Apples Xserve: Ready for G5 Leap? - Page 3

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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