract more application vendors to port their software to Mac OS X.

Some other goodies that make the Xserve attractive are bundled software such as QuickTime Streaming Server 4; WebObjects 5.1 Deployment, Apples Web application development environment and application server; and Open Directory, an LDAP 3-compliant directory server.

In addition, Xserve comes with server management tools that allow managers to keep track of servers over the network. We found that the tools were comparable to similar tools from other server vendors, and they were a pleasant surprise, considering this is a new server line.

For storage, Apple strayed from the norm by using four hot-plug ATA drives (using four separate ATA buses and software RAID arrays) instead of more expensive, industry-standard SCSI drives. Beyond a lower price, the ATA drives afford the Xserve higher capacity than a SCSI configuration would. Thus, the tiny Xserve can pack close to 480GB of storage in a 1U rack. With the storage density of ATA drives improving rapidly, it may not be long before we see a 1U Xserve that can hold 1 terabyte of storage.

The Xserve has as an optional feature a 2G-bps external Fibre Channel HBA, which should enable it to work well when pressed into service for high-performance applications.

A standard two-way Xserve, which comes with dual 1GHz PowerPC G4 processors, 512MB of double-data-rate RAM, dual Gigabit Ethernet and a 60GB ATA drive costs $3,999, which is competitive with two-way Intel-based servers. A stripped-down, single- CPU version costs $2,999; the four-drive edition that we tested, with maxed-out RAM (2GB), is priced at $7,499.

The Xserves operating system, Mac OS X, is functional, but it lacks a JFS (journaling file system), which is a significant drawback because data may be lost or corrupted in the event of a system crash. Windows 2000 and Linux both have JFSes, and the lack of one has been a weakness in Mac OS for a few years now.

The Xserve also suffers from a couple of hardware weaknesses: a lack of hot-swappable power supplies and cooling systems. Given the Xserves small size, we can see why these components could not be squeezed in, but Apples future servers should have these important redundancy features. ´

Senior Analyst Henry Baltazar is at