Why IT staff, users will like Apple's plans

Apple Computer CEO Steve Jobs opened Apple's annual Worldwide Developers Conference yesterday with a keynote that put an end to weeks of speculation about new products and features in the next generation of Mac OS X. The announcements Jobs made can be broken down into four major areas: information about Apple, the new Mac Pro, the new Intel-based Xserve and a preview of Mac OS X Leopard, which is due out by next spring.

As I expected, there was no mention of new iPods or an iPhone. This was an event for Mac software and hardware developers, along with other Mac IT professionals. The focus of the keynote was correctly all Mac.

I'd like to focus not just on yesterday's announcements, but on what the upcoming changes mean for Mac professionals -- both those who work in the IT field and those who use Macs as part of their daily job.

Enter the Mac Pro; exit the Power Mac G5

The big hardware announcement was the Mac Pro, which defied rumors on two major fronts. First, it did not sport a new case design; the externals of the case are essentially the same as the Power Mac G5 it replaces. The inside case design, however, is significantly different, owing to less need for cooling hardware because the Mac Pro's Intel processors run significantly cooler than G5 chips. The processors themselves were the other surprise. While virtually everyone expected Apple to use the new Intel Core 2 Duo processors aimed at desktop PCs, known as Conroe, Apple opted for the higher-performing Xeon-based Woodcrest processors typically used in high-end servers.

The Mac Pro includes two dual-core Xeon processors, effectively giving it the power of four Xeon processors -- more than double the computing power of any other Intel Mac (and setting it higher than most Intel PCs) and twice as fast in real-world tasks as the Power Mac G5 Quad it replaces. One reason for the additional power might be that many professional Mac users work with applications such as the Adobe suite that are not yet Universal apps. This extra power should provide significant improvements when running such applications under Rosetta emulation. It also simply provides professional users with more raw power, thus differentiating the Mac Pro from Apple's other desktop offerings and most PCs. (A comparable Dell PC would be as much as US$1,000 more than a standard Mac Pro.)

The Mac Pro enclosure is even more of a technician's dream than any of Apple's desktop-pro computers, which have offered easy access to all major components since 1999. The Mac Pro sports four bays for hard drives, but these bays use modules similar to the Xserve that make installing drives incredibly simple because there is no need to deal with cables of any sort. Easy RAM and PCI card access also remains. And the new system sports dual optical drives, which can increase the ease and efficiency of CD or DVD duplication.

The Mac Pro will be available in a single standard configuration that includes two 2.66-GHz dual-core Xeon processors, 1GB of 667-MHz DDR2 RAM (which can be expanded up to a whopping 16GB -- more than any other desktop Mac in history), a single 250GB Serial ATA hard drive, 16x SuperDrive and four PCI Express slots (one of which is double-width for graphics cards). It includes an Nvidia 7300 GT graphics card with 256MB of GDDR SDRAM.

Build-to-order variations on the machine are virtually limitless with processor speeds ranging anywhere from 2GB to 3GB (all are dual-core Xeons in a dual-processor configuration). Up to four hard drives can be installed, providing up to 2TB of storage.

It goes without saying that this machine packs an incredible amount of power into a relatively small package and at a remarkable price point: US$2,499 for the standard model. What's truly nice is that it can easily be compared component by component to competing PCs, showing the value of the machine.

Xserve

When Steve Jobs announced that the Mac Pro meant the completion of the Intel transition, I imagine every systems administrator listening had a small heart attack before he announced the new Xserve. While I hold no doubts at all that the Mac Pro has the power and the storage capabilities to make it an excellent server, the Xserve's form factor, remote monitoring capabilities and overall rack-mount server sensibilities make it a must-have for any serious Mac infrastructure. And the new Xserve doesn't disappoint.

Like the Mac Pro, it uses the dual-core Xeon processors from the Woodcrest family, and it uses them in a dual-processor configuration, giving it quad-core performance. Apple claims that it is more than five times faster than the existing Xserve G5 models. Each processor has an independent 1.33-GHz frontside bus.

Like the existing Xserves, it sports three hot-swappable SATA drive bays and remote monitoring capabilities with Apple's Server Monitor tool, and it can be controlled remotely using Apple Remote Desktop. It also continues to offer two onboard Gigabit Ethernet ports and two eight-lane PCI Express slots (one of which is PCI-X).

One difference, however, is that you no longer need to sacrifice a PCI slot if you want to attach a monitor to the Xserve. The new Xserve now includes a built-in ATI Radeon X1300 graphics card with 64MB of SDRAM and sports a mini-DVI connector. While the Xserve continues to be rack-mountable and operates perfectly in a headless environment, it is now equally usable by those in smaller organizations that want to be able to configure it from an attached screen and keyboard. This is something that has long been a sore point in many small organizations that have wanted the power of an Xserve along with the ability to manage it locally without having to lose a PCI slot to install a video card (or buy Apple Remote Desktop).

The new Xserve will ship in October, with a base configuration that includes two dual-core 2-GHz processors, 1GB of 667-MHz DDR2 RAM and a single 80GB SATA drive for US$2,999. Build-to-order configurations include processor speeds up to 3 GHz, 32GB of RAM, an additional load-sharing power supply and up to 2.25TB of onboard storage. PCI Express cards for Fiber Channel connection to Apple's Xserve RAID and SCSI devices and additional network ports are also available.

Without a doubt, the new Xserve is a very high-performance server with an excellent price point.

Mac OS X Server for Intel

Although it wasn't specifically addressed in the keynote or a press release, Apple will begin shipping an Intel version of Tiger Server with the new Xserve in October. The Xserve will include a an unlimited client version of the Mac OS X Server, and it is not yet clear whether Apple will make the Intel release of Tiger Server available as a separate product or whether non-Xserve customers will need to wait until spring to purchase an Intel version of Leopard Server.

Leopard's spots

This brings us to Mac OS X 10.5, or Leopard. There has been no end to the speculation of what would be included in the preview. To quickly recap, Steve Jobs included the following 10 features in his demo:

  • 64-bit processor support throughout the operating system, including the ability to run 32- and 64-bit applications side by side.
  • Time Machine, a continuously running backup application that allows users to maintain a backup of every file on their computer -- either on a second hard drive or a server. Time Machine also allows users to go backwards and forwards in time to locate specific versions of files that have been changed or deleted and sports an impressive user interface. As with Spotlight, developers will be able to integrate Time Machine into applications.
  • A complete package approach that includes a final release of Boot Camp for running Windows in a dual-boot system (Apple will not include virtualization in Mac OS X, leaving that for other developers such as Parallels to provide) and significantly enhanced Front Row and Photo Booth updates.
  • Virtual Desktops called Spaces that allow users to place similar applications and open files in separately defined areas that promote ease of workflow. Drag-and-drop and Dock support will be included in Spaces.
  • Improved Spotlight searching, which will allow searching of remote computers and servers, as well as advanced search options.
  • Core Animation, which will enable developers to create complex animated effects easily for any manner of use.
  • Revamped Universal Access, which offers vastly improved voiceover, closed-captioning and other improvements.
  • More robust Mail, offering easy rich (HTML) mail editing as well as notes and a systemwide to-do feature.
  • A next-generation version of Dashboard that includes Dashcode tools for developers and the ability for end users to create widgets out of any portion of a Web page.
  • A much more robust iChat, with features like Photo Booth effects, the ability to place graphics or video as a background in video chats, the ability to share your screen/desktop with remote users, and the ability to do slideshows and keynote presentations through a feature called iChat Theatre.

Also mentioned but not demonstrated yesterday was the fact the iCal will be multiuser.

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