Apples Xserve: Ready for G5 Leap?

By Mark Hachman  |  Posted 2003-11-13

Apples Xserve: Ready for G5 Leap?

Apple Computer Inc. may be known more for its recent success in the consumer market with the iPod audio player and in the desktop computer market for its Macintosh desktop and notebook lines. However, the company also has a enterprise-server strategy—regardless of the opinion of some analysts and despite slim sales numbers.

Over the past year, the company has been working with a number of big names in the enterprise to expand support for its rack-mounted Xserve system, and the system ships with a variety of familiar open-source software. Cupertino, Calif.-based Apple also shipped Mac OS X 10.3 Server, or "Panther Server," in late October along with the desktop versions.

Still, many watchers of the Mac market await the release of a new Xserve based on the 64-bit PowerPC G5 processor. Apple has been characteristically mum on the topic.

When Apple introduced the Apple Xserve in May 2002, many doubted the server would ever find its way into mainstream IT shops dominated by servers from Dell Computer Corp. and other vendors. Potential customers questioned how rigorously Apple would support the product, and the companys on-again, off-again affairs with business customers in general. As Apple chief executive Steve Jobs said at the time, "We have a lot to learn."

To date, some of those lessons have been difficult.

Apples worldwide unit market share is about 1 percent, according to Gartner Inc. analyst Joe Gonzalez. He said Apple sold 5,600 Xserves worldwide during the second quarter of 2003, the most recent quarter for which data is available. Approximately 3,500 Xserves were shipped within the United States down from a high of 7,400 units that Apple shipped in the fourth quarter of 2002.

"Right now the rest of the world runs X86 with Windows or Linux, and its going to be obviously hard to lure them away from it," Gonzalez said.

Apples enterprise strategy, however, steals a page from the Unixcode base that underlies Panther. In all, Mac OS X contains 80 open-source applications, all qualified to interoperate with each other and tied together under a unified GUI, said Eric Zelenka, product line manager for server software at Apple.

"Apples strategy ... is to make open source easy," Zelenka said.

Zelenka acknowledged that the Xserve has served several of Apples more traditional markets, including the education market and video industry, where customers need massive amounts of bandwidth to process raw video.

The "vast majority" of customers run OS X on top of the Xserve, Zelenka said, although a small population has replaced Mac OS X with a third-party Linux distribution.

Panther Server contains more than 150 new features, according to Apple, including an integrated version of the Samba 3 file and print server, with tighter integration to Windows and Active Directory; Open Directory 2, which contains a version of the open-source Berkeley DB database; and improved management tools.

On Tuesday, Apple released a separate Mac OS X Server 10.3.1 update, which delivers "enhanced functionality and improved reliability for the following applications, services and technologies: FileVault, Printing, WebTV, and FireWire 800 drives", as well as the latest security patches.

For eWEEK Labs review of Mac OS X 10.3, a k a Panther, click here.

Apple is also encouraging customers to sign on to the Apple Maintenance Program, a three-year non-cancelable contract that guarantees free upgrades to the latest version of the operating system.

Apple has released four major versions of its server operating system in the last three years, Zelenka noted.

Next page: Whos working with Apple in the enterprise?

Xserves Enterprise Partners

Several of Apples enterprise partners are moving to support the new Panther version of the server operating system.

At the Xserves introduction. Oracle Corp. officials said the company would port a version of their database to Mac OS X. It currently offers a release candidate of Oracle 9i for Mac OS X 10.2 "Jaguar".

Oracle "will support the Mac OS X (Panther) as a major platform for the Oracle Database 10g, which will be available at the end of the year," a spokeswoman from Oracle said in an e-mail.

The Xserve is also supported by Hewlett-Packard Co.s OpenView management products. "The industry-standard SNMP Xserve also supports industry-standard SNMP for monitoring and managing multiplatform networks," said Kristin Bleier, a spokeswoman for HP, in an e-mail.

"Mac OS X Server provides useful system and network statistics via its default Net-SNMP management information bases (MIBs). Administrators can use both open source and commercial tools, such as HP OpenView, for remote monitoring of processor and bandwidth use, disk space levels, and other key network statistics," she said.

Sybase Inc. announced a version of Open Server and Open Client for Mac OS X I 2002, and has already ported a version of its Adaptive Server Enterprise Version 12.5 for the Mac OS.

For customers, performance and the promise of more enterprise applications are beginning to win Apple acceptance in the market. In addition, the Xserve is found low cost when compared with some packages.

"When we started using Apple, we got a lot of skepticism from customers and investors," said Jon Moog, CIO at RiskWise Inc., an Xserve customer that uses the servers to run billing and verification applications. "We had to justify to them what we were doing.

"Now, when we talk to them about Apple, theyre not only interested in how weve done it, theyve begun researching it themselves," he continued.

The low cost of Apples solution is what drew RiskWise to select the Xserve, Moog said. Although the company had used the "Jaguar" version of OS X as well as OS9 to run its applications, the company evaluated Sun, HP and IBM, but found them too expensive, Moog said. The Xserve and especially Apples storage server, the Xserve RAID, use cheaper ATA disk drives that are hot-swappable, a feature previously reserved for SCSI drives.

Customers polled previously by eWEEK said Apples support has been excellent. The company has apparently reshuffled some of its support teams since the Panther Server launch. Zelenka declined to comment on the number of support staff Apple employs to service Xserve customers, but said the company has set aside dedicated support teams for both hardware and software issues, with both telephone and e-mail access.

One customer who declined attribution pointed to weaknesses in Xserves software base. He complained of some bugs in the GUI management tools as well as difficulties with SendMail, which he said "doesnt work," and MySQL.

Rand Wacker, director of product strategy and planning at SendMail Inc., said that the open-source software group has yet to add OS X Panther support in an official release. However, Wacker said he successfully compiled the SendMail source himself using the older Jaguar version of Mac OS X.

Meanwhile, Apple and others in the Mac community expect future growth to come from a new market for high-performance servers. "We also see significant growth in the federal space, and in clustering solutions used for scientific applications," Zelenka added.

Next page: So wheres the G5 Xserve?

Waiting on the G5

At the same time, the first implementation heralding Apples new move into the market for clustered high-performance servers used the Power Macintosh G5 machines.

The prime example was announced in September when Virginia Polytechnic Institute and State Universitys Terascale Computing Facility connected 1,100 2-GHz dual-processor Power Mac G5 desktops to build their supercomputer. Industry figures said the cluster likely will be ranked as the third fastest supercomputer when official results are released at next weeks Super Computer Conference (SC2003) in Phoenix.

The Virginia Tech cluster will likely displace a 2,304-node, 2.4-GHz Intel Xeon cluster Linux NetWorX built for the Lawrence National Laboratory in 2002. The Linux cluster, however, cost about $15 million to build; Virginia Tech built its cluster for about $7 million.

Since theres no Xserve based on the G5, the Virginia cluster was constructed using the Power Mac desktop models.

Apple representatives carefully avoid the subject of a new Xserve. Doug Brooks, Apples server hardware product manager, declined to comment on when a G5 Xserve might be introduced. "The G5 is an amazing architecture, with wonderful performance that stands out," he offered.

Certainly, current Xserve customers look forward to the introduction of a G5-based model.

One such customer is John Abt, president of AJA Video Systems, which manufactures the Io video editing machine for OS X. The company uses Xserves for working with uncompressed video but appreciates the performance of the G5 processor.

"Things are better with the G5; everythings faster. Thats the way I look at it," Abt said. "As a matter of fact, weve been lobbying [Apple] for a high-end extreme box" that bridges a workstation and a server, he said.

Abt said he had been impressed with Silicon Graphics Inc.s use of a crossbar architecture, which moves data around the X86 server architecture using a motherboard built more like a switch than a server. Apples G5 itself uses a HyperTransport link. "Apple didnt go as far [as SGI], but they went a long way," he said.

Speculation about the expected G5-based Xserve continues to grow, and current users wonder about its size and performance.

One question concerns potential changes to its form factor. Each G5 chip within Apples desktop systems consumes 97 watts of power, while a G4 chip consumes about 20 watts of heat. This could impact the size of its enclosure.

"The biggest thing will be form factor," RiskWises Moog said. "In its current state, a 1U G5 Xserve would be difficult but not impossible. I think customers would also accept a 2U or 3U server. Its a reasonable trade against a 1U system, as the density would be comparable."

Apples Brooks declined to comment.

Another question is whether Apple faces any barrier in the component market that could hold up its introduction of the G5 Xserve. These considerations could include both the G5 processor itself and the supporting chip set logic.

When Apple originally launched the G5 systems, the initial allocations of G5 chips went to dual-processor G5 customers and certain undisclosed education markets, later revealed to be Virginia Tech. Apple sold a total of 221,000 Power Mac desktops during the companys fiscal fourth quarter.

Apples strategy of shipping 64-bit systems to its desktop customers first is unusual in the industry. Intel reserves the bulk of its Itanium processors for servers, not workstations, as does Sun. Advanced Micro Devices Inc. now ships an Athlon64 64-bit processor for desktop PCs, but only months after the company shipped the 64-bit Opteron to server customers.

"I dont suspect it has anything to do with supply availability," said Peter Glaskowsky, an analyst with In-Stat/MDR, when asked why Apple hasnt shipped a G5-based Xserve. "It could simply be the limitations of ASIC technology. As you know, Intel had problems delivering chipsets that used an 800MHz front-side bus." The G5 uses a bus that runs at 1GHz, Glaskowsky said.

Nevertheless, Apple faces a very steep uphill climb toward acceptance in the enterprise server market, analysts said. Given that the majority of Xserve customers have fallen within Apples traditional markets, its doubtful that many customers have taken advantage of what few enterprise apps have been ported to the platform, some said.

"I have a hard time believing that Apple customers represent Oracles core base," observed Rob Enderle, principal at The Enderle Group (and an columnist). "Oracles so incredibly expensive; thats the space that Suns high-end products play in."

If nothing else, Apples eyes are definitely turned toward the enterprise.

Content industry insiders noted that Apple skipped the fall Seybold Seminars San Francisco 2003 publishing show in favor of OracleWorld, which Apple co-sponsored. Both shows shared the Moscone Center venue.

The support of third party software vendors and channel partners for this new focus remains to be seen. "Most of the heavy liftings being done by Apple," Enderle said.

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