Analysis of the Apple Mac Xserver

Given my positive reaction to the Compaq Proliant DL320, Svenson e-mailed and asked me what I thought of Apple’s Xserver.
In truest Slashdot fashion, I’m going to present strong opinions about something I’ve never seen. Well, not necessarily the strong opinions compared to some of what you’re used to seeing from my direction. But still…

Short answer: I like the idea. The PPC is a fine chip, and I’ve got a couple of old Macs at work (a 7300 and a 7500) running Debian. One of them keeps an eye on the DHCP servers and mails out daily reports (DHCP on Windows NT is really awful; I didn’t think it was possible to mess it up but Microsoft found a way) and acts as a backup listserver (we make changes on it and see if it breaks before we break the production server). The other one is currently acting as an IMAP/Webmail server that served as an outstanding proof of concept for our next big project. I don’t know that the machines are really any faster than a comparable Pentium-class CPU would be, but they’re robust and solid machines. I wouldn’t hesitate to press them into mission-critical duty if the need arose. For example, if the door opened, I’d be falling all over myself to make those two machines handle DHCP, WINS, and caching DNS for our two remote sites.

So… Apples running Linux are a fine thing. A 1U rack-mount unit with a pair of fast PPC chips in it and capable of running Linux is certainly a fine thing. It’ll suck down less CPU power than an equivalent Intel-based system would, which is an important consideration for densely-packed data centers. I wouldn’t run Mac OS X Server on it because I’d want all of its CPU power to go towards real work, rather than putting pretty pictures on a non-existent screen. Real servers are administered via telnet or dumb terminal.

What I don’t like about the Xserver is the price. As usual, you get more bang for the buck from an x86-based product. The entry-level Xserver has a single 1 GHz PowerPC, 256 megs of RAM, and a 60-gig IDE disk. It’ll set you back a cool 3 grand. We just paid just over $1300 for a Proliant DL320 with a 1.13 GHz P3 CPU, 128 megs of RAM, and a 40-gig IDE disk. Adding 256 megs of RAM is a hundred bucks, and the price difference between a 40- and a 60-gig drive is trivial. Now, granted, Apple’s price includes a server license, and I’m assuming you’ll run Linux or FreeBSD or OpenBSD on the Intel-based system. But Linux and BSD are hardly unproven; you can easily expect them to give you the same reliability as OS X Server and possibly better performance.

But the other thing that makes me uncomfortable is Apple’s experience making and selling and supporting servers, or rather its lack thereof. Compaq is used to making servers that sit in the datacenter and run 24/7. Big businesses have been running their businesses on Compaq servers for more than a decade. Compaq knows how to give businesses what they need. (So does HP, which is a good thing considering HP now owns Compaq.) If anything ever goes wrong with an Apple product, don’t bother calling Apple customer service. If you want to hear a more pleasant, helpful, and unsuspicious voice on the other end, call the IRS. You might even get better advice on how to fix your Mac from the IRS. (Apple will just tell you to remove the third-party memory in the machine. You’ll respond that you have no third-party memory, and they’ll repeat the demand. There. I just saved you a phone call. You don’t have to thank me.)

I know Apple makes good iron that’s capable of running a long time, assuming it has a quality OS on it. I’ve also been around long enough to know that hardware failures happen, regardless of how good the iron is, so you want someone to stand behind it. Compaq knows that IBM and Dell are constantly sitting on the fence like vultures, wanting to grab its business if it messes up, and it acts accordingly. That’s the beauty of competition.

So, what of the Xserver? It’ll be very interesting to see how much less electricity it uses than a comparable Intel-based system. It’ll be very interesting to see whether Apple’s experiment with IDE disks in the enterprise works out. It’ll be even more interesting to see how Apple adjusts to meeting the demands of the enterprise.

It sounds like a great job for Somebody Else.

I’ll be watching that guy’s experience closely.

8 thoughts on “Analysis of the Apple Mac Xserver

  • May 20, 2002 at 6:32 pm

    Hmm. I’ve got a feeling some Web bot got hold of that karma. Needless to say, karma’s gonna be disabled for a little while…

  • May 20, 2002 at 10:21 pm

    Man, is my finger tired…

  • May 20, 2002 at 10:43 pm

    Hard up there huh Steve?

  • May 20, 2002 at 11:35 pm

    I admit it. *I* clicked the karma up to 10217. I saw the post about my art, er, computer company, and I *knew* David was giving us glowing reviews. I’ll even read the post one day. But I must get back to my clay sculpting of the new generation Macintosh. You heard it here first: the new Ceramic iMac.

  • May 21, 2002 at 9:55 am

    Real servers are administered via telnet or dumb terminal.

    No, no, no! Real servers are administered via ssh or a dumb ASCII terminal console 😉

  • May 21, 2002 at 10:06 am

    Well, an “Xserver” without a gui wouldn’t make sense, would it? Seriously, OS X is built on BSD isn’t it? Unlike Windows, I’m guessing that it might not be hard to not start the gui, but maybe I’m wrong.

    Other than the memory, though, I wonder if an idle gui causes much of a performance penalty anyway, as long as the .Xauthority or similar settings are secure. Of course, even if one likes gui tools, one can always export the display to run them remotely, avoiding the need to start a gui on the server.

    Apple’s real problem is the same as IBM’s: they’ll sacrifice market share for short-term profits. Starting at the low end of the server market, and being unwilling to live with mass-market margins, I doubt they’ll pick up much market share.

    Too bad, more real competition is always good. I just don’t think Apple will ever be more than a minor player.

  • May 21, 2002 at 12:19 pm

    Yes, OS X is built on BSD, but I don’t know how hard it would be to eliminate the GUI. And since the GUI isn’t based on X11, I don’t think you can export it. So it’s “built on Unix,” yes, but it’s not Unix.

    The problem is that the “it doesn’t use much in the way of resources” argument is a very slippery slope. Before you know it, you’ve nickeled-and-dimed your server to death.

    But my biggest concern is Apple’s inexperience in dealing with mission-critical systems and its hostile attitude towards tech support in the past. When a key server is down and the big boss is bugging you every 15 minutes asking when the server’s gonna be back up, you want the manufacturer to be helpful, not standing in the way.

  • May 23, 2002 at 12:47 pm

    Ceramic iMac huh? Hum…I think I’ll wait for the chia Mac.

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