Nicholas Helke

Why Apple is Right to Discontinue the Xserve

As Gruber notes in Apple Shitcans the Xserve, the writing has indeed been on the wall for Xserve for a while. That being said, I am sad to see it go. As you may have gathered from the title of this article, that isn’t to say that Apple is wrong to discontinue the Xserve.

Xserve and the Old Server Paradigm

The Xserve was beginging to show its age. I’m not referring to its older-generation Xeon architecture. I refer to the whole server design as a whole. The Xserve for instance supports dual power supply and is generally designed to be as reliable as is possible for a single machine.

The current paradigm–pioneered by Google–is to use cheap consumer hardware and obtain reliability through horizontal scaling or multiplication of machines. So it is possible to use many Mac minis to replace a few Xserves with the added advantages of each mini being more power efficient and more machines working together being more fault tolerant than a single very reliable machine.

Mac mini and the Small and Medium Enterprise

Apple notes several times in their Xserve Transition Guide that by far their most successful server product is the Mac mini and that it can easily meet the needs of up to 50 people, i.e. small and medium enterprises. It would appear that while the Mac mini’s future isn’t necessarily bright, its future as a server is guaranteed for the foreseeable future.

Mac Pro and the Larger Enterprise

In the age of decentralisation, P2P and contingency planning, some larger enterprises are transitioning from big company wide server farms to local work group servers–a market that the Mac mini, as noted above, fits into.

Still there are plenty of reasons for larger companies to need more than a handful of Mac minis. Apple notes in their Transition Guide the possibility of switching to the Mac Pro if more raw power is needed. In fact the Mac Pro is equal to or faster than the Xserve on all “Typical Server Tasks”. Apple does note, however, that the “Mac Pro is a viable server alternative to Xserve except where the high-density 1U rackmount form factor is required.” (Two Mac Pro’s on a shelf, side by side, are 12U high.)

Large companies needing power will typically need high-desity, so this solution, although mentioned by Apple, cannot be taken seriously. The fact that Apple even suggests this is a sign that Xserves were rarely deployed in large numbers.

Xserve and the Dog Food Test

Xserves were never taken seriously by enterprises. They did not even pass the dog food test as even Apple doesn’t use them for all their needs. In particular as can be seen in email headers from Steve Jobs, Apple uses Sun Java System Messaging Servers. It is therefore relatively unsurprising that Apple is abandoning the Xserve.

This does, however, leave one wondering whether Apple is abandoning this market completely or whether they have something else up their sleeve. I am sure some analysts out there will write about how Apple should be using its success in the consumer world to go and conquer the enterprise and therefore should not be discontinuing the Xserve.

My response: Apple never released sales numbers for the Xserve. Apple has, since Jobs’ return, shown very good market judgement with the notable exceptions of Apple TV and now the Xserve. Therefore if Apple abandons the Xserve it is safe to say the market is not worth it, or there is an alternative market that Apple is preparing to take by storm.

Cloud Apples

MacBidouille has theorized that Apple is going to join the cloud computing bandwagon and let virtual Mac servers. This theory does not strike me as totally impossible. Gruber’s note in passing, that he doesn’t think Apple is using Apple hardware to build their new data centre in North Carolina, does not contradict this theory–it is just more failing of the dog food test. Now that Mac OS X runs on Intel there is nothing stopping Mac virtualization. In fact Oracle’s VirtualBox already does, albeit only on Mac hardware. This is, however, a legal limitation that Apple themselves can circumvent.

I’m not convinced Apple is preparing to enter the highly competitive cloud server market. What I am sure of is, whether they do or they don’t, it’s the right decision.