The server occupies 1U of space (or about 1.75-inches) in a standard 19-inch equipment rack. It incorporates single or dual 1GHz PowerPC G4 processors, each equipped with 2MB of Double Data Rate (DDR) L3 cache. The Xserve also uses DDR SDRAM memory with a 2GB capacity and includes three 66MHz PCI slots — two of which are 64 bit, the fastest I/O performance ever available in a Mac.
Making the Xserve
Apple talked to many of its existing customers to see what features they were looking for in a rackmount server. Many of Apple’s customers wanted to use Apple server products and encouraged the company to enter the server market with a rackmount unit.
“We have a lot of demand with our existing customers — we talked to many of them to find out what they wanted in a server,” Phil Schiller, Apple’s senior vice president of Worldwide Product Marketing, told MacCentral. “This includes our education customers, who have been one of our biggest server customers to date. It has also been made for our business customers; we have many businesses that want Apple servers.”
In the case of the Xserve, the hardware followed the software. When Apple shipped Mac OS X, it instantly became the largest Unix operating system vendor in the world. The release of the Unix-based Mac OS X is what really started getting Apple’s server customers rallying for a dedicated unit.
“The Xserve is really in response to customer demand and Mac OS X has enabled this to happen,” said Jon Rubinstein Apple’s senior vice president of Hardware Engineering. “When we had Mac OS 9 we really didn’t have a credible operating system to use for a high performance server environment. With Unix and Mac OS X, it’s a credible solution and we can provide real value to our customers.”
Moving into new markets
To be successful, Apple is going to have to market the Xserve in areas it hasn’t traditionally sold much software or hardware before — again Mac OS X and its Unix core are going to play a big part. Many different companies and organizations have approached Apple looking for hardware and software solutions since the release of Mac OS X.
“We have number of growing markets that have been coming to us over the last year or so because of Mac OS X — they are specifically asking for a server as part of the solution they might look at,” said Schiller. “One emerging area is science-based companies that have traditionally had some degree of Unix in their enterprises. Genentech, who was at our launch, is representative of many science based companies today, particularly in the bio-science field that are looking for open standard based computing, but something runs Microsoft Office and yet can compute their Blast software with really high speed. They are seeing opportunities with Xserve that would not have seemed possible just a year or two ago.
“We’re also seeing opportunities in other businesses and organizations. Governments are starting to come to us because of our Unix base and the price/performance — Xserve fits into a lot of the requests we’ve been getting,” said Schiller.” We see growing opportunities in universities; our education strength has been much more traditionally in K-12, but we’re starting to grow again in universities because they are doing more compute-based projects like AppleSeed.”
The battle Xserve faces
The hardware and software may not be what Apple has to worry about the most — it may be perception. Until the release of the Xserve, many IT managers wouldn’t have given Apple products a second look. While that may change, the Xserve still has a battle ahead of it to break into non-traditional markets.
“Apple isn’t perceived as being an enterprise player; that perception is going to be the biggest hurdle it has to cross in order to succeed in the enterprise market,” said Tim Deal, an analyst with Technology Business Research.
In order for the Xserve to break into the market Deal said the product needs to have objective benchmarking done and it has to be analyzed in a way that IT Mangers and companies will understand. Only when they can compare the Xserve to their existing equipment will companies that wouldn’t normally consider Apple at all, give the product a chance.
Apple introduced the Xserve with ATA drives instead of the traditional SCSI interface normally found in rackmount servers. Many criticized this move because SCSI drives are faster than ATA, reaching 15,000 RPM at the high-end. When it comes to performance, Rubinstein disagrees with the critics: “ATA 100 has almost as much performance as SCSI. The drives actually come in larger form factors, as far as more storage per drive, and they are significantly cheaper.”
The talk about what components have been included in the Xserve is not as important as the overall performance of the machine, according to Tim Deal. Once benchmark tests are available, the inclusion of individual components may be forgotten.
“There will be some hardcore IT professionals that the difference in standards are really going to matter,” said Deal. “But I think the bulk of buyers are really going to be interested in head-to-head performance against a Dell or IBM server — once benchmarking tests have been made available, customers are going to be less concerned about individual components and more concerned about the total package.”
Return on Investment (ROI) will also play a role in purchasing decisions in the cash strapped economy many companies find themselves in today. One company that joined Apple on stage during the unveiling of the Xserve was ClearChannel — “We have 3000 Macs and three guys taking care of all of them,” said Bobby Harris, director of creative technologies.
GUI on a server
Last week an online article quoted an IT manager that was not impressed with Apple’s use of the Aqua interface in a server, saying, “Sys admins are not impressed by screen candy.” He went on to say that “at best, they consume machine resources that could be going towards useful work. At worst, they get in the way.”
If, by chance, you took these comments at face value and agreed that the Graphical User Interface (GUI) included with Mac OS X Server simply got in way, consider this: the Xserve is meant to run headless, so unless you specifically set out to access the GUI, you will never see it.
“The server runs headless, so the GUI is on the client, not the server — what you’re getting from the server is XML data over a secure connection,” said Schiller. “Until you access the server through an attached VGA terminal and use the Aqua interface, it uses no CPU cycles at all because we have a modern operating system.”
The gem of Xserve — Mac OS X Server licensing
As reasonably priced as the Xserve may be, the real selling point may not be the hardware at all; it could come down to the software. Xserve comes with an unlimited license for Mac OS X Server, which could add up to a huge cost savings for companies that purchase the product.
“We all understand how almost cost prohibitive Windows NT can be because of the licensing fees. I think this is a very beneficial aspect of going with the Xserve,” said Deal. “Reduced licensing costs, reduced costs for the hardware and reduced total cost of ownership are all in the front of IT buyers minds right now.”
Brian Croll, Apple’s Director of Server software Product Marketing, has been demoing Mac OS X Server to Windows and Unix admins to show them the power and ease of use of the operating system. Croll said that the demos have gone very well and that the admins were impressed that they could still get under Mac OS X Server’s GUI and directly access Unix. Croll also said that the admins liked the fact Apple was following a standards based approach to its server software.
Croll pointed out that while you still have access to the Unix underpinnings of Mac OS X Server, the Apple software team has done everything they can to make it as simple as possible to use.
“We wanted to make it the easiest server to setup, monitor and mange. That means one button startup for services like QuickTime Streaming, email, firewall, file server and other services. What people don’t realize is how much work is going on to get that to happen — in the normal Unix environment there are all kinds of config files that you have to setup; we’ve reduced that down to basically one button.”
More on the way
During the Xserve launch event, Apple introduced a companion product for the Xserve called the Xserve RAID. Alex Grossman, Apple’s Director of Server and Storage Marketing introduced the product to the assembled audience — Xserve RAID will feature: 3U height; 14 drive bays; Dual 2GB Fibre Channel on system; and more.
Xserve RAID will also feature redundancy of all critical components — the product will be available by the end of calendar year 2002.