Macs in the Enterprise

Xserve: Power and Value in a 1U Server

- 2008.05.07 - Tip Jar

I know this comes as no surprise to those of you reading Low End Mac, but Macs are hot right now. Sales are through the roof, and some die-hard PC users have started to make the switch.

That said, one area where Macs still seem to have a hard time making inroads is in the server room.

In years past, when you found a Mac in the server room it wasn't technically a server; it was an overstuffed workstation. Equipped with as much hard drive as they could afford and pressed into service for the one-off Mac application that was needed somewhere in the office, or serving as an ad hoc file or print server, these machines, while functional, offered none of the features of a true server - no redundancy and no scalability. They were functional and cheap, but far from ideal.

A True Server

To take that tack now, however, is to miss out on one of the best entry-level servers on the market: the Xserve. Starting at just $3,000, it has power and to spare for small-to-medium sized business, and at just 1U (1.75") thick, it even makes sense for larger businesses where space in the server rack is precious. A single standard-sized rack can, in a pinch, hold 42 Xserve boxes - enough power for most any need.

The entry level model has a single quad-core Xeon processor, 2 GB of RAM, and an 80 GB SATA hard drive - more than adequate for a small office, and an excellent starting point to build from. Build-to-order options allow for up to three terabytes of SATA storage, or, if speed is essential, trade up to wicked fast 15,000 RPM SAS (Serial Attached SCSI) drives for total storage of 900 GB. Heck, it'll even handle a mix of the two drive types without breaking a sweat.

For redundancy, add an integrated RAID card that will work with either SATA or SAS technology to provide RAID 0, 1, or 5. Dual processors up to 3.0 GHz in speed can be ordered, and memory can be bumped to 32 GB. The single power supply can be joined by a second, providing one more hedge against failure.

These features aren't that rare in other mass market servers. You can equip a very similar server from Dell for over $400 less (the Dell PowerEdge 1950 III, for point of comparison), but that's only if you're comparing the common specifications of server speed, memory size, and hard drive capacity. When you look a little deeper, the supposed price premium flies out the window.

Thinking Ahead

The system board was designed from the ground up by Apple engineers, and drivers have been written to work specifically for it. Forward thinking, they built it around a 1600 MHz front side bus, allowing for extremely fast communication between components and headroom for faster processors as they become available.

Xserve Intel

Adding the aforementioned RAID controller, a build-to-order option, does not take up any additional expansion slots, as it replaces the built-in SATA and SAS controller and provides an additional 256 MB of cache. This leaves the two expansion slots (PCI-X8 and X16, one each) open for future expansion options.

Another feature that you rarely see in a server is a 64 MB ATI video card. That's useful when you have to manage the server locally, and it keeps the display overhead from impacting the rest of the server - and even makes the Xserve a viable workstation in a pinch.

The chassis is as easy to work with as any other Mac hardware, with every component thoughtfully placed and easy to access at need. Serious thought was given to cooling as well, though the fans make it a little too noisy for use outside of an appropriate enclosure or server room. It compares favorably with the Mac Pro, one of the best case designs ever conceived.

True Value

And all of this fails to mention what may be the most important part - the operating system. Every Xserve server comes with an unlimited-client license for Leopard Server. No per-seat license charges, allowing for no-cost scaling. You would have the same features with a Linux based server, but far from it with a Windows server, where CALs (client access licenses) are bought in packs of 5, 10, and 25.

What you would definitely not find in that Linux based server, however, is the ease of use and administration that you get with Leopard Server. Even if your system administrator has never used a single Mac, setting up things like file sharing, web services, and printer sharing take a matter of minutes. With a little preparation, chat (using iChat server), Podcast server, system-wide calendaring (with iCal), and directory services (think Active Directory, only operating-system agnostic) can be configured for the entire office. For most small and medium sized businesses, this can be an all-but turnkey server setup.

This barely scratches the surface of what you can accomplish - investigate virtualization, SAN options, Wikis, client management, VPN, high availability, and Xgrid, and you'll find even more value for your dollar. I suspect that it's only a matter of time before more enterprises start to see the value in applying Apple's "it just works" philosophy to the server room.

Were I a Microsoft Certified Engineer, I think I might be more than a little nervous. And if I were in the business of selling Windows servers, the fact that Macs remain viable in their intended roles for 3, 5, even 10 years would have me looking for a new line of business. LEM

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