Can Apple really compete as a server vendor?
Although it would seem like suicide to enter the rough-and-tumble server market, where margins are relatively slim and price wars are commonplace, Apple does have a few things going for it.
First of all, as a new entry to the market, the slate is clean for Apple. As an "outsider," Apple can closely analyze the trends in the market and deliver solutions unencumbered by legacy.
An example of this can be seen in the Xserves internal storage system, which goes significantly against the grain by using four internal ATA controllers and software RAID, rather than the common SCSI hardware RAID typically found in low-end to midrange servers.
The move to an ATA subsystem is a trend that seems to gain more momentum by the day; ATA drives are considerably less expensive than SCSI drives and their performance compared to SCSI is no longer viewed as vastly inferior.
Another thing going for Apple is that it doesnt have to reinvent the wheel to add basic functions to its server platform. By leveraging key technology from open-source communities out of the box, Xserve will have Web-server capabilities (from Apache) and Windows file serving (from Samba)--all without being forced to pay for Microsoft client access licenses.
By making these open-source technologies easier to use and manage, Apple has opened the market for IT managers who arent as skilled as current Linux and BSD followers.
Now the bad news.
The success of a platform is ultimately determined by the application support it gets.
By launching with the backing of major vendors like Oracle, the Xserve is off to a good start, but unless more ISVs recognize the Xserve as a viable development platform, Apple will suffer the same fate as Novell.
ISVs need to dedicate a respectable amount of resources toward making applications that take advantage of Xserves unique hardware, since there is no logical reason for an IT manager to buy an inferior version of the same application just to run it on an Xserve.
Service and support will be another major issue for Apple to tackle. The company is ready to launch with four-hour onsite support and 24-by-7 phone and e-mail support, but claiming and delivering this level of support are two very different things. When security vulnerability and bugs are discovered, Apple must be able to create and deliver patches to its clients in a timely manner.
Until the Xserve hits the streets, we will not know just how well Apple is able to support it.
Senior Analyst Henry Baltazar can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.