Jul 01 2006

Xserve Platform

Customers tout low cost of ownership, high security, scalability among the benefits of Apple's increasingly popular Xserve line of servers and storage.

Companies are embracing Apple Computer's Xserve platform — including servers, RAID storage and clustering — citing on its robust functionality, cost efficiency relative to other server and storage systems, and built-in scalability. Xserve products can expand to meet evolving business needs, they say, ensuring an investment made today can continue to support a company's needs well into the future.



The platform is receiving high marks and building a loyal following among customers heavily concentrated in fields that depend on graphics and among creative professionals who have traditionally been Apple loyalists. Despite previous generations of Apple servers, including its network servers introduced in the 1990s, Xserve customers consider the 4-year-old Xserve line Apple's first true server platform — with capabilities such as rack mounting — filling a gap in Apple's product line and helping support its installed base of Macintosh desktop systems. Users describe past Apple servers as modified desktop systems, while the Xserve, a 1U rack-mountable system with dual 64-bit G5 processors operating at speeds up to 2.3 gigahertz, was designed from the ground up as a server. The system also features a server-optimized version of the Mac OS X operating system. Up to 84 of the servers can be deployed in a 42U rack.



"You wouldn't have one of these as your desktop," says Arthur Cohen, IT manager at Southern Connecticut Newspapers, an Xserve customer in Stamford, Conn. "But the server software retains a lot of the ease of use of the client; there are a lot of similarities."



For the most demanding of applications, the servers also offer clustering features in the Xserve cluster node configuration, whereby some processing can be directed to the cluster for efficiency.



Among Xserve's additional benefits is the tight security it offers, by virtue of the Unix roots of the Mac OS X, which has yet to draw the interest of virus authors and creators of other malware that the Windows platform has suffered. Customers say they don't need to spend vast amounts of time hunting down viruses, patching systems and regularly dealing with security upgrades.



Lifestyle Media, a 100-employee specialty magazine publisher in New York is a typical Xserve customer with 65 Macs and 35 PCs. In the past, the company had four PC servers but has now consolidated server functions down to two Xserve servers, a primary and a second backup/failover system. Before its server consolidation, Lifestyle Media was experiencing "all sorts of virus problems running rampant on our servers," says James Marino, director of operations. With 100 users and hundreds of thousands of documents built up on servers over a 10-year period, it became impractical to run continuous virus scans, he says.



"One of the ways to combat security problems is to implement the Mac environment, where viruses are less likely to propagate," Marino says. "There's less of a community looking to attack the Mac right now, but they will eventually come under attack, and we have to plan for that."



Lifestyle Media also enjoyed lower costs with its Xserve environment compared to its previous PC servers, which are "dramatically more expensive for us," Marino adds



Flexibility Pays



Another recurring comment from Xserve adopters is that the system supports multiple clients and protocols. That allows optimal flexibility in running networks with other non-Mac systems on them and native compatibility for any Apple desktop systems.



Support for multiple protocols — including the Server Message Block (SMB) protocol used by Windows clients — is a key feature of Xserve, one that Lifestyle Media uses to support its 35 PCs running Windows XP systems, mostly in the advertising sales, accounting and operations departments. SMB support makes such mixing and matching easy, Marino says.



Another case in point: the Graphics Imaging Segment of Matthews International, which makes graphics for product packaging. The company's designers use Macs, but there's also a healthy population of PC users at the Pittsburgh company.



For R.J. Roeschenthaler, senior networks analyst at the company, the native support for the Macs and Apple networks and protocols was a key advantage at the time the company was purchasing its first Xserve more than three years ago. The Apple compatibility facilitates the use of scripting between the company's servers for efficient file transfers from one system to another.



The cost of support is also an advantage, Roeschenthaler notes. When buying an Xserve system, a customer can also sign up for a three-year support agreement for $1,000 and no recurring costs. "That's incredibly reasonable," he says.



Apple also provides support for unlimited network clients; there is no per-client licensing fee. "That's a huge benefit," Roeschenthaler says. "It means a 70 percent to 72 percent savings for us" when compared to systems with per-client licensing costs.



Storage Innovation



Apple's Xserve storage platform features up to 400 megabyte-per-second Fibre Channel connectivity between storage and servers. The cost per megabyte of storage on Xserve RAIDs (short for redundant array of independent disks) — based on ATA drive technology — is roughly 60 percent less than SCSI-based PC storage. At Matthews International, the company has 30 terabytes of Xserve RAID capacity across 11 locations.



According to Apple, a single Xserve RAID unit offers up to 7TB of redundant storage at less than $2 per gigabyte. A 1TB system with dual, independent controllers (512MB cache), dual 2GB Fiber Channel ports (200MB/sec per port), four 250GB ATA drives and 8MB of on-drive cache lists for $5,995. A similarly configured 3.5TB system (seven 500GB drives) costs $8,495 and a 7TB system lists for $12,995. As in other RAID systems, each hard drive connects to a dedicated Ultra ATA drive channel to eliminate bottlenecks and maximize the Fibre Channel connection to the host server.



The performance advantages of Xserve in a storage environment are significant enough to be obvious to end users during daily routines, says Lifestyle Media's Marino. "When users first started to use Xserve, they were really impressed by the speed of the server to the desktop, as well as the speed of internal processes on the RAID and copying one folder to another on the RAID," he says. "It really helped a lot with productivity."



Xserve RAID users also note the platform's scalability. For instance, Firestar Communications, a Chicago advertising agency with 50 employees, first bought Xserve RAID about two-and-a half years ago, says Joe Schram, systems administrator. At the time, the company bought seven 180GB drives — half the unit's capacity, and once those were maxed out, seven more. "About six months ago, we were constantly hitting the roof on that, at 90 to 95 percent capacity," Schram says.



As disk drives continue to increase in capacity, the company was able to buy 400GB replacement drives and currently has total storage capacity of about 4TB. The new, denser drives can be supported through a firmware upgrade, Schram adds.



Apple Zealots



IT professionals know that when users are faithful to Mac or an organization is a "Mac shop," there's no point in trying to sell them on the merits of competing systems — they're generally hooked for life. So it is with Southern Connecticut Newspapers, which runs the bulk of its editorial operations on Mac systems. Consequently, the Stamford, Conn., publisher uses Xserve and Xserve RAID for many applications, including to run font servers and directory software, Cohen says.



"The Mac for graphics applications is still the platform of choice for designers and advertising creative," Cohen says. "Cost really doesn't enter into it. We've got Mac-based workflow, so it's logical to go with the Mac as our system of choice."