Hardware Today: Apple Server Snapshot

by Ben Freeman

Apple branched out from its PC sweet spot two years ago when it launched its Xserve line. Today, its server offerings also consist of a RAID product, OS and clustering software, and a just-announced SAN solution. With this slowly growing stable, will Xserve mark the spot where Apple tempts the enterprise?

The PC market has historically been Apple's sweet spot. This may slowly be changing. Although Apple's biggest sellers remain PCs and iPods, the vendor has made some inroads in the server market since the Xserve line launched in mid-2002. Its Mac OS 10.3 fueled 64-bit Xserve G5 began shipping in late March. It is the vendor's first foray into the server rack and illustrates Apple's philosophy of choosing design innovation over repetition.

With Xserve, Apple sees its server customer base expanding beyond its traditional pool of educational institutions, federal agencies, and creative organizations. "We've been very pleased that Xserve has been very popular, not only in core Apple workgroups and environments," Apple's Product Manager for Server Hardware Doug Brooks said, "but [also increasingly] in heterogeneous Apple, Windows, and even Linux/Unix environments."

The current hardware at the heart of Apple's Xserve line is the IBM PowerPC based 64-bit G5 Processor. Running at up to 2 GHz (with a 3 GHz model scheduled to be released as soon as this year, depending on which rumors you believe), the G5 also has a speedy 1 GHz front-side bus, and allows 8 GB of RAM. As a PowerPC chip, the G5 stands alongside the 64-bit architectures of Intel and AMD. The Xserve G5 ships in four configurations, all of which use an identical basic hardware, with either single or dual processors and varying amounts of memory and storage.

Apple also sells a RAID product that complements its server. Xserve RAID's main selling point is its price/performance advantage. "People's eyebrows pop up when they look at what it provides compared to other systems in its class," Brooks said. The RAID grants 3.5 TB of data for $10,999; it works under Windows, Linux, and Novell in a flexible Java management interface.

To round out its server offerings, Apple brings a growing stable of eye-catching software to its Xserve product line. In software, the Mac OS X Panther operating system delivers the best of two worlds: It beats the proprietary Windows approach with open standards on one side, while avoiding the open source potential for chaos still ripe in the Linux world. "We're not just like Linux, we don't just, pull off the latest tarballs or RPMs and offer you the latest components," Brooks said of Apple's Unix implementation. "We have the ability to integrate it and tune it, and also put a phenomenal management interface on top of it."

While the Xserve G5 is Apple's current designated server hitter, Panther runs on any G3 or better, and the PowerMac G5 has become a popular choice for rackless environments.

The Xsan software SAN product, unveiled Sunday, is a more open standards-based and block-oriented offering than Windows Storage Server. It is currently available in beta to customers with select Xserve/Xserve RAID configurations. When Xsan is stamped production ready this fall, it will provide an interoperable software storage solution for video workflow and other network data sharing.

"Providing an enterprise class storage system at the prices we're talking about for Xsan, we're going to see a lot of innovation in the market on top of this," Tom Goguen, direct of server software product marketing for Apple told ServerWatch, "I think we're going to see people use SANs in ways that they never could before because they were never affordable."

The chart below summarizes Apple's server offerings.

Apple Server Options

Product Name
Base Configuration
Base Price
Xserve1-waySingle, G5-based rack server512 MB RAM, 80 GB SATA, Mac OS X -- unlimited client edition$2,999
2-way Dual-processor G5-based rack server1 GB RAM, 80 GB Sata, Mac OS X -- unlimited client edition$3,999
Cluster NodeStripped-down dual G5 based rack server for HPC environments512 MB RAM, 80 GB SATA, Mac OS X -- 10 user max edition$2,999
UltimateLoaded custom XServe2 GB RAM, 3x250GB SATA, Mac OS X -- unlimited client edition$5,799
Xserve RAID1 TB RAIDCost-saving, platform agnostic external RAID built for XServe7200 RPM Ultra ATA drives, via 400MBps Fibre Channel in 3U form factor$5,999
1.75 TB RAID$7,499
3.75 TB RAID$10,999
Xserve Software OptionsXsan Newly announced 64-bit SAN software for OS XShares up to 16 TB with 64 users simultaneouslyCurrently free to private beta participants; will be priced at $999 when released in late 2004
XgridBudding clustering software for HPC/bioinformaticsClusters machines running OS X 10.2.8 or higherFree to public beta participants
OS X ServerInteroperable Panther OS matching open standards against a proprietary, performance-optimized BSD Unix coreMac OS X -- both the unlimited client edition and the 10 user max edition10 user version, $499; unlimited client version, $999

>> Beyond the Niche

Does HPC and SMB Penetration Preclude the Enterprise?

Despite the Xserve's relative newness, it has gained a foothold in some niche spaces, including high performance computing (HPC). One noteworthy example is the world's third-fastest super computer, which is found at Virginia Tech. It is currently being upgraded from PowerMac towers to Xserve G5s.

According to Illuminata Senior Analyst Gordon Haff, Xserve suits the HPC market for several reasons. First, "Whether the G5 is really the fastest processor or not, it's certainly a very fast one." Second, "HPC environments are often less wed to a particular processor or a particular vendor, and they're willing to try new and different [ones] if they deliver a certain advantage."

Haff also sees Apple servers as a tight fit with small-fry operations. "Ease of use is such a high priority concern in an SMB, where there often really isn't much in the way of trained IT staff," he said, "and that's certainly a very historic Apple strength."

However, Haff is skeptical of Xserve's chances with conservative enterprises. "It's a tough sell in data centers," he said, "simply because dual processor servers have a certain level of commoditization these days, and, in general, enterprises are cutting back on the number of platforms that they support." But IBM's recent push behind its POWER processors could bode well. "To the degree that POWER really becomes a more mainstream architecture," Haff said, "it's possible that Apple could look even more mainstream."

POWER Outage?

While Big Blue's POWER development push may bolster Xserve's mass appeal, matching that demand will be a critical issue. The Xserve G5 shipped late, due to POWER supply deficits from IBM, Apple representatives apologetically told analysts during the vendor's second quarter 2004 earnings call last week.

Apple is counting on IBM to bring its POWER reserves up to optimum levels in the coming quarter. While 29-percent revenue growth year-over-year is a positive sign overall, Apple will undoubtedly endeavor to bring a modest 5 percent increase in CPU-based sales into line with whopping 909 percent iPod growth.

Although the Xserve is unlikely to inspire the next Hula-Hoop-like iPod craze, the Windows NT 4 migration conundrum many IS organizations face may boost its chances with enterprises that haven't been historically prone to "Think Different." Brooks touted Panther's $999 unlimited client license and open standards, which may appeal to some admins who are running cost comparisons with Microsoft's new license model and must also factor in upgrading all hardware and software to Windows 2003 specs as well as an Active Directory deployment.

But if Apple and IBM achieve a higher profile with their POWER products, will their partnership show wear? Jesse Stein, PowerPC marketing programs manager for IBM, didn't see a conflict of interest here, "IBM provides semiconductor technology for many companies; many of those companies' [products] also compete against IBM-branded products."

"While IBM cannot comment on unannounced products (either our own or especially those of our clients)," Stein continued, "I think it is safe to say IBM and Apple have a great collaborative relationship and that both companies' products should be positively impacted by this."

In addition to speed and elegant hardware design, Apple's server products also receive its ease-of-use premium, while remaining quite sophisticated. Panther's Software Update feature, which can be flexibly scheduled to automatically download and install updates, is but one example. "We tout how easy it is to use to manage our system," but that doesn't diminish the role of a savvy system admin, Brooks said. "It really lets them focus on providing value added services to their organization, not just babysitting servers."

This article was originally published on Monday Apr 19th 2004
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