Xserve Is Dead... So Now What?

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When I saw the first tweets about Apple discontinuing the Xserve in 2011, I had two initial reactions:

1. "Apple is giving us a heads-up on a major hardware change months before it happened?" and

2. Many short words with lots of fricatives that are unsuitable for Macworld.

Apple also published a PDF talking up the "new" server solutions, namely a Mac Pro running Mac OS X Server or the company's Mac mini with Snow Leopard Server product. The latter is a solid server, but the idea that you can replace an Xserve with one is somewhat silly. You don't buy a Mac mini to do an Xserve's job. You don't even buy four. You buy an Xserve because you need a box with power that can properly fit into a server room and that's designed to be a server. I'm not going to say the Mac mini is not a capable server, but it's a different class of beast.

The Mac Pro's no server

The Mac Pro, while a powerful machine that is certainly able to act as a server, is simply not designed to be a server. For starters, the case design doesn't work well in a proper server environment. The supported setup for a Mac Pro is vertical. That's 12U of rack space for a single server. If you want, you can get two Mac Pros in that. In the same 12U of space, I can fit 2 RAIDs and 4 Xserves. Even if you put a Mac Pro on its side, that's still one Mac Pro in the same space you can put four or five Xserves. What's more, the Xserves are securely attached to the rack. There's no built-in way to securely attach a Mac Pro to anything. So you have to rig up some kind of strap system. Before you laugh too much, keep in mind that the tech epicenter of this country is in an active earthquake zone.

In addition, unlike the Xserve, there's no way to hot-swap anything with a Mac Pro--not drives, not power supplies. To access anything, you have to open the case up. To get to the case in a rack configuration, you have to completely remove the Mac Pro from the Rack.

On a smaller scale, the current Mac Pro design has no retaining clip for the power cord. So, if there's a moment of carelessness or you trip behind the rack, you might just traumatically shut down your server.

The Mac Pro's components simply aren't designed for server duty. There's a single, massive power supply. If that goes bad, you have a brick. Want to get that power supply out of the Mac Pro? You're not doing that quickly or easily, because it's not designed to be quickly replaced. It's not supposed to be customer-replaceable at all.

Here are steps to remove and replace an Xserve power supply. (And note that if you have two, you can do this without shutting the machine down.)

1. Unplug the power cord from the power supply

2. Pull the handle to release the power supply

3. Slide the power supply out of its bay

4. Pull the handle on the new power supply

5. Slide the power supply all the way into bay

6. Press the handle to seat properly and lock into place

7. Connect the power cord to the power supply

That's it. You've removed and replaced the power supply on a running server. If you had two, there was zero downtime. This was all done in the rack by the way. No need to move it anywhere.

Now, on the Mac Pro:

1. Shut down the computer--if it's for a dead power supply, that's probably already happened--since there's no redundancy here

2. Remove the Mac Pro to a place where you can lay it on its side and get to its innards

3. Remove any hard drives/hard drive carriers in bays 3 and 4 (easy)

4. Remove the optical drives and carrier (three steps to remove)

5. Remove all PCI cards blocking access to the power supply (up to six steps to remove)

6. Remove two Phillips-head screws on the supply cable cover

7. Remove the cover

8. Remove four hex screws from the underside of the media shelf

9. Disconnect the power supply cable

10. Slide the power supply to the left

11. Remove the power supply and cable from enclosure

That's what... 14 to 20 or more steps just to remove the power supply, and if you don't have another server ready to go, you're completely down. Apple recommends shutting down the Mac Pro and waiting ten minutes before you even start to open the thing up. And it's the same way no matter what you need to swap out--more steps, more cables, nothing's designed to be hot-swappable, and you have only one power supply. To get the same level of hardware redundancy you had in a single Xserve, you have to buy two Mac Pros, and have them both configured either identically, or in a way they can easily take over for each other. That's almost a $2999 redundancy fee. And even then, by the time you do swap a power supply, you could have taken an Xserve from box to most of the way through almost any configuration you'd use it in.

Now THIS is a server.

There's no LOM, or Lights Out Management, capability. Now, to be fair, it's not like Apple ever put more than the bare minimum into the Xserve's LOM port, but it was there, and it was quite useful. Apple's solution?

Mac Pro does not support the lights-out management (LOM) features that Xserve offers. Built-in power management features and third-party power controllers can provide an alternative to a subset of LOM functionality.

What's the specific subset? Apple doesn't really tell you. What third-party power controllers? No links. Basically, you'd best get comfortable with SNMP, (Simple Network Management Protocol), because that's all you're going to have. Which is great, but maybe Apple could beef up the SNMP data on the hardware, so we can have the same level of detail. (The company might, but again, we don't know. That's a bigger issue, which I'll get to in a minute.)

The Mac Pro is a great box, but it is not designed to be a server. That matters. The Mac Pro, in trying to equal the Xserve takes up 12 times the space, uses more power, and ends up costing you twice as much if you don't want a single component able to turn your server setup into a brick. If you're collocating your servers, the cost to colo a Mac Pro or two is going to be a lot higher than for an Xserve, because you're going to pay more for power and a lot more for the rack space.

Talk to me, Apple

But that's not the biggest problem I and other IT people have with this decision. Rather, it's Apple's complete failure to really communicate this decision

What Apple has done isn't communication--it's notification of a done decision, and it's a pretty weak one. For example, why was this decision made? We don't know. If I had to guess, I'd say it was probably weak sales. In terms of hardware, the Xserve, while nice, was somewhat overpriced for what it did, and to be blunt, Apple's attempts to market and improve the hardware were effectively non-existent. I'm not surprised if the server didn't sell well--it's not like Apple tried particularly hard to sell it. Considering the effect this decision will have on thousands of customers worldwide, I think more information than "we're moving away from the Xserve" is warranted.

The attempts to push the Mac Pro as a replacement are, to any experienced IT person, almost silly. The Mac Pro is not a server, it's a beast of a tower acting as one. Just like Mariska Hargitay isn't actually a NYC police officer, the Mac Pro isn't actually designed to be a server. It can do the job, but it's just not designed to do the job as well as it should be. Being fair to Apple, some of the hardware issues could be fairly easily remedied, because some of them are fairly trivial. But the other issues would take a fairly radical change to the Mac Pro hardware, and if Apple was willing to do that, it would have kept the Xserve.

However, this is classic Apple to the IT community. The IT/Business customer is expected to place an almost blind trust in Apple, and Apple in return does little outside of ship you product. If you pay many, many thousands of dollars, you get access to some really solid support folks. Even then, you're just getting decent IT documentation and support. If you want proper technical documentation, you go to the developer section, and hope your search-fu is strong. If there's a security issue in the OS, you won't know anything about a fix until it's released, even if it involves a critical hole. Apple informs, Apple markets, Apple monologues, but Apple rarely, almost never, communicates.

What the future holds

The IT community is, rightfully, worried about the larger implications of the discontinued Xserve. Without dedicated server hardware, what is Apple's commitment to Mac OS X Server? Keep in mind, you still can't fully manage iOS devices with Apple software. That requires third-party software, and in some cases, Windows Server. Apple is pushing its iOS devices into the enterprise, and providing no actual help with managing them on a large scale; it's not even offering guidance on how to go about managing those devices, outside of a few vague tech notes. If Apple isn't even fully able to support its hottest-selling devices, is it any wonder that the IT community wonders about Apple's commitment to anything else?

Sadly, Friday's announcement about the Xserve's future may have been the best-communicated decision of this nature Apple's ever made. But the company needs to do a lot more communicating if it doesn't want to be seen as unreliable and a risky partner by the business enterprise segment.

As for myself, I'm not going to get huffy and go install Windows and Linux. I've only got a few Xserves anyway;they're all Intel, and they'll all last me for a few years. But when I get ready to replace them, it's not going to be with a Mac Pro. I don't have an extra rack for the 36U of space it will take to replace my Xserves with Mac Pros, and I don't see how the minis will suffice. So, when it comes time to replace that hardware and those OS licenses, I hope Apple has a more appropriate answer for me than it does now, and I hope Apple choses to tell me, and my IT compatriots about those options before we've reached the point of no return.

[John Welch is IT Director for The Zimmerman Agency, and a long-time Mac IT pundit. He writes the Ask the Mac IT Guy column for Macworld.]

This story, "Xserve Is Dead... So Now What?" was originally published by Macworld.

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