Un-pro: What the Xserve announcement means to the enterprise

| Friday, November 5th, 2010

Earlier today, Apple announced that it is discontinuing the Xserve, the company’s rack-mounted server, and is replacing it with a new-fangled “Mac Pro Server.”

For most people, this doesn’t really mean much. For those of us in enterprise-level IT, however, it’s a blow below the belt, for several reasons.

Form Factor

The Xserve is 1U, meaning it fits into server racks with relative ease, living above or below with other servers and network gear without a problem. While there are some products that can make a Mac Pro rack-mountable, the tower takes up a lot more space in a rack. In fact, on its side, a Mac Pro is 5U. That’s a lot more space.

While that might not sound like the end of the world, it is for some IT professionals. If a replacement machine takes up four times more space than the original product, it means future expansion could include some serious re-arranging. This means not only hours of work, but potentially hours of downtime for users.

Lights-Out Management

If you’re unfamiliar with LOM, here’s how Apple describes it:

Lights Out Management (LOM) is Apple’s implementation of the remote monitoring and management protocol Intelligent Platform Management Interface (IPMI) developed by Intel.

The addition of Lights Out Management to Xserve provides for the monitoring of over 100 sensors that measure voltage, temperature, fan speeds, etc. Using Server Monitor, one can get a fairly complete picture of the health of an Xserve.

In addition to monitoring LOM can also be used to control some functions of an Xserve. Xserve can be shutdown or restarted from a remote location via the implementation of LOM in Server Monitor. Even if the Xserve is in an unresponsive state, one should be able to gain access via LOM.

In short, LOM offers a backdoor into the Xserve hardware, no matter what state the OS X Server [Aside: I’ve read several things today questioning the future of OS X Server. I don’t think it’s going anywhere.] is in. Many, many other servers include this type of functionality; however, neither the new Mac Pro Server nor the Mac mini server include it.

Other Hardware Features

In addition to LOM, the Xserve is the only Apple system that supports redundant power supplies, a lifesaver when it comes to backbone services. Additionally, the Xserve is the only machine that supports Serial Attached SCSI drives.

SAS drives spin at 15,000-rpm and deliver higher sequential performance (up to 163MB/s). This additional speed is noticeable when pulling data from a server, as most bottlenecking these days happens at the hard drive itself.

Confidence in Apple

This may be the longest-lasting impact of today’s announcement.

Many small businesses never needed an Xserve. Most small businesses don’t have a rack, so a Mac Pro sitting in a closet somewhere isn’t a big deal. That said, most small businesses don’t even need the power of a Mac Pro. In fact, the Mac mini server does very well for a large number of customers.

However, the enterprise runs on 1U systems.

Take a company like FedEx, which is currently looking at adopting the Mac on a much larger scale than it currently does. While FedEx, or any other large company, will never run the majority of their services on Apple hardware, the lack of an enterprise-ready system will surely hamper their migration to additional gear from Cupertino.

Education is also hugely impacted by this. Tons of schools and school districts have Xserves. For school systems looking to move to an Apple-powered backbone, the lack of a 1U solution is laughable. While I’m sure schools that are dependent on Xserves now will move to Mac Pros in the future, I think this takes some wind out of Apple’s sails when trying to land new educational customers.

So, Why Did Apple Pull the Plug?

This is the question on lots of minds this morning. While it is hard to say what factors went into this decision, I’m sure the fact that the Xserve has never sold that well is a major one. Apple hasn’t ever really taken the enterprise seriously. Ask any IT Director with Macs this question, and they will agree with me. While the Macintosh is a great platform that scales well, the enterprise has always taken a backseat to consumers. [Aside: Before the Xserve, it was even worse. Remember A/UX, ANS or the old Workgroup Server systems? Yikes.]

While that’s disappointing, it’s understandable from a business perspective.

I’m having a much bigger problem wrapping my mind around what this means for Apple’s large education customer base. Time will tell, but I think this issue isn’t going to be forgotten for a long time. You know the “Remember, remember the 5th of November” thing? Let’s make that apply to today’s announcement in the future, not just about the failed Gunpowder Plot in England.

I do know this — I’m ordering one for work today.

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