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.

Recovery time.

Taxes. I think I’ve actually filed my taxes on time twice in my adult life. This year isn’t one of them. I filed Form 4868, so Tax Day for me is actually Aug. 15, 2002.
In theory Uncle Sam owes me money this year, so I shouldn’t owe any interest. I’ll have a professional accountant test that theory soon. Make that fairly soon, because it’d be nice to have that money, seeing as I expect to make the biggest purchase of my still-fairly-short life this year.

Some people believe filing a 4868 is advantageous. The thinking is this: Let the IRS meet its quota for audits, then file. That way, the only way you’re going to get audited is if you truly raise red flags, which I shouldn’t because I’m having a professional (and an awfully conservative one at that) figure the forms. That’s good. I’d rather not have to send a big care package off to the IRS to prove I’m not stealing from them.

Adventure. Steve DeLassus and I dove headlong into an adventure on Sunday, an adventure consisting of barbecue and Linux. I think at one point both of us were about ready to put a computer on that barbie.

We’ll talk about the barbecue first. Here’s a trick I learned from Steve: Pound your boneless chicken flat, then throw it in a bag containing 1 quart of water and 1 cup each of sugar and salt. Stick the whole shebang in the fridge while the fire’s getting ready. When the fire’s ready, take the chicken out of the bag and dry thoroughly. Since Steve’s not a Kansas Citian, he doesn’t believe in dousing the chicken in BBQ sauce before throwing it on the grill. But it was good anyway. Really good in fact.

Oh, I forgot. He did spray some olive oil on the chicken first. Whether that helps it brown or locks in moisture or both, I’m not quite sure. But olive oil contains good fats, so it’s not a health concern.

Now, Linux on cantankerous 486s may be a health concern. I replaced the motherboard in Steve’s router Sunday night, because it was a cranky 486SX/20. I was tired of dealing with the lack of a math coprocessor, and the system was just plain slow. I replaced it with a very late model 486DX2/66 board. I know a DX2/66 doesn’t have three times the performance of an SX/20, but the system sure seemed three times faster. Its math coprocessor, L2 cache, faster chipset, and much better BIOS helped. It took the new board slightly longer to boot Linux than it took the old one to finish counting and testing 8 MB of RAM.

But Debian wasn’t too impressed with Steve’s Creative 2X CD-ROM and its proprietary Panasonic interface. So we kludged in Steve’s DVD-ROM drive for the installation, and laughed at the irony. Debian installed, but the lack of memory (I scraped up 8 megs; Steve’s old memory wouldn’t work) slowed down the install considerably. But once Debian was up and running, it was fine, and in text mode, it was surprisingly peppy. We didn’t install XFree86.

It was fine until we tried to get it to act as a dialup router, that is. We never really did figure out how to get it to work reliably. It worked once or twice, then quit entirely.

This machine was once a broadband router based on Red Hat 6.1, but Red Hat installed way too much bloat so it was slow whenever we did have to log into it. And Steve moved into the boonies, where broadband isn’t available yet, so it was back to 56K dialup for him. Now we know that dialup routers seem to be much trickier to set up than dual-NIC routers.

After fighting it for nearly 8 hours, we gave up and booted it back into Freesco, which works reliably. It has the occasional glitch, but it’s certainly livable. Of course we want (or at least Steve wants) more features than Freesco can give you easily. But it looks like he’ll be living with Freesco for a while, since neither of us is looking forward to another marathon Debian session.

Nostalgia. A couple of articles on Slashdot got me thinking about the good old days, so I downloaded VICE, a program that can emulate almost every computer Commodore ever built. Then I played around with a few Commodore disk images. It’s odd what I do and don’t remember. I kind of remember the keyboard layout. I remembered LOAD “*”,8,1 loads most games (and I know why that works too, and why the harder-to-type LOAD “0:*”,8,1 is safer), but I couldn’t remember where the Commodore keyboard layout put the *.

I sure wish I could remember people’s names half as well as I remember this mesozoic computer information.

It stands on shaky legal ground, but you can go to and grab images for just about any Commodore game ever created. The stuff there is still covered by copyright law, but in many cases the copyright holder has gone out of business and/or been bought out several times over, so there’s a good possibility the true copyright holder doesn’t even realize it anymore. Some copyright holders may care. Others don’t. Others have probably placed the work in the public domain. Of course, if you own the original disks for any of the software there, there’s no problem in downloading it. There’s a good possibility you can’t read your originals anyway.

I downloaded M.U.L.E., one of the greatest games of all time. I have friends who swear I was once an ace M.U.L.E. player, something of an addict. I have absolutely no recollection of that. I started figuring out the controls after I loaded it, but nothing seemed familiar, that’s for sure. I took to it pretty quickly. The strategy is simple to learn, but difficult to master. The user interface isn’t intuitive, but in those days they rarely were. And in those days, not many people cared.


The battle against the blinky Web continues. Regular readers of this site will know there’s virtually nothing I hate more than blinky Internet content. You know, stuff that moves for no good reason. Our natural instinct is to pay the most attention to the things that move the most, so if we’re reading static text and there’s some annoying Flash ad running, we’ll pay more attention to the blinky Flash ad.

CNet’s huge Flash ads are especially obnoxious. At the very least I wanted to drop the quality level down to speed up their loadtimes. Load times are no problem at home, but at work where the T1 is absolutely bursting because of hundreds of people listening to Rush Limbaugh and Dr. Laura all afternoon, with the result being a connection that’s slower than 56K dialup, I don’t want stupid Flash ads eating up all my bandwidth and CPU time.

So I went hunting through the Registry, and one of the few references to Flash I found was in regards to c:windowssystemmacromedflashswflash.ocx. Aha! An ActiveX control! I know how a quick and painless way to defeat those… So I went to Tools, Internet Options, Security, Restricted Sites, and added and to the list. Then I went to , loaded a few pages, looked at where the Flash ads should be, and… I got the first frame. That’s it. Outstanding.

So if a page starts annoying you with too much Flash, try adding it to the Restricted Sites zone.

The next place I went was to , one of my favorite hangouts. I was looking for information about Dot Allison, former lead singer of Scottish one-hit-wonder One Dove. (Spending more time with teenagers lately has been making me nostalgic for the music I listened to when I was 18.) I found information about her, and I also found some Flash ads. Gack. So I added to the list of restricted sites, hit reload, and was greeted with another Flash ad. What on earth is going on? So I went to View, Source, looked at the page’s source code, and found the ads are located at Figures. Those creeps should be in the restricted sties zone by default. I trust them less than the average American trusts the IRS. So I added them, hit reload, and was greeted with a GIF ad in its place. GIF ads I can live with, especially because I turned off animation.

Now that you’re using it, you might wish to click the Custom Level button and make a couple of changes to the Restricted Sites zone.

First, there’s an option that says Script ActiveX controls marked safe for scripting. It’s enabled by default. Repeat after me: “There is no such thing as an ActiveX control safe for scripting.” Again! “There is no such thing as an ActiveX control safe for scripting.” Good. Now click that Disable button.

Next, there’s the Downloads option. I’m torn on this one. Automatic downloads are annoying. Fortunately, they’re rare. With File download disabled (the default), you can’t download a file by clicking on it. So I generally enable this option.

The only downside is that the same options that knock out Flash also knock out RealAudio and QuickTime content. That doesn’t bother me, but it may bother you.