Teraserver: Why we went PC instead of Xserve

Discussion in 'General Mac Discussion' started by acj, Oct 7, 2003.

  1. acj macrumors 6502

    Feb 3, 2003
    The PC cost $2000, the Mac cost $4500

    My 2 employee photography business generates a few gigs of data per week that needs to be easily and quickly accessible from 2-3 workstations. We're up to 300 gigs, and it's worth 3 full-time years of scanning and digital compositing work if it was lost. We've struggled to stay ahead of storage technology, and we were always distributing data over the network, and upgrading hard drives just to make room. We decided we needed to "build into the future" so that we don't have to waste time upgrading so often, and also simplify things by having all data centralized on a dedicated server.

    After much research we decided the best option was to make a homebuilt PC based server. I've built many PC's for friends and a couple for myself, so I am familiar and proficient.

    The reason we went PC is it seems we would have paid for a lot of technology we didn't need with Xserve, like redundant power supplies, hot swap drives, and we would have had to pay a lot extra for features we needed, like the ability to do offsite backups every couple weeks.

    The end result was our "teraserver" with 4 250GB hard drives in a RAID 5 array, giving us 750 Gigs available space, compared to the regular Xserve with only 540 Gigs maxxed out (one drive for parity in a RAID 5 array). The moderately small tower case has room for 6+ hard drives, so we could add two more for 1.25 terabytes in the future. We also have two removable hard drive bays, where we insert our offsite backup hard drives of 250 gigs each. When those become too small, something bigger will be available, and the 250 giggers can plug directly into the RAID5 since they are identical drives.

    The hard drives are regular, off-the-shelf, 7200 rpm, cheap, ATA drives. If any one fails, no data is lost. If the office burns down, the offsite backup is no more than 2 weeks old.

    This of course has built in gigabit Ethernet, half a gig of ram, and a 2.4GHz P4 with hyper threading (plenty overkill). Together with a gigabit hub and a gigabit card for one of our workstations, this all came to about $2000, compared to $4500 for an Xserve with less storage. I used top notch everything from the power supply to the ram to the motherboard to the case just to assure reliability. I wouldn’t dare save $200 and risk it with cheapo components like most PCs use. The inside is even tidy considering all the ribbon cables and drives. And it’s actually very quiet.

    The comparison is not fair if you consider features, but my point is more that Apple does not have enough economical options for people who don’t need all that xserve provides. Of course we looked at Dell network attached storage and other options so there was nothing really on the PC side either for so cheap, but saving $2500 was definitely worth the few hours to build the thing myself and install an OS. It's been 100% reliable with a running uptime of over a month now, and we can open files over the network as fast as we used to from a local drive. About 2-3 seconds for a normal 55MB image.

    This project was a complete success, in my opinion, and I would recommend that other Apple-based businesses consider that you don’t need an Apple product for everything you do.
  2. mikeyredk macrumors 65816

    Mar 13, 2003
    the mirror door mac has 4 hard drives that you can use

    plus you can add firewire drives
  3. saabmp3 macrumors 6502a

    Jul 22, 2002
    Tacoma, WA
    I can't believe the comparison here. If your not going rack mount then look at a powermac. If it's for disk usage only then you don't need anything fast anyways. You don't want redundant powersupplies for all this work?? That's something that could save the day. Hot swap drives as well. This is like comparing bentley's to honda's in terms of gas mileage, boxes just for COMPLETELY different functions
  4. acj thread starter macrumors 6502

    Feb 3, 2003
    Ahh, the floodgates have opened.

    We didn't want to deal with firewire drives. They take up space AND are expensive. The PC was just the cheapest option, by a fair margain, even compared to a MDD. The MDD is about $2300 if we put our own 4 250GB drives in it, plus $700 for firewire backup drives to bring offsite, plus a RAID 5 card for the Mac which costs more, plus a gigabit switch, which was included in the $2000 our teraserver cost. It's still at least $1300 more, and it can't all fit inside or be expanded as much.

    As for speed, this was about the min we could live with. Tape is out of the question. We randomly access from all of our images daily. And we work with lots of files that get near a gigabyte. Our standard image size if 50 megs, and running a batch command on 6000 50 meg images can take a long time if the drives/network are slow!
  5. acj thread starter macrumors 6502

    Feb 3, 2003
    As far as not having hot swap components, this is a little business. Nothing mission critical if we have an hour of downtime. If a power suply fails, we'll shut down and replace it. Lose an hour. Same with a hard drive. No big deal.
  6. yamabushi macrumors 65816


    Oct 6, 2003
    The system you built sounds like it does not provide many features that make a server more reliable and thus cheaper to maintain. It appears to be more like a desktop with extra hard drives. You didn't mention the OS in the price so perhaps you are using Linux. It'll probably work just fine and meet your immediate needs. It's tough to beat a user built Linux box for price. As you said, you will lack many professional level features, although I am not sure that this is a good idea, many people are looking for similar solutions.

    I wish Apple would offer a kit build tower Mac that you could choose to add only the components you need in a case of your choice. That would probably open up the Mac a little too much for the comfort of Apple, though so it isn't likely to happen. Apple likes to maintain control of both hardware and sofware design. They want to avoid dilution of the Mac "experience" and problems with supporting an unlimited variety of system designs.
    Nevertheless, a variety of case designs and system components could all be made available as a kit build.
    The caveat would be that full support may not be provided in the form of Applecare and future 100% OS compatibility, which is fine with me. The result would be a much cheaper system for entry level or very specific needs.

    Come on Apple! Give us a kit build tower Mac!
  7. mmmdreg macrumors 65816


    Apr 14, 2002
    Sydney, Australia
    Okay it's a dodgy comparison but everyone's entitled to their views so leave him alone already! Just because he said that the PC was the better option for him. Yes I think Macs are better. No they aren't perfect, nothing is.
  8. mikeyredk macrumors 65816

    Mar 13, 2003
    so let me get this straight you only need a storage unit right

    why by the entire pc? i understand that you already got the system
    i know its cheaper but that way you can expand even more with more HDs
  9. acj thread starter macrumors 6502

    Feb 3, 2003
    What do you mean why buy the entire PC?

    Yes, we need a storage unit with fault tolerance and removable backup hard drives, network accessible cross-platform at gigabit speeds, and upgradable to over a terabyte without hassel and external peripherals.

    By the way, it has Windows XP Pro as an OS. Don't worry, I only had to look at it for an hour or so while I set it up :D
  10. yamabushi macrumors 65816


    Oct 6, 2003
    How much did you pay for WinXP Pro? Did you include that in the price you quoted?

    I remember taking several hours once to prep a HD and install Win 2000. :eek: Would have been faster with a clean HD but I had to debug and format that one.
  11. iJon macrumors 604


    Feb 7, 2002
    hmmm, thats a lot of important stuff to have windows in control. hope it works out for you...eeek

  12. Catfish_Man macrumors 68030


    Sep 13, 2001
    Portland, OR
    That sounds like a NAS, not a PC.
  13. simX macrumors 6502a


    May 28, 2002
    Bay Area, CA
    Have fun applying all those daily patches! :rolleyes:
  14. acj thread starter macrumors 6502

    Feb 3, 2003
    The daily patches are automatic, and XP pro costs $135 from most places if you purchase it with hardware (many stores will let you "purchase" a free piece of hardware, like a wire, so you get it for cheap and adhere to microsofts wierd regulations).

    Another expense was a virus scanner, which I thought was needed. It also scans and updates automatically. All this was in the price, actually. I bought about half from newegg and half from mwave.
  15. acj thread starter macrumors 6502

    Feb 3, 2003
    Well we could use it as a workstation if we wanted. CPU usage is about nill even under heavy access.
  16. iJon macrumors 604


    Feb 7, 2002
    oh yeah viruses, i always wondered what they were like.

  17. panphage macrumors 6502

    Jul 1, 2003
    I think the NAS point is that if all you wanted was the cheapest, most reliable storage solution, a NAS is the way to go, forget about buying a mobo and a CPU and an OS. I would have gone with a SATA setup myself, it's not really any more expensive than ata. But I probably would have used FreeBSD as an OS, too, so what do I know?
  18. MacAztec macrumors 68040


    Oct 28, 2001
    San Luis Obispo, CA
    Ehh, cool...but you really trust Windows to cover all the Data?

    I have a homebuilt PC (top quality) that runs Windows XP Pro. It crashes at least once a day, and does weird stuff. Boots up at weird times for no reason, slows down for no reason, etc.

    Anyways, would've been nice to use a mac. MDD would've costed you about 1100 on eBay, then 4 ATA (250GB) hardrives + raid card would've been about 750. Then...ehhh...512MB more RAM would've been 80 bucks. And if you really want to buy OS X server (which isn't necessary), it wouldve gone up a little more. But, whatever floats your boat.
  19. mim macrumors 6502

    Apr 24, 2003
    flesh, melbourne.... heart, london
    I'm with panphage on this one too:

    But seeing as all you needed is HD space really, and you've only got a couple of workstation I don't really know why you didn't max one of them out with a RAID 5...or get an external firewire 800 array (You can get firewire patch panels to connect multiple devices/computers). The best thing about a firewire array is it's robustness - you do away with all those points of failure - OS, ram, mb components, graphics card, etc - that a full server requires to just run.

    The X-Serve is expensive compared to what you built because it is designed to do a very different job than what you required. If you were running your storage, as well as a web server, ftp server, managing another 10 or so workstations then the x-serve would be what you need. Even for this an old B&W G3 with the right cards and maybe OSX server would handle the work for you, without going to X-serve hardware.

    However, it sounds like you're more familiar with the x86 kit - and for reasonably critical things like this familiarity with your hardware is a good thing. I do question the OS though....again I'd be going for minimal/robust/secure. That's a *bsd or a good linux build. Everything uses samba these days so 'compatibility' is never an issue.
  20. tristan macrumors 6502a

    Jul 19, 2003
    high-rise in beautiful bethesda
    Right tool for the job

    Don't worry about the flames. You needed a server with a lot of hard drives, and you built one for a good price. Good job.

    Apple is a great company, but because they sell you specific hardware "bundles", you don't have the freedom to mix and match hardware, and you get exposed to holes in the product line - such as the lack of an economy file server. What you really wanted was an 1ghz eMac, without the monitor, in a tower case, with a few more hard drives. But Apple doesn't sell that. The cheapest server they sell is a 1.25ghz PMG4 but that only holds four drives, and it costs $1299, so that's not quite what you're looking for.

    One option I might have considered was a used PMG4 with a firewire enclosure on the back. They make firewire enclosures that hold multiple IDE hard drives, I believe. But that's still more expensive, and isn't as simple a solution as a PC full of hard drives. It's also a used computer, of course.

    I'm not convinced about Win2K though. Sure, it's easy to set up and administer. But Linux has better security and performance, and you can just telnet (or ssh) in from your Terminal.app. Linux does have that learning curve however.
  21. Flynnstone macrumors 65816


    Feb 25, 2003
    Cold beer land
    I was following this thread thinking no big deal, PC ok.
    But running XP ... I cringe.
    My network at work has PC running Win NT 4, 2K and XP and Linux machines and Macs.
    I had to switch my file server over to Linux because NT4 and Nortons was a problem. Nortons is great for the PC but it checks files on the fly and create a big big memory image. It gobbles memory. My machine would slow down ... I moved the files to a Linux server, I don't need to run Nortons on Linux (don't think I can anyways) and the Linux box runs great. Uptime is great. One issue is that it works so great you tend to forget about it. Could I use OS X instead, not quite due to other issues.
    I can't see using XP as a server, but good luck.
  22. mim macrumors 6502

    Apr 24, 2003
    flesh, melbourne.... heart, london
    Re: Right tool for the job

    Oh aye,

    you've hit the nail on the head. What you want is actually called a 'cube'! But for some reason they're as rare as hens teeth & almost as expensive as when they were new ;). But you don;t even really need the cube - you just need the firewire enclosure.

    This thread raises an interesting topic though...when to 'serve'. For moving large files around all day, you don't need a server. You need a server when you want to run network specific/centralised apps. I have a server at home for example - a G3 600mHz snow iMac. It runs a mail, firewall, ftp, dns - hosts a couple of low traffic web sites. I also run iTunes from it. (And occasionally I come home and find my sister using photoshop on it to finish her assignments.)

    If it had gigabit ethernet it would be just as good as acj's new server for doing that job. And the best thing about it is that (almost) all that functionality is right there out of the box. The bits that aren't are free. Don't need a G4 (or P4, or G5) for this stuff. All I need to keep it going is bigger HD's. And I can have that thanks to firewire.
  23. dho macrumors 6502

    Sep 7, 2003
    I would tend to agree with you, but he needs what he says he needs

    Looks like apple might have another niche to fill
  24. Les Kern macrumors 68040

    Les Kern

    Apr 26, 2002
    Smart move... one should always look for the right solution. The real point here is that you have so few users. In my world I need the XRAID and Xserve jusy because of the various features it offers, and the number of users I have. I will NEVER allow a WIN server in my world again since getting burned real bad. But two users... heck, you can both pound that thing for YEARS and never skip a beat.
  25. acj thread starter macrumors 6502

    Feb 3, 2003
    I'm glad I posted this. It has been very interesting.

    A couple of my thoughts, both random and as response to above comments:

    Using both Macs and PCs a lot, I never thought XP was that bad. None of the 4 XP machines I frequently use ever lock up. In fact none of the computers on both platforms ever lock up. I¡¦m lock up free ƒº

    Of course the virus thing is a big issue and huge nuisance, but with a quality virus scanner for $40 or so it's not a big problem. I don't use a virus scanner on my home PC and I got MSblast once, but it caused no harm. No other viruses ever. At work we're on broadband so updates are automatic and invisible (and undoubtedly frequent!)

    Another reason I chose XP is because I'm somewhat of an OS idiot but relatively a hardware guru (I like building computers, inventing things, working on cars, etc.) I find XP (and X) very simple to use. I can be very productive on each platform. I don't know anything about linux, BSD, etc.

    I originally thought NAS was the way to go, but couldn't find anything quite right.

    When I built this, SATA drives were $50 more (times 6), and a SATA RAID controller that does RAID 5 was even more. 7200RPM SATA drives are not faster.

    Also, I know I didn't really need "to serve" but I wanted all the files on a single separate machine. The "extra" cost of building a dedicated machine vs adding the storage to a workstation was not much compared to the drives and related hardware.

    This server should last us for 4 years or so, while the demand for speed requires us to upgrade workstations yearly. Now we just plug in and all our file and folder structure is intact, no shuffling 300 more gigs around.

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