Review: Apple's Xserve Gives Enterprise An Alternative

The Xserve rackmounted server offers solid performance and broad standards support at an excellent price-point.

January 5, 2007

8 Min Read
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Apple's new Xserve rackmount server is an outstanding example of thoughtful design, attention to detail, and excellent performance at a reasonable price. It offers redundant power supplies, lights-out management, and the ability to run Windows and other operating systems as well as OS X, making the Xserve an appealing, capable, and flexible option.

I tested a system that came loaded with two dual-core, 64-bit 3.0-GHz Intel Xeon 5100 Woodcrest CPUs, 4 Gbytes of DDR2 FB-DIMM memory (the maximum is 32 Gbytes), 2.2 terabytes of storage split across three front-swappable 750-Gbyte 7,200 RPM SATA drive modules, a double-layer CD/DVD SuperDrive, and an ATI Radeon X1300 graphics card. This configuration came in at an impressive $8,500, which compares favorably against similar server products. For those who need the fastest possible drives (at a higher cost per megabyte), the Xserve also can be ordered with one or more 15,000 RPM SAS drives.

The base Xserve configuration, with two 2.0 GHz CPUs, 1 Gbyte of RAM, a single 80-Gbyte SATA drive, and an X1300 graphics card (the graphics card can be removed with a small price credit) costs $2,999. Again, not the cheapest 1U server you can possibly buy, but a solid value for the feature set, particularly noting one huge advantage of Apple servers over Windows — the standard inclusion of an unlimited-client version of OS X Server. This means no client license hassles, and no extra cost.

Apple Remote Desktop 3

While testing the Xserve, I also tried out Apple Remote Desktop 3, a remote system management tool, and ran it through its paces.The experience is crisp and quick — you don't feel like you're wading in molasses. The administrator can select a range of video quality options while monitoring remote systems, dropping to gray scale, for instance, to save bandwidth, — but in my tests, this was never necessary, even when monitoring systems over slow 802.11b connections.

Software updates, asset management and reporting, system configuration, remote monitoring and control, live two-way help-desk support, and application usage reports were simple and quick. There's even the capability to use Apple's powerful Spotlight search feature across managed systems, giving enterprise managers the ability to remotely search for particular pieces of critical information across the entire network of client systems. I can easily imagine that feature alone being worth more than the cost of ARD3.

One of the few major shortcomings with Remote Desktop 3 is the simple fact that, by design, it only works with Macs. As a company trying to sell Macs, Apple certainly isn't in the business of writing software for PCs (other than iTunes), for much the same reason that Microsoft's Systems Management Server doesn't manage Mac and Linux workstations. The problem here crops up when Apple starts to sell Macs which can run Windows, using Apple's own Boot Camp utility. When an Apple system is booted into Windows, it drops off the map as far as Remote Desktop 3 is concerned, and that's a problem. Perhaps a future version will at least be able to see and grab inventory information from Macs which are running Windows.

Apple Remote Desktop3 costs $299 for a version that handles up to 10 managed systems, and $499 for a version that handles unlimited managed systems.

Uncluttered But Feature-Filled
The back of the Xserve is uncluttered, with all the necessary ports — DB9 serial port, mini-DVI socket, two Gigabit Ethernet ports (supporting IEEE 802.3ad link aggregation and failover), two Firewire 800 ports, and a pair of USB ports — between the hot-swappable redundant power supplies and a pair of x8 PCI Express expansion slots (one of which can support legacy PCI-X cards). The front of the unit includes an easily removable trio of drive modules, each with its own hard disk status and activity indicators; the power button; enclosure lock; and the slot-loading SuperDrive. Well-placed front indicator lights show Ethernet link status and CPU activity, giving a quick visual indicator of system status.

The Xserve is a piece of cake to insert and remove from a rack; opening and working inside the chassis couldn't be easier. As a big fan of elegant design, I was pleased to note that the interior layout of the Xserve is a great example of the proper marriage of form and function: there are no interior cables snaking around, the layout is clean and uncluttered, and components are all easily accessible. Like most current Apple products, it looks good as well. I'll take function over form any day, but it's nice to get both.In terms of noise levels, as well as heat output and power consumption, the Xserve is a good server-room citizen — the ambient noise, primarily from the power supply fans, was reasonable and quieter than many rack-mounted servers. And speaking of heat (the enemy of all computers), the Xserve was a cool customer, thanks to an efficient airflow design facilitated by a bank of seven microprocessor-controlled fans. With an ambient air temperature in my lab of roughly 70 degrees F, internal CPU core and heat sink temperatures ranged between 98.6 and 110 degrees F, depending on system load. The hot spot seemed to be at the memory modules, with temperatures averaging between 120 and 130 degrees F, but airflow out the back measured a steady 105 degrees. Certainly the Intel CPUs in the current generation of Apple servers produce far less heat than the previous generation of G5-based Xserves.

To save space on the back of the chassis, the Xserve has a mini-DVI connector for video output; a mini-DVI to VGA adaptor is included. However, since most monitors — and indeed all of the monitors Apple itself sells — come with full-sized DVI inputs, it seems like false economy not to include a mini-DVI to DVI adapter, forcing users to purchase that cable separately. For a part that retails for less than $20, this is a small thing, but uncharacteristic for a company that goes to such great lengths to sweat the details and make things easy on the user.

That quibble aside, the Xserve is full of small but significant details which will be greatly appreciated by anyone who has to install, manage, or maintain rack-mounted servers. One example is the plastic pull-out asset tag located in a slot on the back of the chassis. It's durable and flexible enough to be easily visible, whether the server is at the top or bottom of a rack. Printed in a highly visible white ink, it lists the serial number and Ethernet IDs in bar-code and human-readable form, and has an area to attach custom labels. This probably cost Apple less than a dollar apiece to manufacture, but will save server administrators countless hassles and confusion.

Another welcome addition is true lights-out management. The Xserve is IPMI-compliant, and can be powered up and down, and fully monitored and managed remotely.

Running Windows Server
I tested and ran Windows 2003 R2 Server on the Xserve via VMWare's Fusion beta virtualizer for Mac. Aside from the usual time spent loading all the Windows security patches after installation, the process was simple and straightforward, and Windows ran without a hitch. Both Parallels Workstation and VMWare's beta worked on the Xserve, allowing a full range of flavors of Windows, Linux, Solaris, and other operating systems to run. Curiously, however, Apple's own Boot Camp enabler, which allows Intel-based Macs to run Windows at full native speed, doesn't yet support the Xserve. When Boot Camp is folded into the next operating system release (currently scheduled for the spring), hopefully that curious omission will be remedied.

Setup and administration of the Mac OS X Server system was incredibly quick and straightforward. (Windows, while it has come a long way since NT, still has a lot to learn here about how to write wizards and setup assistants.) You can drill all the way down to the command line if you need to, but for most functions, everything you might want to monitor or configure is at your fingertips, and generally intuitive. Apple has done an admirable job of integrating its own software with a number of open-source products such as OpenLDAP, Kerberos, Apache, Samba and others, adhering to a wide assortment of industry standards, which enhances interoperability in the enterprise.Conclusions
Putting the words "Apple" and "enterprise" together may no longer be an oddity. The Xserve is an admirable and capable server for general-purpose use as a Web, file, or mail server. In conjunction with the Xserve RAID (total capacity up to 7TB) and a Fibre Channel card, it makes an inexpensive NAS appliance or streaming media server (while not tested in this review, Apple offers a SAN package as well).

Xserve rack-mounted servers and RAID arrays offer solid performance and broad standards support at an excellent price (particularly considering license costs), along with what is arguably by far the easiest to manage and maintain server operating system available. While Apple has historically been a niche player in the enterprise hardware market, I predict they will be making an appearance in more and more server rooms.

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