Apple plants new seed with rack server

A new Apple is about to fall from the tree.

From its headquarters in Cupertino, California, Apple Computer Inc. unveiled Tuesday its first dedicated rack-mount server, as it attempts to flesh out its line of server hardware used by customers in key markets.

Called the Xserve, the sleek silver boxes represent Apple's first major foray into the enterprise market. The company also previewed a rack-mounted storage device that it plans to release later this year.

Few details had been revealed about the Xserve ahead of its debut. Apple Chief Executive Officer Steve Jobs gave a brief preview of the server during his keynote address last week at the Worldwide Developer Conference in San Jose, California.

Packed with dual 1GHz PowerPC G4 processors, the Xserve has built-in support for leading memory and networking technologies. Each server fits into a 1U (1.75 inches) rack space with a height of 1.73 inches (4.4 centimeters), and weighs 26 pounds (11.7 kilograms), despite earlier reports from Apple's developer show that the hardware was twice that size. It will run a server version of the company's Mac OS X operating system.

With a price tag starting at US$2,999 for the single-processor unit, Apple will begin taking orders for the Xserve immediately and begin shipping units to customers in June, Jobs said, speaking to reporters and analysts Tuesday. Apple will sell the hardware through its direct sales channels and partners. The server operating system, Mac OS X, comes bundled with the hardware and it can be used by unlimited users with no extra licensing cost, the company said.

Long anticipated by Mac enthusiasts, analysts this week said they expect the server to be an important addition to Apple's product line for such tasks as file serving, print serving, e-mail serving and Web hosting. Apple also said Tuesday that the server can be used for running database software. The company has teamed in the space with Oracle Corp., which announced that the Oracle 9i database will run on the Xserve. Other partner software makers announced include Sybase Inc., Hewlett-Packard Co. and Adobe Systems Inc.

"I would see this as being predominately a complementary product for the markets where Apple plays," said Gordon Haff, a server analyst with research company Illuminata Inc., based in Nashua, New Hampshire. "If you're Apple, you don't really want someone bringing a Windows server in if you've got the desktop environment sewn up.

"It will do pretty much all the functions that small servers are used for," he added.

The size and shape of rack-mounted servers provides a convenient way for storing large numbers of them in a small space. Space issues can be particularly acute at schools and small businesses, some analysts said.

"The trend has been more and more toward rack-mount servers," Haff said. "They are more and more common even in small- and medium-sized businesses."

One thing that has facilitated the debut of Apple's rack-mounted server, several analysts agreed, is the release of the company's latest operating system, which is touted as being more stable than previous versions and can support systems running on multiple processors.

"For a long time Apple really didn't have an operating system that allowed it to be able to sell a mid-range server. It wasn't set up for that," said Dan Kusnetzky, vice president of systems software research with IDC, in Framingham, Massachusetts. The parent company of IDC, International Data Group Inc., is also the parent company of the IDG News Service.

Apple currently offers server towers running versions of its operating system. For a short time it sold these running IBM Corp.'s AIX operating system, a Unix variant, Kusnetzky said. In its early days, the company also offered its own version of Unix, called A/UX, according to Haff. "They were never really successful with it," he said. "They made a bit of a play in the low-end server space, but we're talking about relatively ancient history here."

With the introduction of Mac OS X, Apple buoyed its operating system with the help of Unix. Mac OS X is based in part on BSD, an operating system which has its roots in early versions of Unix from Sun Microsystems Inc. and others, Kusnetzky said. "It has been a server operating environment for quite a number of years," he noted.

Thanks to its ties to Unix, "Mac OS X has the potential of going anywhere Unix goes," Kusnetzky said, citing examples such as small embedded appliance servers, mid-range servers and mainframe servers. "As a category, Unix covers the gamut, from the very, very small to the very, very large.

"I'm not saying that (Mac OS X) is ready for all of these different configurations, but it certainly has the potential."

Key benefits of the operating system include multitasking, multithreading and protected memory, each of which has been touted in the desktop version of the operating system, Apple said.

"As a server operating system Mac OS X is even more robust," said Phil Schiller, senior vice president of worldwide product marketing at Apple, who joined Jobs Tuesday in the Xserve debut.

Customer support for the server hardware and software is also a major piece of the offering, Jobs said. The company created a new piece of software to allow systems administrators to manage hundreds of Xserves from a remote location. Called Server Monitor, the application shares the familiar Apple user interface and enables users to monitor the health of the hardware.

Additionally, Server Monitor can alert system administrators through instant notifications over the Internet when the hardware is in danger of failure.

Apple will also offer various support services to customers, including 24-hour per day support and on-site support for larger customers. Jobs noted that besides Sun, Apple is one of few companies to offer hardware and software support from a single source.

Adding to its enterprise push, Jobs offered a technology preview of a RAID (redundant array of independent disks) storage device it plans to roll out at the end of the year. At 3U in size, the rack-optimized storage unit includes 14 drive bays, 1.69T bytes of storage and dual 2G-bit fibre channels.

"It's an amazing companion storage product," Jobs said.

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