Xserve stands out

When you think of Apple Computer Inc. and Macintosh systems, you probably don't think about servers. Think again.

I was amazed at what Apple has done with its first server offering, Xserve. Agencies should consider it as a platform that can easily handle middle-tier and back-end business-critical operations.

I tested a dual 1 GHz Xserve model that had four 120G drives and 2G of memory. The standard dual model configuration includes 512M of RAM and a 60G ATA drive and retails for $3,999, which compares favorably with similarly outfitted Intel Corp. servers. A single CPU Xserve is also available and costs $2,999.

The fact that Xserve does not require end-user license fees is also worthy of attention. Agencies concerned about the costs associated with licensing Novell Inc.'s NetWare and Microsoft Corp.'s Windows, which require end-user licensing fees, may want to test Xserve and consider it as a vehicle to reduce overall licensing costs.

Administrators, however, may get a good workout while installing the hardware. The 1U, or 1.75 inches tall, rack-mountable Xserve units install easily but are a bit heavy.

That said, Xserve was highly capable of handling everything I threw its way. I first made the Xserve assume the role of a back-end database server by installing an Oracle Corp. 9i database on it. I then used a transactional load generation application to process massive amounts of requests to the Oracle database. Although not a scientific benchmark, my experience showed that the Xserve is up to the task of processing huge amounts of data.

Next, I made Xserve assume the role of a middle-tier server by removing the Oracle 9i database and replacing it with application server software on which I deployed several different business applications. The middle-tier applications accessed data on various distributed platforms in the test environment. Xserve handled the applications with ease through load generation.

Xserve also performed well when I made it act as the Web server for my busy portal, as a file server for my test network and as an e-mail server. Xserve is definitely up to the task of fulfilling a wide variety of computing roles in any agency.

The only significant downside was the fact that Xserve uses Apple's proprietary PowerPC G4 technology, which may or may not affect agency consideration. In addition, the Xserve unit lacks dual power supplies and cooling system redundancy. Although Apple has crammed a lot of power into its small-footprint Xserve, the company should consider adding those features because they are standard for most server-class systems.

Apple's Xserve also differs from other products in the marketplace because it uses hot-pluggable ATA hard drives with separate buses and software-supported Redundant Array of Independent Disks protection. The ATA drives have a lower price tag than their SCSI cousins, thus enabling agencies to strengthen server capacity at a lower cost.

It was easy to remotely access and administer Xserve. Apple has included support for automated server software updates, which is comparable to other server-class offerings. In addition, the company offers enterprise customers around-the-clock support options, including on-site support if needed.

On the server software side, Mac OS X Version 10.2 was an improvement from Version 10.1. Apple continues to bolster its Unix-like operating system, which is based on Berkeley Software Distribution Unix and provides more power for administrators and users alike. Agency administrators will be particularly interested in support for IP failover and security standards, such as IPv6, IP Security, Secure Sockets Layer and Secure Shell 2.

Mac OS X 10.2 includes a built-in Lightweight Directory Access Protocol (LDAP) 3-compliant directory server, which made it fit easily into my existing environment. The server supports authentication with other LDAP- compliant servers as well as Microsoft's Active Directory. It was easy to set up users, groups and computers using the built-in tools that Apple provides.

The server management tools included in Mac OS X make server and network configuration tasks a breeze. I was particularly impressed with how easy Apple has made it to configure services, such as Samba, which can be troublesome on competing platforms.

Xserve also comes with a bevy of Internet-related services, including the Apache Web server, a mail server and the QuickTime Streaming Server. Developers will find a useful toolset in Apple's support for Java 2, Simple Object Access Protocol and Extensible Markup Language-Remote Procedure Call.

The company also includes its WebObjects application server, which is fairly straightforward to work with, though I did find a few bugs. I was able to create, test and deploy several applications in short order. Developers familiar with competing application servers will find it easy to adapt to WebObjects. I hope that other application service providers will begin to support the Xserve platform the way database vendors such as Oracle and Sybase Inc. already do today.

Users can achieve cost reductions by using the NetBoot option available with Mac OS X. Administrators can create a single disk image and deploy it across an entire agency where Mac OS X clients have been deployed. I also tested the Mac OS X client and its technologies, including available support for Microsoft Office and found the Apple desktop highly worthy of consideration as a viable, lower-cost desktop for agency staffers.

What's more, Mac OS X fits neatly into most any existing computing environment. I had no trouble integrating Xserve within my existing configurations, which included other Macintosh servers and clients, but also other platforms, including IBM Corp. AS/400, Sun Microsystems Inc. Solaris, Linux, Microsoft Windows and FreeBSD systems.

Available options give agencies opportunities to reduce licensing costs while increasing the availability of world-class server applications and services. Included management tools will make it easy for administrators to manage the Xserve platform even if they are not well-versed in Apple technologies.

As a server platform solution, Xserve and Mac OS X are worthy of attention and evaluation as an offering that could easily fulfill either a middle-tier role or act as a back-end server.

Biggs is a senior engineer in the financial sector and a freelance high-tech journalist based in northern California.

REPORT CARD

Apple Xserve

Grade: B+

Apple Computer Inc.

(800) 692-7753

www.apple.com

Standard dual-processor model with 512M of RAM and a 60G ATA drive lists for $3,999.

Apple's Xserve combines Mac OS X Version 10.2 and its Unix underpinnings with an impressive 1.75-inch-tall rack-mountable server to form a highly useful server solution for agencies that want to reduce end-user licensing fees while increasing productivity. The only downside is that it lacks redundant power supplies and cooling units.

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