Scientific computing: Apple's next big leap?

The Macintosh may not be an established player is scientific computing, but Apple Computer is beginning to get some respect as a player in the space, company vice-president of software technology, Guy "Bud" Tribble, said at the Biosilico 2003 conference at Stanford University.

Tribble, one of the designers of the original Macintosh user interface, said that with the advent of the Power Mac G5 and the OS X operating system, the Macintosh now has the Unix backbone, 64-bit processing power, Windows interoperability, and open source credibility to be a viable computing platform in the life sciences space.

"Really, for the first time in this industry, you have a computer that can do all the scientific applications, and you can run Microsoft Office," he said. "It's been kind of a Holy Grail that started with Mac OS X."

The Apple executive cited Virginia Polytechnic Institute and State University's recent decision to build a 1100-node high-performance supercomputer based on G5 computers as a sign of Apple's growing importance in scientific computing. "We're very new entrants into the 1U [4.4cm] server market, and yet we've seen Virginia Tech show up," he said.

Because OS X was based on the BSD (Berkeley System Distribution) version of Unix, developers were able to take advantage of the wide array of open source applications written for Unix, Tribble said.

They were also able to create open source applications such as the iMOL molecular visualiser software that took advantage of the Macintosh's Aqua user interface.

"These things are just popping up as open source apps that run seamlessly on the Mac," Tribble said.

"I think there's a niche left by SGI [Silicon Graphics Inc.] in the high end visualisation workstation," said conference attendee Shreedhar Natarajan, a graduate student at the University of Illinois, Urbana. "That's where Mac could make a big leap."

Because bioinformatics involveda great deal of data analysis, often performed by several applications at once, the Mac's user interface could offer an advantage over other operating systems, Natarajan said.

"I need three screens to look at code clearly," he said. "It's just more pleasing to look at the Mac. With the Mac screen, the rendering is just more clear and crisp."

Apple has not created any specific programs to market its systems to the life sciences. In fact, the company has avoided talking about Unix in its marketing programs, Tribble said.

"We don't really market it because we market to consumers and this would only confuse them," he said.

A lack of Unix marketing was unlikely to have an impact in the highly technical scientific workstation space, however, the vice-president of client computing with industry research firm IDC, Roger Kay, said.

"The technical guys know that it's there and if they're (Unix) shell hounds, they can go work in the shell," he said. Kay said that the fact that Apple elected to include a wide variety of software development tools in its most recent Panther release of OS X would add to the Mac's scientific appeal.

"They do have a pretty good workstation play," he said. "They have got BSD Unix under the hood with a nice clean interface on top, and their new G5s are pretty powerful, so they can address this new kind of application market."

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