Xserve – Apple’s first entry into the Enterprise Server market – is solid, easy to manage, expandable, makes very intelligent use of current hardware technologies, and is a fraction of the cost of its competitors. Most of a server’s cost usually comes from the day-to-day management. A perfect server would be useable out of the box with minimal setup input, and maximum active monitoring, so that the administrator doesn’t have to worry too much. The Xserve falls only a little short of the ideal. The server comes with all of the software pre-installed and Apple’s idiot-proof Setup Wizard to walk the administrator through the setup process. Some have complained that the Xserve’s management options are limited to either HP’s OpenView or the Apple-supplied software, but all of the basic SNMP (Simple Network Management Protocol) traps are implemented and available to any management system that uses them. Support
Apple chose the most predominant MIB (Management Information Base) in the market (OpenView) to start with, and is astute enough to add more vendors where and when asked for by their user base. Vendors, such as Neon Software, which makes LANsurveyor, are sure to add Apple’s SNMP MIBs to their software. A first in the server world, Apple’s new SMART hard-drive-management system is able to leverage the Unix operating system to fully connect with its hardware. Unix admins running automatic notification will get an email, page, or phone message that a drive is heading for failure before it happens, and can respond proactively. Because of the tight integration between Unix software and Apple hardware, notification lights are set on SNMP MIB and management-software levels, and XML data is not only written to the log file, but to the hard drive itself. Don’t be fooled by the pretty Aqua interface, either. The entire server can be managed the old-fashioned way through Telnet and the DB-9 Serial port, as on any other Unix system. The user interface that we know and love on the Mac OS X desktop obviously exists within the server software. However, everything that you need to do with the server, can be done remotely. Installing software, and setting up the server with network configurations, can be done by communicating through HTTPS easily and securely. You can also telnet into the system through Secure Shell, and run whatever scripts you have set-up for management. The Xserve is designed by default to run with no monitor. The user interface is on the client (if you choose to use the client, instead of a command-line interface), not on the server. You communicate with the Xserve in a secure XML environment. One of the most ingenious management features on the server is the “it’s me” light on its front (and back). There are times when an administrator leaves the office to work on a troubled server only to forget which one it is when faced with a full rack. This indicator can be set on the server, or in the management console. Bandwidth quibble
Neither bandwidth management nor security management (the Xserve ships with a firewall) are actually managed on the Xserve box. For bandwidth management, the Xserve ships with Dartware’s OS X version of Intermapper. Don’t get me wrong, I like Intermapper very much. However, it’s a passive reporting tool and has no bandwidth-management tools. As for the firewall, there isn’t any software like SNORT, an Open Source security intrusion monitoring system, or even MacAnalysis, to test the security policy/ profile. Apple has fallen short of the ideal on the management side, but more than made up for it with SMART drives and the integration between hardware and software management. The Xserve ships either with a single or dual 1GHz G4 processor, but you have to decide when to buy, as the machine isn’t upgradeable from one processor to two. Xserve also ships with 256K of Level 2 cache and up to 2MB of Level 3 cache. The server can also hold 2GB of RAM – more than enough. The one drawback is that Xserve ships only with a single power supply. However, when I asked people in the field how many power supplies have gone down in their server rooms, not one could recall ever losing a power supply. When it comes to expandability, the Xserve ships with two full-sized PCI Slots and a half-size PCI slot, two USB ports, three FireWire ports, one Serial port, and an on-board Gigabit Ethernet port – the half-sized PCI slot ships with a second Gigabit Ethernet card pre-installed. Impressively, Apple has placed one of the FireWire ports on the front of the Xserve. This makes it easy to transfer data. The entire server is mounted within a drawer-pull mechanism that slides in and out for management. When mounting the server the first time, the drawer comes completely off, so that the administrator need only mount the shell – which is very light – and then put the server into the shell once up, the server casing will lock into place for security reasons. Running repairs
There isn’t a centimetre of wasted space inside the Xserve, and repairs can be done without having to call in someone with slender fingers, and neither do you require five different screwdrivers. Most of Apple’s competitors turned to the Ultra-SCSI drive buses in their servers because an ATA-bus technology laden with multiple drives simply can’t handle the kind of simultaneous access that SCSI is designed to handle. However, Ultra-SCSI is more expensive than ATA. Not opting for the high price of SCSI or low performance of a single ATA bus, Apple has out-designed its competitors by putting each of the drives on their own independent bus. The Xserve can thus hit full ATA performance without the slowdown problems associated with high-use ATA systems – keeping costs down and performance high. The Apple Xserve has the largest amount of onboard storage of any server in the 1U class – and also beats the Dell 2550, which measures 2U. With four hot-swappable drive bays, it can hold a 480GB of data. Another first for Apple is the system controller in the Xserve, which allows for Double Data Rate Sychronous Dynamic RAM (DDR SDRAM). Standard SDRAM in the G4s allow for one memory operation per clock cycle, while DDR allows two memory operations per cycle, doubling the RAM speed without having to change the motherboard speed. The improved Direct Memory Architecture (DMA) for PCI devices and hard drives means these devices can communicate quickly with the main memory. Integration
The Xserve ships with an unlimited, cross-platform user licence (Windows, Mac, and Unix/Linux) for FTP, SMB, AppleShare, WebDAV, USB Printer Sharing, and Network (X Platform) Print Spooling. Because it’s cross platform, the Xserve also ships with WINS Server. But because they ship with SAMBA (a sharing package to allow Windows computers to share files on the server), there’s no Windows Domain Controller – it can be enabled with third-party software. Xserve ships with MySQL database. However, it supports Oracle 9i, and Sybase databases will also support it. As far as Web services go, Xserve has all of the usual suspects, such as Apache’s HTTP with SSL, WebDAV, PHP, JavaServer Pages, Perl, and a Caching Web Proxy. But, it dosen’t ship with is a set of Front Page Server Extensions. If it did, Xserve would be able to replace all the Sun/Cobalt RaQ boxes around the world. Apple’s email server is still messy, and it lacks a great deal of management functions found in enterprise-class servers. It ships with SMTP, POP3, IMAP4, and APOP support. But, it still lacks Web-mail, a mail list server, and automatic email usage reports found in most other off-the-shelf mail servers. Because you never know what a server will end up being used for, you need to have enough tools to let it handle any job. The Xserve does have basic Light DIrectory Access Protocol (LDAP) Service/Support, but it lacks a real LDAP server. It has a basic Dynamic Host Configuration Protocol (DHCP) Server, but is very basic. Its DNS Server, however isn’t. This is a passive DNS server that is impossible to set-up as a true DNS server. It does have NTP Client Support and PPoE Support, but that’s where IP support ends. The server has a basic firewall and two Ethernet ports, with a DHCP server. So, you’d think it could act as a boundary router, but there’s absolutely no support for NAT translation, or port forwarding. And it can’t act as a dial-in server, as it doesn’t support either PPTP VPN (for dial-up users) or IPSEC VPN for server-to-server over secure Internet networking systems. Apple’s server provides a 128-bit Secure Shell (SSH2) for remote management, which is what you’d expect at the enterprise level. However, at that same level, it doesn’t have a Web-based management interface. You have to rely on Apple software or Telnet. As Apple based its server management on Unix and XML protocols, you’d expect to be able to manage it purely through the Web. Maybe this is coming soon. Apple does include a packet filtering firewall, but, as I said earlier, it has no tools included to test the setup against the company’s policy standards. This is easily and cheaply remedied with off-the-shelf or open-source software. Unlike every other server in the Enterprise class, Xserve doesn’t ship with network-based backup software, or even a limited version of server-based backup software. You’d think Retrospect – which supports Macs, Windows, and even Linux machines – would come bundled.


The Xserve is well placed to compete with PC servers of similar spec. It costs less, and will appeal to IT staff who have only a PC server for a Mac network because there was no choice. Changing the minds of other IT managers is always going to be an uphill struggle, but Xserve is a great start.

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