∞ For IT, Xserve was a luxury, not a necessity

On Friday Apple quietly updated its Web site with information indicating that the Xserve – its rack-mounted server hardware – will be discontinued effective January 31, 2011. The Loop sought the advice of experts to help understand Apple’s enterprise IT strategy.

[ad#Google Adsense 300×250 in story]Apple has dabbled in dedicated hardware server architecture throughout its history, but the Xserve came on the scene in 2002 – about half a decade after Apple previously released Network Server models, before Steve Jobs’ return to the company.

The Xserve initially used G4 processors, similar to Apple’s desktop Power Mac hardware. Apple would ultimately introduce multiple Xserve models in that generation, including a “Cluster Node” version designed for building supercomputing clusters – popular in environments including academia and research. Over the years Apple migrated the Xserve to the G5 architecture and then to Intel; in its final iteration, the device used Intel Xeon 5500 Quad-Core CPUs.

And despite some cosmetic and functional alterations, the Xserve’s form factor never changed. A 2002 unit and a 2010 unit set side by side are still readily recognizable, both decked out in the minimalistic brushed metal and aluminum angles consistent with Apple’s “Pro” line of desktop models.

Not Apple’s strongest suit

Apple steadily improved the Xserve over the years, but it didn’t set the enterprise market on fire, according to Michael Gartenberg, a partner at research-based advisory firm Altimeter Group and long-time analyst of Apple technologies.

“No one is going to call Apple a major enterprise player,” said Gartenberg.

Gartenberg’s sentiment is reiterated by Michael Oh, CEO of Tech Superpowers, a Mac support agency with offices in Boston and London.

“There’s very little that Mac OS X Server brings to the table in terms of capabilities that [corporate] IT guys really need,” said Oh. “At the end of the day, those customers are using Mac OS X Server as a preference rather than a requirement.”

Oh notes that it’s very different at the opposite end of the market. “That’s not the case for the IT person managing a workgroup or an SMB [Small to Medium-sized Business],” said Oh. “For them, being able to manage clients and a server using the same technology becomes more important.”

Apple has clearly recognized the trend, as well. In an Xserve transition guide published on Apple’s Web site, they note that the Mac mini with Snow Leopard Server – a specialized version of their smallest desktop machine – is now their best-selling server hardware.

The Mac mini with Snow Leopard Server is priced starting at $999, one-third the price of the low-end Xserve. The tiny box isn’t rack-mountable but several could fit on a rack side-by-side, making them an ideal choice for simple e-mail service, podcast publishing, Wiki hosting, Open Directory management and a host of other possibilities built in to or compatible with Mac OS X Server software.

Gartenberg sees Apple’s decision as purely mercenary.

“If [the Xserve] was selling in large enough numbers, they’d still be selling it,” Gartenberg said. “In terms of volume, the Xserve isn’t going to sell like a Mac Pro or a MacBook.”

Apple may have engineered itself out of a viable product, suggests Oh. “I’m amazed at how long some Xserves have lasted in the field. We’ve had customers who ask us why they should pay a thousand dollar delta compared to other server hardware, and we tell them how well-engineered the Xserve is.”

The Xserve can be equipped with a redundant power supply and comes with hot-swappable hard disk drive bays. Neither of the server hardware products Apple is now offering – the Mac mini with Snow Leopard Server or a Mac Pro available in a new server configuration – come with such accouterments.

The future of Xsan

The discontinuation of the Xserve puts the future of other Apple enterprise and data center technologies into question, said Oh. He particularly worries about where Apple’s headed with Xsan, for example. Xsan is a Storage Area Network (SAN) file system for Mac OS X, technology that lets computers read and write to the same storage system at the same time.

Xsan is used by video editors and broadcasters, and can help IT pros cluster mail servers for improved performance and reliability, or to consolidate storage systems using high-speed Fibre Channel connectivity.

Because of Xsan’s steep hardware requirements, IT managers looking to create new Xsan installations will need to rely on Mac Pros rather than Xserves – with their single Ethernet network interfaces, limited RAM, limited internal storage and lack of expansion ports or bays, Mac minis simply aren’t up to the task. Even then, Mac Pros aren’t an optimal choice, as they lack the redundant and hot-swappable components available in an Xserve – critical factors for a storage system designed for maximum reliability and uptime.

There was some glimmer of hope on that front following the Xserve announcement but it vanished almost as soon as it appeared. Posting to Xsanity, a mailing list for Xsan users, a user identified as Eric Zelenka, Apple Senior Worldwide Product Marketing Manager, posted a message that read in part, “Today’s announcement does not impact the future of Xsan or server software on Mac OS X.”

The message was deleted within hours of being posted, however. Apple has offered no further clarification or verification that the message indeed came from Zelenka.

Serious about the enterprise

“I wonder about the overall message it sends to IT,” said Oh. Oh suggests that some corporate CIOs will look at Apple’s decision to axe the Xserve as an example of how the company doesn’t take their needs seriously.

“To read the reaction of IT people on social media following the news, there are two points that keep getting reiterated: Apple is not serious about business, and Apple is not serious about the data center or infrastructure,” said Oh.

As to the latter point, Oh admits that the Xserve isn’t the top choice for most data centers to begin with. His own firm, Tech Superpowers, offers hosting services and, because of their Apple pedigree, uses Xserves to do it. In the wake of Apple’s decision, however, they’ve had to have a frank discussion about the future of that business.

“We can use boxes from other manufacturers, running Linux,” Oh said. He suspects most Xserve-based data centers will find themselves making the same decision, although he’s already talked to customers who plan to stockpile Xserve hardware and part kits to keep their existing investments going a while longer.

Regardless, Oh suggests that IT departments worried about how the Xserve’s demise affects Apple’s enterprise strategy probably need to broaden their perspectives a bit.

“Apple is very serious about the enterprise, but it’s about desktops and mobile and laptops,” he said. Apple may very well not have the same position in an equipment rack or the server room than it used to, but the company doesn’t need to have hardware everywhere to measure its success in corporate IT.

“Xserve or not, Apple has gotten into a lot of enterprise environments thanks to iOS.”