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Steve Jobs chucks Apple server biz from pram

XServe bites the dust. And so much more

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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. ®

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