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Serving up a fresh Apple

By Gary Penn (gbpenn@yahoo.com), May 21, 2002

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Three years ago I spec’ed out my first rack-mount server system. It was a Dell PowerEdge 2450 and when it arrived I realized my days of being dazzled by the PC desktop were over – except for PowerMacs, of course.

Three days ago I loaded up the company Suburban with $60,000 worth of servers – 4U, 2U, 1U, slide rail mounted, hot-swap, the works.

I’ve been fortunate to have been in several positions where the need for a new network is imminent and I’m the main man for the job. I’m also a personality type who doesn’t blink twice when I’m told to spend more than my annual salary on server-techno-toys. So when Apple released a rack-mount server this past week I couldn’t help but analyze whether I would have bought one – or many – for my company.

The way I like to analyze a server is from the price point of what I’d actually want in it and then move down. With the technology available today, it’s downright silly to look at the minimal configuration price or the top-end price – you have to look at what you need. The Xserve isn’t geared toward Joe Poweruser reading MacAddict. Apple should be targeting IT pros who have familiarity with the reliability of the Apple name and a budget with a Compaq label. (Furthermore they now need to advertise in Network Magazine, not bus-stop billboards.)

Let’s also get one other thing out of the way for any readers who are new to rack servers: Apple’s Xserve technology isn’t the best and it’ll shouldn’t be the best. Read any catalog from IBM and you’ll quickly be schooled in the world of fibre channel, iSCSI, and backplanes that run so fast an Apple logo would be “char” colored instead of graphite. But that’s not Apple’s target. They aren’t reinventing the wheel, they’re just trying to perfect an Apple version. And that’s a good thing. Nobody is matching a rack-server to their surrounding décor unless they’re an idiot. That being said, let’s look at the guts…

Stacking up

I jumped on over to the Apple Store after their announcement and decided to compare the pricing on what I’d just stuck into the Suburban to a customized Xserve. We had spec’ed a system that would run either Linux or W2K Advanced Server, so I figured OS X would be comparable to say the least; Lord knows it’s easier to use. Like any good system, it needed dual processors to be a capable database or Web server for any type of real traffic. Four would be preferable so that they might look to run serious databases like Oracle (who now is supporting OS X).

For a starting point you have memory configuration. And unfortunately, that was a stopping point too. Two gig of RAM just isn’t enough, and that’s the maximum that Apple allows. What were they thinking? It really doesn’t matter how fast your RAM is running if there’s not enough of it. Single-rate, double-rate, triple-rate – my head would more likely gyrate if my boss called me indicating that WebTrends shut down because there wasn’t enough RAM to crunch a couple hundred megabytes of logfiles. Granted, many would argue that on a Unix box there’s not as much need for a memory hogging Windows allotment of 4GB of RAM. But I beg to differ. The rule is “Buy as much as you can”. PC’s allow 4 to 8 x 1GB modules these days (yes, in a 1U, not a 4U) and so should the XServe.

Next, the hard drives. The maximum 4 x 120GB drives on separate controllers is pretty sweet in a 1U design, but I didn’t really need that much on my servers. We are storing most of our stuff on some 4U quad-Xeon boxes that Apple can’t even touch yet, so I just spec’ed out the 73GB drives (x2) that I’d already put on the boxes in the Suburban. Actually, Apple didn’t offer 73GB drives so I put in 60GBs. The problem here is that the server board I had used had on-board Ultra160 SCSI. While the ATA on separate controllers is fast, it’s not Ultra160 fast. Anyone arguing can go ahead and put a few thousand users on a site with PDF’s and Flash and tell me otherwise.

Gigabit Ethernet, dual, standard. That’s nice. I had to add PCI boards to my box because it came with two on-board 10/100 ports which weren’t fast enough to keep up with my new switch. Apple’s really thinking ahead on this one. Less PCIs taken up in the future is less hassle for their engineers.

ATI graphics: This is great. Cheap, minimal, reliable. The option to use AGP is interesting; I just hope it doesn’t take away from their bottom line when users ditch their desktops for these puppies.

Additional cards: I added in the Ultra160; if not for the internal hard drives, how about local backup? I wanted the flexibility to use a small DAT to backup the server in case I didn’t feel like breaking the bank on an network-ready DLT changer. Either way, you need SCSI.

Lastly, AppleCare Premium. This isn’t an option, folks. You have to have three years of support and hardware maintenance on anything you buy, unless you don’t like your job (believe me, in this market, take the support!). I’m glad to see Apple provides it standard on the high-end configuration and subtracts bucks if you opt-out; personally I don’t think it should be opt-out, period.

The subtotal on this beauty: $6,699. Funny that my server was $7,699; pure Intel, without the $1,600 license for Windows Advanced Server (Linux would have been about $100 in a box). So from here it looks like the Apple is a logical choice, right? Maybe.

Apple still hasn’t mastered the concept of redundancy. It’s beautiful that they’ve placed all this in a 1U slot. The servers I looked at were 2U. But there’s one catch: What are you going to do with 20 1U servers? You can farm them with a Server Load Balancer, but that’s $25,000 from Cisco. And Apple, as of yet, doesn’t offer the clustering technology available in Windows 2000 Advanced Server and Mandrake. Nor do they have a centralized data technology to keep the drives between servers mirrored. I’m not sure there’s even a Content Management solution available for OS X. That’s scary.

So that brings us back to a single server solution for individual needs: one for a Web site, one for a database, etc. Ok, that’s a good market and that’s a huge populace in need of reliable, cheap equipment. The hardware monitoring, also, is amazing – it looks like Compaq’s solution in a sweet Apple interface. So having a few Apple servers and centrally managing is certainly feasible. Go Apple! But there’s one more catch: All the server health monitoring in the world isn’t going to help if your power supply dies. If Apple wants to be really impressive they should make the power hot-swappable just like the hard drives.

Bottom line

So now that I’ve nit-picked all the flaws in Xserve let me say this: This is Apple’s best entry product yet. They’re very close to perfection: The pricing is low and the only flaw is adding one or two RAM slots and a 2nd power supply. In that sense, like the iPod needing more space or a carrying case, they’re close enough to catch on with a core audience. They’re broadcasting loud and clear that they’re ready to play with this robust, Unix environment and some sweet management tools. The question now: Is anybody listening?

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