Category Archives: Rant

apple_xserve_2009_nehalem

Mac Servers in a Post Xserve World

About three years ago, Apple discontinued the Xserve line of servers. This presented a problem. While the Xserve never was top tier hardware, it was at least designed to go into a server room; you could rack mount it, it had proper ILO and it had redundant power supplies. You would never run an Apache farm on the things but along with the Xserve RAID and similar units from Promise and Active, it made a pretty good storage server for your Macs and it was commonly used to act as an Open Directory Server and a Workgroup Manager server to manage them too.

Discontinuing it was a blow for the Enterprise sector who had came to rely on the things as Apple didn’t really produce a suitable replacement. The only “servers” left in the line were the Mac Pro Server and the Mac Mini server. The only real difference between the Server lines and their peers were that the Servers came with an additional hard drive and a copy of OS X Server preinstalled. The Mac Mini Server was underpowered, didn’t have redundant PSUs, it only had one network interface, it didn’t have ILO and it couldn’t be racked without a third party adapter. The Mac Pro was a bit better in terms of spec, it at least had two network ports and in terms of hardware it was pretty much identical internally to its contemporary Xserve so it could at least do everything an Xserve could do. However, it couldn’t be laid down in a cabinet as it was too tall so Apple suggested you stood two side by side on a shelf. That effectively meant that you had to use 10U to house four CPU sockets and eight hard drives. Not a very efficient use of space and the things still didn’t come with ILO or redundant power supplies and it was hideously expensive, even more so than the Xserve. It also didn’t help that Apple didn’t update the Mac Pro for a very long time and they were getting rapidly outclassed by contemporary hardware from other manufacturers, both in terms of hardware and price.

Things improved somewhat when Thunderbolt enabled Mac Mini Servers came onto the scene. They came with additional RAM which could be expanded, an extra hard drive and another two CPU cores. Thunderbolt is essentially an externally presented pair of PCI Express lanes. It gives you a bi-directional interface providing 10Gbps of bandwidth to external peripherals. Companies like Sonnet and NetStor started manufacturing rack mountable enclosures into which you could put one or more Mac Minis. A lot of them included ThunderBolt to PCI Express bridges with actual PCIe slots which meant you could connect RAID cards, additional network cards, faster network cards, fibre channel cards and all sorts of exciting serverish type things. It meant for a while, a Mac Mini Server attached to one of these could actually act as a semi-respectable server. They still didn’t have ILO or redundant PSUs but Mac Servers could be at least be reasonably easily expanded and the performance of them wasn’t too bad.

Of course, Apple being Apple, this state of affairs couldn’t continue. First of all they released the updated Mac Pro. On paper, it sounds wonderful; up to twelve CPU cores, up to 64GB RAM, fast solid state storage, fast GPUs, two NICs and six(!) Thunderbolt 2 ports. It makes an excellent workstation. Unfortunately it doesn’t make such a good server; it’s a cylinder which makes it even more of a challenge to rack. It only has one CPU socket, four memory slots, one storage device and there is no internal expansion. There is still no ILO or redundant power supply. The ultra powerful GPUs are no use for most server applications and it’s even more expensive than the old Mac Pro was. The Mac Pro Server got discontinued.

Apple then announced the long awaited update for the Mac Mini. It was overdue by a year and much anticipated in some circles. When Apple finally announced it in their keynote speech, it sounded brilliant. They said it it was going to come with an updated CPU, a PCI Express SSD and an additional Thunderbolt port. Sounds good! People’s enthusiasm for the line was somewhat dampened when they appeared on the store though. While the hybrid SSD/hard drive was still an option, Apple discontinued the option for two hard drives. They soldered the RAM to the logic board. The Mac Mini Server was killed off entirely so that means that you have to have a dual core CPU or nothing. It also means no memory expansion, no RAIDed boot drive and the amount of CPU resources available being cut in half. Not so good if you’re managing a lot of iPads and Macs using Profile Manager or if you have a busy file server. On the plus side, they did put in an extra Thunderbolt port and upgraded to Thunderbolt 2 which would help if you were using more external peripherals.

Despite all of this, Apple still continue to maintain and develop OS X Server. It got a visual overhaul similar to Yosemite and it even got one or two new features so it clearly matters to somebody at Apple. So bearing this in mind, I really don’t understand why Apple have discontinued the Mac Mini Server. Fair enough them getting rid of the Mac Pro Server, the new hardware isn’t suitable for the server room under any guise and it’s too expensive. You wouldn’t want to put an iMac or a Macbook into a server room either. But considering what you’d want to use OS X Server for (Profile Manager, NetRestore, Open Directory, Xcode), the current Mac Mini is really too underpowered and unexpandable. OS X Server needs some complimentary hardware to go with it and there isn’t any now. There is literally no Apple product being sold at this point that I’d want to put into a server room and that’s a real shame.

At this point, I hope that Apple do one of two things. Either:

Reintroduce a quad or hex core Mac Mini with expandable memory available in the next Mac Mini refresh

Or

Start selling a version of OS X Server which can be installed on hypervisors running on hardware from other manufacturers. OS X can already be run on VMware ESXi, the only restriction that stops people doing this already is licensing. This would solve so many problems, people would be able to run OS X on server class hardware with whatever they want attached to it again. It wouldn’t cause any additional work for Apple as VMware and others already have support for OS X in their consumer and enterprise products. And it’d make Apple even more money. Not much perhaps but some.

So Tim Cook, if you’re reading this (unlikely I know), give your licensing people a slap and tell them to get on it. kthxbye

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