Profiles in Networking
Thoughts on Apple’s Xserve
Apple recently announced the Xserve, a high-capacity storage server aimed at businesses prepared to make the switch without sacrificing existing network utility. An Xserve unit combines high processing power (single or dual gigahertz processors) and lots of hard disk space (up to 480 GB per unit) in a package about the size and thickness of a coffee shop table top. Xserve is aimed squarely at business needs, and may prove valuable to the image of Apple as a “serious” computer company, with more to offer than colors and cool chrome.
The Xserve and similar units from other makers conform to a rack-mount size standard, the “U,” which is about 1.75 inches in height. Racks are pretty much what they sound like, effectively bookshelves for computer components, though the emphasis is on functionality over sex appeal (meaning no prospect of different Xserve flavors). “Mounting” something simply entails connecting it to the rack’s frame using screws. A typical rack has numerous components, with supporting power supplies, network switches, and so forth. Racks usually reach eight feet in height, allowing for lots of components in a relatively small space. Racks have open fronts and backs, for free access to wiring and peripherals. Businesses rely on racked systems for large quantities of reliable, network-ready computer storage that use a minimum of space and power, since both mean additional business expenses.
So Apple can sell big storage to companies. So what? Should you or I, who may only scratch the surface of one terabyte of storage, care about something that can hold over 20? From an image perspective at least, the answer is yes. A “serious” computer company (Dell, let’s say) gives their clients a range of options on a single account: desktops, laptops, servers, and big, network-friendly storage units. For most businesses, this covers all the bases. Even with great products everywhere else, Apple had a big zero in the storage category before Xserve, a category which could easily make or break a large business deal.
Where Business Storage is Now
Compared to an established industry like fast food, where innovations come slowly and with much forethought, the business-class storage industry rises and swoons almost overnight. Last year, everything was Network-Attached Storage (NAS) and storage-area-networks (SAN), and industry titans like EMC and IBM happily packaged their hard disks into big boxes and counted the profits. This year, management software and “smart” hardware is suddenly the rage and the former market leaders find themselves on the verge of being innovated out of large chunks of their business by startups with new ideas and lower costs. This climate change and a poor economy mean that storage buyers tighten their budgets and wait for someone—perhaps anyone, regardless of business cachet—to offer an elegant and affordable solution.
Where Business Storage Might be Going
Most potential clients, especially large-scale buyers like public utilities, the government, and media companies, face immense complexity in their networks and storage needs. These companies usually have whole departments devoted just to managing their computer storage: who has access to it, how to make changes, and who gets to spend the precious storage dollar. In the past, they’ve had to bite the bullet and figure out people-driven ways to handle the complexity. Recently the storage makers started the slow push towards computer-driven solutions, working on one problem at a time on the road to providing storage that is conveniently available when and where their clients need it. The final solution isn’t even on the radar yet, but will probably involve a “black box” mix of storage and software. The effect—to return to fast food—could look like a drive-through window: you “order” a bigger database, and receive a certain chunk of memory. You know they “cook” your order inside the box, but the exact process is unimportant as long as the memory looks and acts like a database. It shouldn’t matter whether the memory is actually Dell memory, EMC memory, Hitachi memory, or (aha!) Apple memory.
The Apple Advantage
So where does Apple fit in? I mentioned business cachet, and how the next business storage winner may not need it, if their product is sufficiently compelling. Ironically, Apple finds itself at both ends of the spectrum. The iMac and iBook may not look like business computers to an IT department, but Mac OS X sure works like Unix, which businesses have relied on since before Bill Gates went tinkering around with QDOS. Sure you could run both Unix and Windows on a Dell server, but those aren’t the first two operating systems that you expect to play nice together. The fact that Mac OS X works both sides of the fence could be a nice bonus, should Apple create (or purchase) some complimentary storage management software. Of course, there’s nothing saying they have to—they may be happy to implement the first competent Unix-based solution that comes along. But if nothing else, the Xserve creates a nice foundation to work from, and they risk little by trying. People are screaming for solutions from the storage market leaders—even the aforementioned Dell—but no one’s putting the screws to Apple. There’s a pot of gold at the end of this rainbow; perhaps Apple should be looking for leprechauns.
Also in This Series
- Mac to Windows: Troubleshooting the “No Logon Servers Available” File Sharing Error · October 2004
- Using WEP Security on an AirPort Network · July 2004
- Whatever happened to…Threemacs.com? · September 2003
- Clandestine Wireless Networking and MacStumbler · July 2003
- Learning to Share With Others: Sharing Preferences Overview · April 2003
- Serving Files Using FTP in Mac OS X · December 2002
- Switching Between Networks in Mac OS X · November 2002
- The Audio/Video Quadras (660av, 840av) · September 2002
- Thoughts on Apple’s Xserve · July 2002
- Complete Archive