The Apple Xserve – an Introduction

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The Apple Xserve launched in 2002 without much fanfare in the server marketplace. Two full years later, the platform is gaining more steam than even avid Apple watchers had anticipated.

The past year has rewarded Apple with continuous double-digit growth in server sales. While the numbers (north of 11,000 per quarter) are only a fraction of the sales figures boasted by HP or Dell, they do reflect a profit in the balance sheets as Xserve draws interest from corridors outside Apple’s traditional niches in the academic, government, and scientific sectors.

Amid the buzz caused by the company’s successful entrance into high performance computing and the Top500 Supercomputer list, Apple engineers have also quietly built a serious Intel alternative for Web application and site hosting for Web professionals. However, this was not done without consideration of the share of Intel servers in use. One of the signatures of Xserve and its underlying OS X architecture lies in its integration capabilities with other operating systems.

A Slice of History

While Apple’s first foray into the server market in 1997 was a spectacular failure by way of Network Servers that ran AIX 4, the introduction of OS X in 2000 and the later rollout of the G5 PowerPC processor from IBM present strong arguments for its adoption now.

Not known for being a server-side company, Apple representatives confirmed that the company took its efforts to penetrate the enterprise market very seriously and spoke to hundreds of companies during product development. This approach resulted in the creation of a powerful server with many conveniences ready-made for Web hosting.

A Look Inside

The ability to drop an Xserve into a Web hosting network with little or no disruption is probably the first and most visible benefit of its use. However, before we explore the underlying software, a glance at the hardware specifications shows the heated competition the Xserve uses against competitors such as Dell, HP and IBM.

Recent IDC research shows that more than half of Linux server deployments are dual processor-based as heavier application loads are being carried. Considering the fact that many Web hosts run multiple domains offering database-driven sites with forums, storefronts and more, the configurations below reflect this trend.

The Intel Cost Comparison

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*Each server was configured to the closest possible similar configuration at the online stores of each manufacturer aside from processor architecture.

The Software Myth Debunked

The argument for lack of software on the Apple platform no longer holds traction. With its entrée into open source via OS X’s BSD UNIX underpinnings, the vast universe of applications Web developers know so well can now be leveraged on Apple hardware. OS X’s Panther server runs so closely parallel to Linux servers that a majority (if not all) of popular applications requiring a LAMP (Linux, Apache, MySQL and a Perl/PHP) environment run on demand on the Xserve.

The default package delivered on the hardware includes:

  • Apache 1.3.x and 2.x
  • Cyrus (IMAP and POP)
  • FTP
  • JBoss Application Server (for Enterprise Java Beans)
  • Mailman mailing list software
  • MySQL
  • OpenSSH
  • OpenSSL
  • Perl and PHP
  • Postfix MTA (SMTP)
  • Squirrel Mail for webmail
  • Tomcat by Apache for Java Server Pages and Servlets
  • Traditional scripting environments for CGI, Perl, Python, Ruby and shell specific scripting

Most prominent in this list are several difficult-to-configure applications that come ready to run once the system is powered up, potentially saving developers time in compilation and configuration.

In this new era on the Web, where streaming and media services are almost as important as database development, the inclusion of QuickTime Streaming Server should raise a few eyebrows. This inclusion provides developers the ability to handle MPEG-4, MP3, AAC, and RTP/RTSP formats. While some may groan at the mere mention of QuickTime, this application is now the core standard for the next generation of video encoding (H.263), and is fast becoming the primary codec vehicle for the provision of audio/video services to mobile devices — a direction in which many interactive Web developers are now heading.

Controlling OS X Server on Xserve

Panther Server (10.3) has a built-in System Administrator-friendly set of control panels that allow configuration of all elements of the system. These include a fairly comprehensive Apache configuration application, which offers the ability to set up password-protected realms for users and groups.

The included setup tools for SSL should also be crowd-pleasers, as they provide visual cues for configuring secure sockets layer for Websites.

Delving deeper into individual application configuration is quite easy for experienced administrators, who can use either the Terminal (using the Bash shell), or a third-party tool like Webmin, which runs nicely on OS X and provides root level control over Apache, MySQL, mail servers, firewalls and more.

For larger deployments, Apple has created a bulletproof integration into Open LDAP and Microsoft’s Active Directory. This includes granular user management and can be leveraged nicely for complex intranet or extranet sites.

Taking it to the Next Level

For those with big projects and massive storage needs (and robust budgets to match), Apple has made the Xserve extensible, to allow connection to the Xserve RAID, which can now provide up to 5.6 terabytes of storage per system. Though the prices are premium — ranging from $6,000 to $15,000 — they continue to undercut the price of similar solutions on other platforms.

Exploring the Xserve Further

With any potential shift in platforms, extensive research needs to be completed to allow decision-makers to select a sound solution. Apple has gone to great lengths to provide functional documentation for the varying solutions for which Xserve can be implemented. By spending some time on the Apple site, one can answer most, if not all questions on the capabilities of this hardware/software combo for development and production use on the Web.

A particularly good PDF overview of the included software capabilities is also available.

A Final Note

I had the opportunity to perform some hands-on evaluation of the G5 Xserve and Xserve RAID earlier this year, and as I come from a Linux background, the similarity was clear. The process of moving from a Linux on Intel architecture to OS X on Xserve is fairly straightforward. The bonus of a proven media server and the ability to continue to dual run Linux (by way of Yellow Dog Linux, a Fedora fork) alongside OS X made the solution even more appealing.

I have since started moving several production sites onto the Xserve platform without difficulty. I also must admit that I had wrestled with Mailman, in particular, in the past and am relieved to be having a simple and straightforward experience with it now!

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