I have been intently watching (and participating) in Apple's evolving server strategy, especially since I have managed AppleShare (and other servers) for many years. Apple's efforts in the server arena have been truly stunning. If you think back not too many years ago, they were giving the market away to Novell by selling such lame solutions as AppleShare 2.0, running on SE/30s. If you had more than a handful of users or files of any size, this strategy forced you to look elsewhere for a reasonable server solution. A watershed event happened in the summer of 1992 at the Mactivity Conference in Santa Clara. Product Managers from Apple's Server group (then called Enterprise Services Division) met in a large hall with a crowd of network managers and actually listened and made an effort at dialog. One comment that stuck in my mind was, "We could give you a really high-performance server, but it would have to run on top of Unix. Would you be willing to buy and use such a machine?" The resounding response from the crowd was "Yes!"
A year later at Mactivity '93, they unveiled the Apple Workgroup Server 95 delivering a purpose-built file server solution. ["Purpose-built" means the machine was built specifically for its intended purpose, which doesn't apply to using just any desktop Mac as a server, for instance. -Adam] It was a wonderful machine that finally made good use of A/UX, Apple's now-orphaned Unix implementation. The AWS95 was (until the Network Server series) the best Apple server for a large workgroup. At my last job, my AWS95 comfortably served 60+ people using word processors and spreadsheets, while simultaneously serving huge image files to five to ten scanner operators and image retouchers. It stood up to Novell NetWare in performance, and soundly trounced it in total cost as well as setup and administration.
Meanwhile, those of us in the pre-press industry had adopted a server scheme for reducing print wait times and network traffic associated with high-resolution images: OPI (Open Pre-press Interface). Running an OPI server is extremely network, I/O, and CPU intensive. The Mac OS, though we love it dearly, is just not up to being an OPI server. Pre-press vendors such as Helios, IPT, Hyphen, and so on, have all delivered OPI solutions built around Sparc workstations from Sun Microsystems. We were not using these Unix machines as anything more than robust AppleShare file and (OPI) print servers. While a Sparc 2 or 10 makes a great AppleShare server, it is not a purpose-built server box. Apple's timing with the Network Server line could not be better, because a lot of us are facing the costly option of replacing aging early-nineties Suns and SGIs with yet more expensive pizza boxes. In comes Apple with the Network Servers, which have the following advantages:
- The Network Servers are Apple-branded, elegantly engineered, and purpose-built.
- They run a first-tier, supported, industry standard Unix: AIX. (In the process discarding Apple's nice but scorned-by-the-industry and 68K-bound Unix: A/UX.)
- They run on a PowerPC 604 and are binary-compatible with just about every application written for IBM's RS6000 line of workstations. So you can run thousands of applications on the Network Servers, right now. Nice bonus.
- They ship with your choice of two industry-leading OPI solutions.
- They are very price competitive with those Suns and SGIs; even more so when you look at the enclosure and their strengths.
- Finally, they are remotely manageable from a Macintosh. Apple has put AppleTalk in AIX's kernel, and more importantly Apple events (program to program communications) and AppleScript capability. Apple and third parties can enhance the server with front-end management tools.
Best of all, Apple stepped outside the ivory tower and consulted with hundreds of network managers to help build this box. They brought this server in varying levels of development to our local ANMA (Apple Network Manager's Association, a user group) chapter meetings on three occasions over the past year and a half. Considering the swelling cry from the Macintosh community about involving us in Apple's future, it's ironic that the Server Group has built a success story by doing just that since 1992.
Now, with all that background, I must address a few points in the article about the Network Servers in TidBITS-317. TidBITS commented the Network Servers might damage the marketing message of the Apple Internet Server Solution machines. I beg to differ. The Network Server is not meant to compete with the current Internet Server line. That's like saying GM's heavy truck division cannibalizes Chevrolet Corvette sales!
[I still believe this is a danger. I'm not talking reality, I'm talking marketing message. Apple has gone to great lengths to convey ease of use and low cost, and wonderful though these Network Servers may be, they're harder to use and more expensive than the Internet servers. The problem lies in perception, if it exists at all. -Adam]
If anything, the Network Servers complement the Apple Internet Servers. I'll give one example: CGIs are generally the largest drain on a Web server's performance. Here's a solution: run your Web site on an Apple Internet Server and offload your big CGIs to a Network Server. The Mac would pass the CGIs via AppleScript and Apple events to the Network Server via an AppleTalk network connection over a secure line (because you can stuff a number of Ethernet cards into a Network Server and control what protocols you bind to them). The Network Server has the horsepower to run a CGI against a huge database (while simultaneously serving files to the whole department), and return the completed query faster than the Web server could have performed the same job, all without distracting the Web server it from its primary task. With the tools Apple has delivered with the Network Server, this sort of setup is quite easy too.
TidBITS also commented the Network Servers won't be as easy to set up or maintain, and may not be as secure either. I won't argue about ease of setup, but I will say that my experience with setting up the Network Server (I was a beta tester) was much easier than my past experience setting up Suns running SunOS and Solaris or a Compaq Proliant running Windows NT. The Mac-based administrator tools, plus IBM's SMIT (Systems Management Interface Tool), made setting up the Network Server a relative joy.
I will argue the maintenance and security issues, though. IBM's JFS Filesystem is the most robust and stable filesystem I have worked with, better than the Mac OS's HFS by far, better than Sun's UFS, and better than Microsoft's NTFS in stability, crash-resistance, and recovery. The enclosure itself is designed to be easy to maintain, and based on my experience, it succeeds. Security is a bit of a red herring. Any good network manager will have a good packet filtering router between themselves and the Internet and another one between their Internet servers and their internal network. Add to that the Network Servers' robust network configuration options, and it's relatively simple to build protocol-based secure networks in and out of the box.
A bigger issue TidBITS raised is Apple's ability to sell and support a Unix machine. I can't address this, other than to say Apple should consider licensing the Network Servers to interested parties, especially those that believe in it and stand behind it 100 percent. The pre-press world is hungry for a box like this, and there are companies with strong ties to the pre-press world that could market and sell this box.
In the end, the bottom line is performance, and the Network Servers excel. Quite simply, they blow the ceiling on AppleShare performance through the roof, period.