Apple serves up a new contender

If Apple Computer Inc. makes good with its latest strategy, you might soon find Apple servers in federal data centers sitting alongside the Unix and PC servers that have traditionally dominated this space.

Earlier this month, Apple introduced Xserve, the first data center-style server from a company perhaps best known for its innovative, consumer-oriented desktop computers. However, that image belies the true nature of how many federal agencies use Apple's Macintosh computers, company officials say, for jobs ranging from general office duty to high-performance scientific research and multimedia applications.

It is those users, at least initially, that Apple officials expect to be the primary customers for Xserve, which will offer generous processing, storage and networking capacity in a compact, 1U rack-mountable case. Racks are refrigerator-sized cabinets — though taller and narrower — that hold stacks of networking equipment and servers, such as the Xserve. A 1U device is typically 1.75 inches tall.

Fritz Hasler, a research meteorologist for the NASA Goddard Space Flight Center's Laboratory for Atmospheres, is as good a potential customer for Xserve as Apple might want. He creates digital movies of earth science data using an Apple Power Book laptop and a group of 16 older Power Mac G3 and G4 desktop computers to render the images. "Our response [to the Xserve] has been favorable," he said. "We would probably use them to set up a render farm, if we had the money."

Goddard's own budget constraints aside, the $3,000 starting price for Xserve is actually very competitive in comparison to similarly equipped Unix servers or PC servers running Microsoft Corp. Windows, said Lewis Bean, business development executive for digital media products at GTSI Corp., an Apple reseller.

"I think Apple did a good job pricing it," Bean said. "One way they did that was by using standard ATA disk drives instead of more expensive SCSI drives.... We've already received dozens of requests for pricing and availability information."

That pricing will be important, as Apple competes with companies such as Dell Computer Corp., Hewlett-Packard Co. and Sun Microsystems Inc. They also sell dual-processor servers, which make up the fastest-growing segment of the server market, said Mark Melenovsky, a research manager with IDC.

"It'll be a tough nut [for Apple] to crack, and only having a niche product will make it even tougher," he said. "A lot of customers want providers that offer a range of products."

One feature that Apple is banking on to set the Xserve apart is the operating system, Mac OS X. Introduced last year, OS X is based on Unix, which is generally considered a mature, highly reliable platform that is well-suited for various complex processing tasks. Those performance features are an important part of Apple's plan to attract non-Mac customers to the new server, Melenovsky said.

Another part of the equation — as has been the case for much of Apple's history — is getting third-party software companies to develop products for the Mac. Here again, Apple is betting that OS X will make a difference.

"OS X is Unix technology to the core, so that means there is an unbelievable amount of software that comes over to this platform very easily," said Brian Croll, senior director of software product marketing at Apple.

Indeed, a number of major software players have announced plans to port or extend products to OS X, notably HP (systems management), Oracle Corp. (database and clustering) and Sybase Inc. (database). Also, a number of open-source software applications already come with OS X, including Apache Web server, MySQL database, and Samba file and print server.

Finally, Apple includes two new utilities with Xserve to address setup and management issues. Server Admin enables administrators to set up and manage Mac OS X Server network services remotely, and Server Monitor enables them to remotely monitor the servers.

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Pieces of the pie

Apple Computer Inc. hopes its federal sales will grow following the release of its Xserve rack-mountable server.

The details:

Processor — Single or dual 1 GHz PowerPC G4 processors, with up to 2G of memory.

Storage — Up to 480G on four hot-plug ATA/100 drives.

Software — Mac OS X Server and QuickTime Streaming Server license for an unlimited number of users.

Networking/connectivity — Dual Gigabit Ethernet ports, three FireWire ports and two USB ports.

Price — Suggested list price for dual- processor model with 512M of memory and 60G of storage is $3,999.

Availability — June.

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