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By Jason Snell

20 Macs for 2020: #18 – Xserve

It’s 2020, and Apple is shipping a rack-mountable Mac Pro. It’s the latest chapter in a decades-long flirtation between Apple and the machines that dwell in the server closet. Even though the Mac Pro is rack-mountable, Apple can’t quite see it as a server—you can’t buy it without a mouse and keyboard. Instead, the company seems content to let individual users and dedicated third parties like MacStadium do the work of taking Mac workstations and treating them like they belong in a server rack.

This is a subject that’s close to my heart. I’ve only had my name on a single printed book and it was called “Providing Internet Services via the Mac OS,” and told you everything you needed to know to turn a Mac running Classic Mac OS into a server. (Yes, that was a thing that we did back then.) From the mid-90s through the early 2000s, I had a series of Macs running classic Mac OS in my closet that acted as web, email, FTP, and database servers. Here’s to the crazy ones, I guess.

Apple has always been a consumer hardware company through and through, not a company that makes servers or speaks to an audience of IT people and network managers. But that hasn’t stopped it from trying. In the ’90s, Apple would rebadge Power Macs as Apple Workgroup Servers, bundling them with extra hardware and software.

Shiner. (Not a Mac.)

I started covering Apple in the mid-90s, and let me tell you, that particular version of Apple was extremely weird, as epitomized by the Apple Network Server, code-named Shiner.

Shiner was not a Mac. Shiner was a PowerPC-based server that cost between $11,000 and $15,000, and ran IBM’s version of UNIX known as AIX—which you needed to buy separately, for an additional $1,600. It was delayed several times, as its competitive advantage over PCs running Novell NetWare continued to dissipate. Robert Hess of MacWEEK wrote in 1995 that Apple had “missed its window of opportunity.” Reviews were positive, but tempered with a skepticism (later proven right) that Apple would actually commit to making a line of Unix-based servers.

Like most mid-90s Apple products, Shiner was killed off in 1997 as Apple was gripped by its near-death experience. “I look at that as a dream when Apple was in a coma,” Steve Jobs later said, while insisting that what would come next would be entirely different.

In fact, the arrival of Jobs actually planted the seed of Apple’s next attempt to fit in a server rack: NextStep, the operating system that would evolve into Mac OS X, was based on Unix. The door was open for a Mac to be a real live Unix-based server and it took Apple almost no time to build its own server hardware.

It was OS X. On a server. It was Xserve. Pronounced like the letter, not the roman numeral. No, I don’t know why. Apple did stuff like that back in 2002.

The Steve Jobs and Jony Ive era of Apple was a design heyday when Apple created many interesting, clever, and influential products. The Xserve was… not that. It was most definitely the sign of a design team trying to figure out how to add some flair and creativity to a place—the server rack—that did not care one bit about either of those.

Xserve was designed to live in the server rack.

Sized specifically for server racks, it was what’s called a 1U server, meaning it was a single unit high—so 1.75 inches thick, to go with the dimensions of a 19-inch equipment rack. Those dimensions are unusually large for a Mac: 18 inches wide and 28 inches deep. This was not a pizza box. This was an extra-extra-large, party-size pizza box.

Apple has frequently struggled between its instinct to create beautiful designs and designs that make its products more functional. Some of Apple’s worst design missteps have come because looks were prioritized over usability. (Feel free to think of your favorite example now. I’m imagining a round Mac Pro and an ultra-thin keyboard with no key travel.)

Xserve, then, was a real design challenge. How do you take pride in creating something for a server rack, the most utilitarian of environments? I’m not here to tell you Xserve was pretty, because it wasn’t. But it’s clear Apple’s designers struggled mightily to give it a little extra something.

The pretty stuff was on the front—fitting, since that’s really the only part you could see. There were shiny buttons, a FireWire 400 port, a slimline CD-ROM drive, and four hot-swappable hard drive modules. Press the front of a module and once the drive dismounted, a light appeared, indicating it was safe to remove the disk.

The back side featured a standard array of ports for the time, room for ports from three expansion cards, and the notably weird PC-standard DB-9 serial port. The idea was that you could connect to the Xserve and gain command-line access via serial, even if it wasn’t on your network. It’s a choice that makes sense for a server, but it’s pretty wacky for a Mac.

There was so much room inside that Xserve case that Apple designed it with two fans. The idea was that if one fan became less capable, the other fan would adjust to compensate—and if you needed to swap a fan out, you could do so without shutting the computer down.

Those fans are another of the Xserve’s unusual qualities: This is undoubtedly, indisputably the loudest Mac ever made. If people thought they could tuck these in a server rack in their quiet studio space, they were wrong… those fans howled. This was a server designed to be put away in a closet or server installation.

Xserve RAID.

The Xserve also inspired the creation of one of Apple’s most unusual Mac accessories this side of the Duo Dock: The Xserve RAID. This was a 3U high 14-disk hard drive array with a design to match the Xserve.

The early 2000s were an era when Apple was so excited by the prospect of Mac OS X’s Unix underpinnings that it designed a rack-mountable Mac server and a 14-disk RAID system. “We have a lot to learn, but I think we’re going to learn fast, and learn by working with some great customers,” Jobs said on the day of the Xserve’s unveiling. But by the end of the decade it was clear that this was an area best served by other companies—not Apple.

Over the decades, Apple’s instinct for identifying the core of its business has been good, but there have been exceptions at the fringes. It created Aperture thinking it would take on Adobe for the high-end photography market… and then thought better of it.

Xserve is a similar example. The company saw a niche market where it could make something cooler and better and more cutting edge. But every other strategic decision Apple made during that era was in the service of its core business of making personal computers. Xserve survived eight years, including the transition to Intel, but it could not have been a hard decision for Apple to discontinue it and steer people who needed Mac servers to the Mac Pro and Mac mini.

Mac servers never died. They’re still all over the place, operated by people who are more comfortable with macOS than the alternatives. I’ve had a Mac mini running as a server in my house since the first one arrived on the scene. And yes, that rack-mountable Mac Pro is now available.

But the Xserve will always stand alone. It was the only Mac made specifically for that equipment rack. I’d ask for us to take a moment of silence to remember it, but you wouldn’t be able to hear yourself think over the fan noise.

I’ll be back next week with number 17.

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