Xserve end of life brings opportunity for Active Storage

Ever since Apple (opens in new tab) announced on Nov. 10 that it was discontinuing its Xserve enterprise metadata controller platform, many media companies that have used it to manage their metadata coming from their Final Cut Pro workstations and XSAN shared storage workgroups have scrambled to find an alternative with the same capability, redundancy and flexibility.

The demise of the Apple Xserve has left the thousands of Xsan users wondering what to do with aging infrastructures and future projects. Many estimate that at least half of the Xserve systems made were delivered to broadcasters and media production and post companies of all types.

To wit, the Apple user community is not happy, and many in the industry see the decision to exit the storage category as a sign that Apple continues to place most of its focus on its burgeoning consumer products (iPod, iPhone and iPad) to the determent of the media production industry.

“This is a sad day indeed,” wrote user MRCUR in a chat room on the Apple site Nov. 10. “I'm highly disappointed with this decision. I just don't get it.”

Another Xserve user wrote, “I have been an Apple user since the Macintosh Classic. This news regarding the death of the Xserve makes me angry. The lack of alternatives from Apple is outrageous (Apple is suggesting customers use a series of MacPro server or Mac Mini computers). They could have phased this out in a less abrupt way, including some solid transition plans to another hardware platform, with a commitment to keep developing the server software. I plan on jumping the Apple ship over the next year, selling all my Mac computers, servers and iPhones, and switching over to the PC world.”

Taking advantage of the opportunity to fill the gap left by Apple’s decision to exit the enterprise server market, a company in Torrance, CA, called Active Storage has announced a new metadata server platform called ActiveSAN that it says provides all of the capabilities Xserve users need to manage their content creation workflows.

Active Storage is led by company CEO Alex Grossman, who previously worked at Apple and led the team that developed the Xserve and Xserve RAID products. Grossman announced the launch of the new ActiveSAN, which will be demonstrated at NAB, Jan. 31, the very day that the Xserve reached its “end of life” and was officially discontinued. It is no longer available for sale on the Apple site.

“Until now, Apple’s Xserve was the metadata controller of choice for most Xsan installations, providing enterprise form factor and capabilities,” Grossman said. “Xsan users in high-pressure industries require data center-level quality products to manage their metadata, but also demand the ease of use and setup of Xsan. Previously, that meant one thing: Xsan on an Xserve.”

The company aims to change that with its new server-based appliance that incorporates the performance and reliability of an Intel Nehalem server platform in a 1RU factor. ActiveSAN uses a Linux OS and the Quantum StorNext SAN file system. Yet, according to Grossman, his development team made ActiveSAN software easier to use, in terms of setup and eliminating the deep technical knowledge of networks that is required to work with StorNext.

“We took the most common optimization tools from Xsan and optimized them even further,” he said. “We’ve taken all of our experience in the area and built a much smarter product.”

ActiveSAN also features a new user interface and file management suite that works in tandem with Linux and StorNext; it also has a Web-based interface. Customers can order ActiveSAN with an integrated Mac OS X user interface to help with setup and system maintenance among Final Cut Pro workgroups.

“(In making the decision to stop selling Xserve) I think Apple was counting on third-party solutions like ours to fill the gap,” Grossman said, “and frankly, we’re happy to accommodate the thousands of loyal customers out there that need to manage their work environments in order to maintain a high level of productivity.”

ActiveSAN runs on a quad-core Xeon processor with 8GB of 1066MHz DDR3 memory while offering mirrored, hot-swappable 1TB drives, a dual-port 8Gb.s Fibre Channel card and dual hot-swappable power supplies.

All ActiveSAN systems include the existing ActiveStats performance profiling application (previewed at NAB 2010), which has become a popular tool for managing Xsan workgroup performance. It gives users a profiling tool to help them figure out how much overhead they have left while eliminating some of the bottlenecks (and system crashes) broadcasters have seen when using Apple products in large, multiuser shared-storage systems.

“With ActiveStats and ActiveSAN, if there is ever a throughput problem on the SAN network, you’ll quickly know where the problem is and when a potential problem might occur,” Grossman said, adding that it aids with meeting tight deadlines for program distribution and archiving processes as well. “We see this helping broadcasters and all types of production and post companies, which are faced with increasingly large files and bandwidth issues.”

Active Storage has also established a training and certification program for ActiveSAN, which is open to broadcast engineers and system administrators. The first class will be conducted before general availability of ActiveSAN in Q2, with subsequent classes to be offered soon thereafter.

The ActiveSAN system will be demonstrated at the 2011 NAB Show in Booth SL5225.