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A Vanishing Hardware Server by Steve Cunningham

  • Apple's recent decision to slam the door on its server business certainly did not have the repercussions that would occur if that announcement had come from, say, Hewlett Packard. But there were ripples generated, and these reinforced the ripples from virtualization. In some cases ripples become waves, as we shall see.
  • At my shop we are still dealing with those ripples. Apple's Xserve became the hub for our computer lab in 2005. Our original proposal to the school included the G5 Xserve and an X-Raid storage system, ostensibly because we could support it within our department. Of course the real story was that we very much wanted not to be told what we could and could not do with the hardware by some jackbooted IT thug that hadn't the first clue about what we needed. Instead, we took our cue from the Cinema school. These guys had maintained not only their own servers, but the fiber infrastructure that connected everything. As a result they'd done things back then that were deemed unacceptably resource-intensive by the university's IT department.
  • Following Cinema's model, we maintained the Xserve successfully. We even engaged in a bit of innovation at the time by creating a three-legged authentication process for users; they logged in on an Apple client computer, their credentials were authenticated through a Windows Server using Active Directory, and the resulting authentication token was then passed to the Apple Xserve. It wasn't an original concept, but it was cutting edge. And it works.
  • So for better or worse, during the summer of 2009 we bought a second, Quad Core Xeon unit to replace the dual G5 machine that had labored for the previous four years. At the same time, we retired the previously discontinued X-Raid and moved the data to a new, non-proprietary, fiber-connected RAID box, gaining another terabyte of storage in the process. The newer system worked as well as the previous one, and everyone was happy.
  • Like many other Xserve shops, we heard the ominous rumblings late in 2010, just before the introduction of Apple's new "servers", which includes a Mac Pro tower and a Mac Mini. These are risible for professional use, lacking any redundant subsystems or rack mounting schemes. More recently, Apple announced that the upcoming release of 10.7 (code named Lion) will come with server software built-in to the operating system. These announcements constituted the door-slam on Apple's foray into the server business. In fact, that slam shook windows as Apple's website shed pages related to the Xserve product, its service and support options and replacement parts. The latter are still available from Authorized Service Centers and third parties, but not from Apple. So stick a fork in it, it's done.
  • Fortunately for us, what we have still functions nicely. But with the writing on the wall, it behooves us to begin the process of weaning ourselves from Apple on the IT side as soon as possible. As I've mentioned in previous columns, the use of virtualization technology is steadily spreading across the IT landscape. A realistic look at what we've been doing for the past six years tells me that what we really have is a run-of-the-mill file server with some fancy authentication processes on the front end.
  • That said, it seems to me that our choices are as follows: (a) Build a virtualized Linux file server and figure out how to use AD for authentication; (b) build a VM using Windows Server 2008 (or later); or (c) build a VM server that runs OSX Lion 10.7. Option (a) is troublesome, as early research shows most commercial products that facilitate AD on Linux are either budget-busters, fiddly to use, or both. So far I've not found an open-source solution for this riddle. Option (b) is favored by the school's IT department, since it will spell the end of the OSX interloper in the IT racks. Suffice it to say that I have concerns about this, including the aforementioned sense of independence. That brings us to (c), which feels good but looks murky. Only recently have Parallels and Oracle (VirtualBox) released VM products for Lion Server, and who knows how they'll do under load? Who knows how well Lion will do as server software?
  • What is clear is that my halcyon days of creating class groups and shares using a friendly Macintosh interface are probably behind me. I suppose it's just as well -- virtualization has left me living life on the command line anyway.