Apple tries to bite into high-performance market

With the announcement that it is providing 1,566 servers to an Army supercomputer project, Apple Computer Inc. is making a move into the high-performance computing market that may open new doors for the company.

Historically strong in the consumer and business markets, Apple has not previously had much of a presence in the server market, especially not in high-performance clusters, according to analysts. But

that may be changing with a new operating system based on Unix, and the horsepower of the PowerPC chipset that Apple machines use.

"They were never really a very serious server player," said Gordon Haff, a senior analyst at Illuminata Inc. in Nashua, N.H. "They had a fling with Unix a few years back, but that never went anywhere. The basic [Apple Macintosh operating system] was designed with desktops in mind."

Colsa Corp. recently chose Apple's Xserve G5 processors for the Army project. The supercomputer that Colsa officials will build should have a peak performance of 25 teraflops, or 25 trillion operations/ sec. The system, to be built in Huntsville, Ala., will model the complex aerothermodynamics of hypersonic flight for the Army.

The system is called Multiple Advanced Computers for Hypersonic research, or MACH 5.

"Apple has decided to get fairly serious with servers," Haff said. "Xserve is a serious product line within Apple. They've brought in people with real server expertise."

The switch to the Unix-based operating system was an important factor, he said. Unix and its cousin Linux are generally the supercomputing operating systems of choice.

The PowerPC processor is another key element in Apple's server credibility, Haff said. The chip's only real competition is Intel Corp.'s x86 technology.

Whether the new project is an early indication of a significant new market opportunity for Apple depends on how future generations of the chip continue to perform when measured against Intel's products, Haff said.

"I don't see Apple becoming a server company" predominantly, he added. "Apple's core strategic direction over time is still very much in the [desktop computer], and increasingly into consumer entertainment. That is where I see the core of Apple's business continuing to be."

However, the Xserve is a superior server, said Anthony DiRenzo, executive vice president of Colsa. He chose Apple's product based on its performance, power requirements and cost, he said, adding that one key element in his decision was the system's low power consumption.

"We put these clusters into production for a user who uses it all day and all night," DiRenzo said. "This thing needs to be up, it needs to be stable, it needs to be online."

Apple technologists designed Xserve to minimize power consumption and to shed heat efficiently so that it needs less open space for cooling, said Alex Grossman, director of server and storage hardware at Apple.

The Xserve is 1U, meaning one dual-processor unit takes up one layer in a standard hardware rack. It is possible to pack processors in more densely, but that comes at a cost to cooling efficiency, electricity use and processing power, he said.

The MACH 5 is the biggest single cluster to use Apple servers, but it's not the only one, Grossman said. Officials at Virginia Polytechnic Institute and State University are building a cluster with 1,100 servers.

The company's emphasis so far has been on workgroup clusters — small clusters providing computing power for groups. Now, "we anticipate a number of large clusters to be built," he said. "We specifically built the Xserve G5 computer node configuration for clusters."

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The Army Research and Development Command will use a giant cluster of Apple Computer Inc.'s G5 servers to build one of the world's fastest supercomputers.

Details of the project, called Multiple Advanced Computers for Hypersonic research, or MACH 5, include:

Hardware: 1,566 dual-processor G5 Xserve servers.

Operating system: Mac OS X Panther Server.

Cost: $5.8 million.

Performance: 25 trillion calculations per second.

Use: Aerodynamics research.

Source: Apple Computer Inc.

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