Mac Lab Report

An Xserve for the Classroom: The Xserve Arrives

- 2002.11.07

There comes a day when a Mac's built-in networking just isn't enough. On a standard Mac, file sharing can be enabled for a maximum of 10 users sharing a maximum of 10 folders. Up to 100 users can be registered to log in, but only 10 can be logged in at any given time.

Even though I managed to latch on to a copy of AppleShare IP, it was only enabled for 10 simultaneous users. The server functions were better than a regular Mac, but I couldn't solve the essential problem of having everyone automatically log in (using FoolProof) and mount their own group folder at the same time.

Over the course of two years, this has left me with a hodgepodge lab with some machines running FoolProof, others using Multiple Users, and no two configurations exactly alike. Time to rebuild my classroom network from scratch.

To solve these problems, several readers suggested I use a Linux-based server to work around the 10-user limit, and that project is still on my to-do list.


The reason it's a to-do is because I got my Xserve today. A grant from the Dean and Margaret Lesher Foundation, a local education foundation in Contra Costa County, California, funded the purchase of an Xserve server to allow students in different class periods to work on a collaborative project involving constructing a website about building a classroom planetarium out of cardboard. It'll also work as a server for just about anything else I plan to do, so that's okay, too.

Our new server arrived today - delivered in person by our district Mac tech after having been tagged for the hardware inventory. You know something's up when they deliver it and want to see you install it as soon as the box is opened. Unfortunately I had some pressing commitments, so it was with the greatest effort that I resisted the temptation to set the thing up completely and switch the server functions to it.

I settled for just unpacking it and plugging it in.

The server comes in a surprisingly large and heavy box. From the photographs you see on Apple's web site, I had the impression that the thing was fairly small - sort of like a thin version of a G3 beige box. If you look at the specs, however, you'll see the thing is, according to Apple's spec sheet:

  • Height: 1.73 inches (4.4 cm)
  • Width: 17.6 inches (44.7 cm) for mounting in standard 19-inch rack
  • Depth: 28 inches (71.1 cm)
  • Weight: 26 pounds (11.8 kg); 31 pounds (14.1 kg) with four Apple Drive Modules

That's huge! It takes two people to mount it in a rack. However, I don't have a rack, so I set it on a desktop to try it out.

Apple's Xserve

The front of the Xserve has 4 removable drive bays (bottom row) and a top row chock full of indicator lights, a power switch, a FireWire port, and a CD-ROM (on the far right side).

rear of Xserve

The rear of the server is also filled with ports such as a gigabit ethernet port, two FireWire ports, two USB ports, a VGA monitor port, and a serial data terminal port for folks who live and die by the command lineXserve plug.

Even the power port is designed especially for server use. The special power cord has a bump in the cord designed to be held by a wire retainer to keep the server from being accidentally unplugged.

Although the OS X Server software comes preinstalled on the Xserve, you also get a number of useful CD-ROMs including the OS X 10.2 Server software itself. Xserve CD-ROM driveThere must be a CD-ROM drive, then. To my surprise (having not slavishly memorized the specs), it was a pop-open drive similar to the ones used in an iBook.

Who could resist?

I plugged it in and turned it on. That was a real surprise - if you're purchasing one of these for a classroom, they aren't quiet at all. A roaring wind like a blow dryer on high power started up as the powerful cooling fan started blowing. I can't imagine what a rack full of these things sounds like.

If you're buying one for small business or school use, believe the literature when it says it is not meant for desktop use. That roar would drive me crazy. Fortunately, I have a storage cabinet where the server can not only be stored, but it can actually be plugged in and connected to the network as well. Behind cabinet doors it's no louder than a typical noisy PC.

As tempting as all that desktop real estate is, you aren't supposed to pile things on top of the Xserve - not even a monitor. So I strung cables to a nearby VGA monitor, snagged a spare G3 Blue and White keyboard and mouse, and proceeded to answer the registration questions.

There are considerably more questions to answer than for a consumer Mac, but the setup environment was so similar that I found it easy to follow without referring to the manual. Just keep a notebook nearby to keep track of all the new passwords and user names (such as "Administrator") you'll need to create. Especially the "Admin" password, which grants you access to all other aspects of the machine.

The server self-configured off the DHCP network, and I selected both IP and AppleTalk based file sharing servers. It was smart enough to ask if the IP was fixed or variable. There were the usual questions about naming the computer, naming the server, setting the time zone, and so on.

Next you have to decide what services to enable. I left the mail, web, ftp, and QuickTime streaming servers off for now - I'm mainly looking for a file server for the time being. Even if you don't activate it, you will need to register a user name and password with the QuickTime streaming server.

All in all, the setup experience was very pleasant and understandable, and easier than installing my old copy of ASIP. After finishing these tasks, the computer cycled through some software updates, rebooted, and was ready to use. The entire setup process took perhaps twenty minutes - and would have been faster if you'd done it before.

Other benefits the new server will provide include the ability to NetBoot machines over the network using standard configurations, having students be able to access files from anywhere on campus, and - I hope - eventually being able to import a user list from my class gradebook and create individualized accounts for all my Space Academy students next year.

The configuration I ordered has a pair of 1 GHz processors, nearly a quarter terabyte of hard drive space, and a gigabyte of RAM. Functions such as the magnification of dock items (I know, I know, eye candy reduces server efficiency, but I'm not hosting some Fortune 500 company here, for cryin' out loud) were absolutely stunning.

A fast G4 smokes all my other machines - the fastest of which is a 500 MHz G3. You can see smoother animation, snappier windows, faster boots - my server boots faster than most of my OS 9 machines - it really shows the difference between a powerful machine and a machine that is merely adequate. My current server is a 300 MHz Blue and White G3 running ASIP 5, and there just isn't any comparison between the two as far as responsiveness.

That's as far as I got in the hour I allowed myself. As I go farther along, I'll tell you more about the various server management applications included in OS X 10.2 Server. I have high hopes for this machine - it should reduce my workload considerably as I convert machines to the new setup.

A couple of other points: First, make sure you use a monitor capable of going all the way up to 1024x780 resolution, which is required of some applications. Second, don't forget that this is a Mac that doesn't ship with a keyboard or a mouse.

There's a lot to learn about this piece of equipment, even for power users, so take your time and write down everything that you'll need to remember.

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is a longtime Mac user. He was using digital sensors on Apple II computers in the 1980's and has networked computers in his classroom since before the internet existed. In 2006 he was selected at the California Computer Using Educator's teacher of the year. His students have used NASA space probes and regularly participate in piloting new materials for NASA. He is the author of two books and numerous articles and scientific papers. He currently teaches astronomy and physics in California, where he lives with his twin sons, Jony and Ben.< And there's still a Mac G3 in his classroom which finds occasional use.

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