5 Strategies for Replacing Your Apple Xserves

Wednesday Feb 23rd 2011 by Paul Rubens
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By now, Apple's announcement that it plans to discontinue the Xserve has sunk in for many enterprises, but uncertainty remains over how best to plan for future growth and cope with existing Xserves coming to the end of their useful lives. Here are five paths to consider.

Apple's announcement late last year of its intent to abandon the Xserve -- its rack-mounted server hardware -- has plunged many organizations into uncertainty. The main dilemma is how best to plan for future growth and cope with existing Xserves coming to the end of their useful lives.

The problem is compounded by the fact that Apple steadfastly refused to provide product roadmaps, making any future planning extremely difficult. For example, although the company currently forbids customers from running its server operating system -- OS X Server -- in a virtual machine running on standard Intel server hardware, it's conceivable that in the near future the company will permit it. If that happens, the fact that the Apple Xserve has been discontinued becomes a non-issue: Your Xserve hardware running OS X Server could simply be replaced by standard hardware running OS X Server in virtual machines.

Unless and until that happens, here are five other strategies worth exploring to reduce your reliance on existing Xserves.

1. Straight switch: replace your Apple Xserves with Mac Pros or Mac Minis running OS X Server

The solution that Apple recommends is to replace your Xserves with Mac Pro or Mac Mini hardware. However, although these two machines can certainly run OS X Server, they might not suit your organization for a number of reasons:

  • Neither the Pro nor the Mini fit into a 1U rack
  • Neither machine offers Lights Out Management (LOM) functionality, although third party products offer a subset of this
  • Neither machine offers redundant power supplies
  • The 12 core Mac Pro suggested by Apple as an alternative to the Xserve costs around $1500 more than an Xserve and uses substantially more power
  • The Mac Mini is far less powerful than the Xserve, has no hot swap drive functionality and offers only one Ethernet NIC
  • There's no certainty that Apple will not discontinue OS X Server in the near future in the same way that it has abandoned the Xserve

If you do decide to use Pros or Minis, the good news is that third-party racking solutions will likely become more common. H Squared, for example, announced a Mini-rack that can accommodate 18 Mac Minis (36 cores) in 5U of rack space. Mac Pros are bulkier, so the likely solutions will be less space efficient, and at the moment Apple says only two Mac Pros can fit on a rack-mounted shelf in a hefty 12U of space.

2. Replace your Apple Xserve file and print servers with standard 1U servers running Windows Server 2008 R2 and third-party enhancements

A survey carried out recently by the Enterprise Desktop Alliance (EDA) found that 90 percent of companies using Xserves were using them as file servers. Other common uses included the provision of services that offer management support for the Mac desktops and laptops in their organization, including:

  • Software update
  • Directory services
  • Workgroup manager
  • Client management and other centralized administrative functions

A standard server running Microsoft Windows Server 2008 R2 can make Xserve migration easy. It can provide a viable alternative to Apple hardware running OS X Server for the provision of these service when it is augmented with third-party software from companies, including GroupLogic, Centrify and Absolute Software:

  • File server: Group Logic ExtremeZ-IP adds AFP compatibility and integration
  • Print server: Group Logic ExtremeZ-IP supports Bonjour with PPD downloading
  • Backup Server: Group Logic ExtremeZ-IP supports Time Machine
  • Open Directory: Centrify DirectControl adds full GPO and Workgroup Manager management
  • Update Server: Absolute Manage updates Mac OS X and 3rd party OS X applications
  • Client Management: Absolute Manage provides client management functions from a Windows (or Mac) console

3. Replace your Xserve Xsan metadata controllers with an Active Storage ActiveSan appliance

If your organization is involved in the media industry, then you may well have a number of Mac OS X clients accessing data held on a storage-area network (SAN) using Apple's Xsan software. If that's the case then you probably have a pair of Xserves, running Xsan, acting as metadata controllers.

A California-based company called Active Storage, led by ex-Apple employee Alex Grossman, has announced an appliance called ActiveSan, which works as an alternative metadata controller to Xserve for Xsan.

The appliance runs CentOS Linux, and is easier to set up than an Xserve running Xsan, according to Grossman. "Apple customers are spoiled -- they get UNIX under the cover, and Xsan on top. But we've made it even easier for them with our appliance as there is no need to install OS X and then Xsan," he told ServerWatch. Configuration is carried out using a Mac OS X thin client app that can manage ActiveSan appliances in pairs.

The appliance is designed to be a straight 1:1 swap for an Apple Xserve, and although it is more expensive, Grossman claims that this is compensated for by the fact that the ActiveSan appliance has additional features. These include the company's ActiveStats software, which monitors the state of your network's metadata controllers, RAID, switches and other infrastructure, pinpointing any bottlenecks when they occur. The ActiveSan appliances can also use ActiveStore's Interpool technology, which allows you to store metadata in the appliances rather than taking up space in your expensive primary storage.

4. Replace your Apple Xserve web servers with Linux and Apache

OS X Server Web server functionality can be replaced by a standard 1U server running Windows Server 2008 R2's IIS server. However, a Linux server running the Apache HTTP Server may be a more cost-effective choice for companies with Linux administration experience considering Apple migration.

5. Move away from the Apple hardware platform altogether

Given that Apple announced the end of its server hardware line "out of the blue," there's no guarantee the company will not also discontinue OS X Server at some point in the near future. That means it is prudent to, at the very least, consider migrating away from OS X altogether -- on the desktop as well as in the server room.

Given the power and security of Linux and the sheer size of the Windows software ecosystem, coupled with the availability of low-cost hardware on which to run these operating systems, there are arguably very few valid reasons why any organization should want to use OS X in a corporate environment in the face of the uncertainty that surrounds the future of the platform.

Paul Rubens is a journalist based in Marlow on Thames, England. He has been programming, tinkering and generally sitting in front of computer screens since his first encounter with a DEC PDP-11 in 1979.

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