Comment Like any other billionaire — or three-year-old — Steve Jobs does exactly what he wants to do, and stops doing it when he's no longer interested. Last week, Jobs pulled the plug on Xserve machines, and though companies that depend on Apple's servers and related Xsan2 clustered file systems may have been a bit shocked when it happened, they should remember the on-again, off-again history of Apple in the server racket.
This is exactly the sort of thing you'd expect. The handwriting was on the wall earlier this year when Apple didn't refresh its two-socket, rack-mounted server with Intel's latest six-core "Westmere-EP" Xeon 5600 processors — something that was, from an engineering point of view, relatively easy to do.
That's because the Xeon 5600s are socket-compatible with the quad-core Xeon 5500s that were announced in early April 2009, only a few days after Intel pushed out these "Nehalem-EP" server and workstation chips into the gaping maw of the Great Recession and defied it.
The Xeon 5500s offered a huge performance boost for many workloads compared to previous Xeon 5300 and 5400 processors, mainly due to the switch from the frontside bus architecture to the QuickPath Interconnect point-to-point interconnect used with current Xeon servers. The Xeon 5600 rev happened a year later, and most cases, all server makers had to do to refresh their lines was to certify the new chip, add support for fatter 8 GB and 16 GB DDR3 memory sticks as well as low-voltage 8 GB parts, maybe put in a higher-efficiency power supply, and cram in a few more disk drives in a clever way in their 1U, 2U, and 4U rack form factors and tower equivalents.
It is the height of laziness and selfishness that Apple has not long-since done this, and it is a disservice to Xserve customers that Apple is not revving the Xserves with Xeon 5600s, fatter memory, and faster and more capacious disks as it begins winding down the Xserve product line. Apple could also have given customers just a little bit more warning.
According to the Xserve Transition Guide that Apple put out last week, the company will sell Xserve machines through January 31, 2011 with the standard one-year warranty. The company also pledges to honor any and all warranties for Xserves and will ship 160GB, 1TB, and 2TB disk drive modules until the end of 2011. When supplies run out, that's it. You'll be hunting around the Web for second-hand dealers for parts.
To put it bluntly, this bites.
Come on, Steve, You've got the cash
A company with $11.3bn in cash and equivalents, $14.4bn in short-term investments, and $25.4bn in long-term investments can afford upgrade the Xserve line one more time and give customers some breathing room. But Apple clearly has other priorities, chasing the wider consumer market and the vast profits it can extract from glossy-eyed people trying to up their cool quotient by having the latest Apple iGadget.
The server business for Apple has always been a bit of a drag, although there certainly was some enthusiasm in the years after the launch in May 2002 of the Initial PowerPC-based Xserves. At the time, Apple CEO Jobs tried to reassure customers that the prior years of short-lived server products were behind the company. "I look at that as a dream while [Apple] was in a coma," Jobs explained, almost in apology.
Maybe this is one of those dreams within a dream moments and Apple never truly woke up?
Apple never aspired to move beyond its targeted educational, media, and research markets with the Xserve servers and their companions, the Xserve RAID disk array and the Xsan2 clustered file system. Those disk arrays and the Xsan2 software are what makes the Xserves actually useful for the digital-media and workgroup-serving jobs that Xserve shops run out there in the data closets and data centers of the world.
Back in November 2004, an Xserve cluster running Mac OS X Server at Virginia Tech was ranked number seven on the Top 500 list of supercomputers. At the time, Gartner said that Apple's server business was doubling, and Apple even confirmed that it was shipping around 13,000 units a quarter. It looked like the company finally was going to break into the big time in servers.
But Apple's phenomenal success with MP3 players and the online music business, then in handheld phones, and now with tablets means Apple doesn't have to care about servers. At least, that seems to be the thinking. But that could very likely turn out to be faulty reasoning in the long-run.
Those commercial products have revived Apple's PC business, and there is no reason at all that enterprises that are now integrating Apple devices with their IT applications might not also want to use Apple systems on their back-end. The opportunity for cross-selling is huge, if Apple played it right. But that would also require a sizable investment in expanding the Xserve server and storage lineup, and quite frankly, Apple has other ways it can make money more easily.
OK, boys. Back to the mid-90s
And so server customers are being told to roll back to the mid-1990s and use desktop and tower PCs equipped with Mac OS X Snow Leopard Server. In the planning document, Apple says that customers who want to have a server can use a Mac Pro or a Mac Mini. But neither machine has redundant power supplies, lights-out management service processors, or standard rack-mounting — which are tick marks for a lot of data centers these days.
The Mac Pro, a two-socket tower workstation, was updated with the Xeon 5600s this summer. The behemoth is 12U high, and you can only get two of them side-by-side on a rack shelf. That means you can get only six Mac Pro machines in the same rack space as you could put 36 Xserves.
Granted, if you want to pay the premium, you can have 50 per cent more cores and about that much extra computing oomph in each Mac Pro because it uses the six-core Xeons 5600s instead of the quad-core Xeon 5500s where the Xserves are stuck, but that still works out with four times the compute density per rack for the Xserves. (And again, this is a completely artificial situation since Apple could have and should have upgraded the Xserves to the Xeon 5600s earlier this year).
The Mac Pro sports faster and more processors as well as three empty PCI-Express slots (one of the four is used for the graphics card), compared to two for the Xserve (which has on-board graphics). The Mac Pro also has a fatter 950 watt power supply compared to the 750 watter used in the Xserve, but it needs it to support the larger number of disk drives and the graphics card in the workstation.
Depending on the configuration, the Mac Pro can meet or beat the performance of an Xserve, according to Apple's transition document. An Xserve with two quad-core Xeon 5600s running at 2.26GHz, 24GB of memory, a RAID 5 card, three 1TB disks, and a Fibre Channel adapter linking out to external storage costs $9,349.
The most-similar Mac Pro configuration comes with two quad-core 2.4GHz Xeon 5600 chips (these processors come in two, four, and six-core variants) and with the same processor, memory, and disk options (plus a graphics card that is worth $250), the Mac Pro costs $7,649. That's about 6 per cent more performance for the Mac Pro at an 18 per cent lower price. (Snow Leopard Server runs $499 for an unlimited license, and the Xsan2 cluster file system costs $999, for these machines.)
You can see now why Apple wants to have customers use high-volume workstations as servers. Look at the premium it has to charge for the Xserves, and at the low volumes Apple still has in the server racket, it is quite possible the company is losing money on each and every one. (If Apple was making money in servers, the Xserves would still be in the catalog and would have been properly upgraded earlier this year.)
Rack up the Minis?
If you are stuck on the 1U form factor, then Apple suggests that you put Mac Minis into racks using adapter kits from MK1 Manufacturing, which come in a bunch of different styles. One puts two Mac Minis side-by-side in a 1U tray with a slide that costs $135. A more interesting rack called the Mini-Colo puts 14 Mac Minis and their power supplies in a 4U chassis for $165.
The Mac Mini comes with a single 2.66GHz Core 2 Duo chip from Intel, 4GB of memory, two 500GB disks, and a single Gigabit Ethernet port. There are no PCI-Express slots in it to attach to external disk arrays, like the kinds that digital media and education customers using Apple servers tend to need.
You can double the memory up to 8GB. That's it for expansion. The Mac Mini can do basic server tasks for about 50 users, says Apple, compared to around 500 for Xserve and Mac Pro machines. At $999, the Mac Mini is relatively cheap per unit, but it takes ten of them to match the performance of an Xserve for basic workgroup jobs and they cannot be clustered to present an image to end users as if they were one big, virtual Xserve. (This would be very useful.)
I know what you are thinking. Why doesn't Apple just let Snow Leopard Server run on regular Xeon-based servers from Dell, Hewlett-Packard, or IBM? Parallels and VMware even have virtual machine hypervisors that can even be used on servers to host Snow Leopard Server instances and run them side-by-side with Linux or Windows instances.
Alex Grossman — who was formerly director of server and storage hardware for Apple's product marketing group and who is now chief executive officer at Active Storage, which is working on a next-generation RAID storage product for Mac shops — doesn't think this is likely to happen.
"Only Apple can speak for Apple, of course," Grossman says. "But they tried licensing software before and then yanked it back. I doubt very much Apple would allow it to open up. It becomes a control issue and how much work you need to do to certify on different platforms."
That said, Grossman says that for many video processing and rich media customers that have been using Xserves — like the production companies behind popular TV shows — will have a hard time shifting away from Xserves to Mac Pros or Mac Minis. The Xserves are used to store metadata as well as linking out to storage arrays or sometimes act as storage arrays themselves.
"These are huge, 24x7 operations with big deadlines," says Grossman. "It leaves an opportunity for companies like Active Storage. And we'll have some products soon hopefully to address that."
Grossman is not tipping his cards quite yet about what Active Storage has cooking. But he did put out a teaser letter to Apple customers where he talked a bit about his company's ActiveRAID arrays, which were launched back in December 2008, and how they might be enhanced to help Apple server shops. After killing off its own Xserve RAID arrays, Apple gave its blessing to Promise Technology's VTrak E-Class RAID Subsystem, which it is still selling today, in fact.
"As long as Apple continues to build the Xsan client, there are things you can still do," Grossman tells El Reg. The reason, he explains, is that the Xsan2 client is compatible with Quantum's StorNext FX2 file system, which supports Unix, Linux, and Windows clients as well as Mac OS clients for file sharing across Promise RAID and presumably soon ActiveRAID arrays. This is not ideal for pure Mac OS shops, says Grossman, because you lose the simplicity of a single operating system environment — the "it just works" factor — when you start mixing Mac OS platforms with Windows or Linux boxes. But, it's not like Apple is giving its customers a big choice.
It is not even clear if Apple uses its own servers in its Newark, California data center, or what iron it will be rolling into its $1bn massive data center in Maiden, North Carolina.
The company is super-secretive about its internal iron, but a report in Data Center Knowledge says that Apple is hiring techies with experience with Solaris and Oracle RAC clustering as well as AIX and HACMP clustering experience, plus Mac OS and Linux nerds. Apple was also hiring people who know NetApp and Data Domain storage, Brocade and QLogic switches, and Teradata data warehouse appliances. If Apple had been serious about the server business, the whole shebang could be running on Apple iron.
Whatever Apple is thinking about a potential future server business remains completely unknown, which is the Apple way. And, to be honest, so is running a server operating system on workstations instead of having a proper server lineup, if you look at the company's long history. The Xserves, it may turn out, were the aberration, not the new rule. I still maintain that an Apple that put the same maniacal devotion into data centers as it put into consumer electronics could have made some transformative products — and I don't just mean a big white server with a button on it, either. ®