When we reviewed Mac OS X Server last year, we noted that Apple had a credibility problem. The company lacked a decent hardware platform on which to run a promising operating system. At the time, the best an IT manager could do was stack some of Apple's higher-end desktops and tie them to a rack with third-party fasteners; not exactly a pretty solution.
But we're talking about Apple, which has always had a hate-love relationship with servers. The company had problems delivering its first servers in the mid-1980s. With Novell NetWare dominating the low end of server operating systems, and later Windows NT/2000, Apple's server strategy went nowhere slowly.
This scared off potential customers who might have been attracted by the Mac platform's fabled ease of administration and use, and the relative security - if only through obscurity - when compared to Windows-based servers.
Making Apple a serious player in server hardware may have seemed impossible, but the company has pulled it off. Xserve changes everything. Apple now has the hottest-looking server on the market, but looks aren't everything. Fortunately for the company and its customers, the Xserve packs plenty of punch behind a sweet 1U (1.75 inches) smile, making it worthy of our Deploy rating.
A serving of Xserve
We tested the Xserve in two configurations: both with dual 1GHz PowerPC G4 CPUs, one configured with 512MB of RAM and a hot-plug 60GB Ultra ATA/100 drive, the other with 2GB of RAM and four 120GB drives. The standard networking features include one built-in 10/100/1000-Base TX Ethernet and a second in the PCI/AGP slot, dual USB connectors in the rear, as well as two FireWire ports and a third FireWire port in the front.
But bring your own input devices to the party. The Xserve is the first Mac we know of to ship without a keyboard or mouse. Most customers will find that the Xserve's three PCI slots fill quickly, with one used by video and another by the second gigabit Ethernet interface.
Installing an Xserve is a two-person job, even though it's only a 1U box. Apple's engineers chose to combine the outer case and the mounting hardware - one actually removes the cover and bolts it into the rack, then slides the Xserve chassis back into the cover. This contrasts with the near-universal practice of separately bolting rails to the case and tracks to the rack.
Then again, the interior of the Xserve is well-designed. There are no exposed fans or CPUs. A noticeable lack of cable clutter plus a cooling design that doesn't require the cover in place make for easier customer configuration and make interlocks unnecessary, according to the company. Although Apple's position on this matter is convincing, we still think Compaq's ProLiant DL360 is the model for ease of physical setup.
Powering up, entering a licence key, and setting up the basic network configuration took little time, so our Xserves were ready to use in a matter of minutes. The move of our Test Centre lab into new quarters during our evaluation made it impossible to conduct any load testing. What we do know is that these machines run hot and loud - and this is in a backless cabinet. We haven't found the box with the thermometers yet, but we can tell you that the exhaust temperature is noticeably warmer than a similarly equipped DL360.
In short, we're pleased with what we've seen in the Xserve. Apple finally has an enterprise-grade server that customers can deploy today. Whether the company develops a larger chassis with four and eight-CPU configurations remains to be seen. For now, a 1U-high, gigahertz server running Unix with standard gigabit Ethernet - well, let's just say that Christmas came early this year.
Taming of the Jaguar
Although Xserve shipped earlier this year with Mac OS X Server Version 10.1 installed, customer deliveries since September have included the new version 10.2, known as Jaguar (or "Jag-wire" if you follow CEO Steve Jobs's pronunciation). Apple was at least sensible enough to eschew the use of spots on the server software's packaging.
For once, Apple has come up with a decent match between the hardware and the operating system; Jaguar is the first version of Mac OS X that's ready for prime time. Although a few vendors - Quark being the most notable holdout - are still struggling to port their applications to Mac OS X, time is running out as Apple plans to purge the "classic" Mac OS 9 early next year.
Many of the "new" management features - for example, NetBoot for remote install from disk images, and Workgroup Manager for client management tasks - have appeared in the preceding releases of OS X Server under one guise or another. But most of the value won't be realised until your Mac desktops are running the 10.2 client OS.
We are impressed with the new OpenDirectory, an LDAP, Version 3-based directory service that replaces the relatively limited NetInfo; Mac OS X clients can authenticate against any LDAP directory.
Finally, Apple is jumping on the Web services bandwagon with both feet: SOAP and XML-RPC (XML Remote Procedure Call) support, and deployment and development tools including PHP, Ruby, MySQL, and WebObjects 5.1. What's even more impressive is that all this is bundled into Mac OS X's $US999 unlimited client licence.
Apple's new subscription-based licensing, offering three years of upgrades for $US999, has even more value when compared with the prospect of two Windows upgrades in that time frame.