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Apple continues modest move into clusters

Not known for high-performance computers, Apple saw a cluster of Macs leap into the upper reaches of the supercomputing realm last year. Its ambitions, however, remain humble.

Ina Fried Former Staff writer, CNET News
During her years at CNET News, Ina Fried changed beats several times, changed genders once, and covered both of the Pirates of Silicon Valley.
Ina Fried
4 min read
SAN FRANCISCO--Though Apple doesn't fancy itself a high-performance computing giant, the company says it's making some headway in regard to both supercomputers and smaller-scale clusters.

The Mac maker's machines made a surprise leap into the upper reaches of the supercomputing realm last year, when researchers at Virginia Polytechnic Institute and State University used 1,100 Power Mac G5s to create a cluster that eventually ranked No. 3 on the list of the top 500 supercomputers. The system was built for just more than $5 million, compared with the hundreds or tens of millions spent to put together its nearest competitors.

Now, Apple is taking some initial steps to make it easier for others to group together clusters of Macs. The company quietly announced on Tuesday a test version of a program called Xgrid, which allows departments to more easily create a grid of Macs. The software is already being tested at NASA, Genentech, Simon Fraser University, Reed College and Virginia Tech.

Technical computing clusters such as the Virginia Tech system typically consist of numerous identical, dedicated servers. Grid software extends to a broader pool of computers, often including a wide variety of computing systems, such as desktop machines, that often have spare processing capacity.

The other step Apple took Tuesday was adding the G5 chip to its Xserve rack-mounted server. Since it didn't have that option, Virginia Tech had to create its supercomputer from a collection of Power Mac G5 desktop towers.

Apple has also created versions of the Xserve that strip out the optical drive and other components to make for a cheaper clustering node. For example, the Xserve G5 computer node has the same dual 2GHz G5 processors as the top-of-the-line model but sells for $2,999--$1,000 less than the standard server.

Apple still says it doesn't have any illusions that it will take a huge chunk of the server market.

"Obviously, we were humble when we came out with Xserve," said Alex Grossman, a director of hardware storage in Apple's product marketing unit. "We're still humble."

IDC analyst Jean Bozman said Apple has been level-steady with its server shipments. "With their servers, they've been holding their own," Bozman said. Despite the debut of the Xserve in May 2002, Apple has just a tiny fraction of the server market. "It's not a high-volume server, and they don't represent it as such."

For the most part, Apple focused its initial marketing of Xserve on its traditional base of customers: schools, graphics and design companies, and the video market. "We think (that) as a general purpose server for our customers, it's perfect," Grossman said.

However, the company is also trying to expand into other markets. Biotechnology, in particular, has been a niche Apple has aggressively targeted. The company has recently added a specialized cluster that pairs a rack of Xserves along with several of the most popular software programs biotech companies use.

Looking to be a money saver
Apple sees itself ideally as a broad alternative to Windows servers for small businesses, particularly those with older servers that are in need of a software upgrade. Because Xserve can handle file and print duties for both Windows and Macs, and because it contains an unlimited-client license, it can be a lower-cost alternative for many companies, said Tom Goguen, Apple's director of server software.

"We're seeing a lot of interest in replacing (Windows NT) environments, particularly in small businesses," Goguen said.

Another step Apple has taken is qualifying its storage product, the Xserve RAID, to work with Linux- and Windows-based servers along with Macs. "If you say you want to reach a broader market beyond the Mac install base, you have to do that," Bozman said. "You're going to be, most likely, in a mixed environment."

In the clustering world, Apple is aiming as much for smaller groups of computers as for the largest designs, such as the one Virginia Tech uses Xgrid for example, isn't designed for tightly knit clusters that distribute a large computing task into smaller parts, like the "Big Mac" system at Virginia Tech. Instead, Xgrid makes it easier to divide similar, repeated tasks with multiple sets of data.

"We realize we're not known as a supercomputing company," Grossman said. However, he added, there is a big opportunity in creating an easier way for companies and institutions to set up a cluster of 16 to 48 nodes, a popular part of the market. "We think we can make it easier for just about anyone."

Xgrid uses Apple's Rendezvous technology to automatically discover available computing resources on a network. For example, as a computer lab using Power Mac G5s starts to have fewer users, those resources can be automatically added to a cluster of Xserves.

Making such software available is important, Bozman said, noting that Sun Microsystems and IBM have had those products available for some time. "All the nodes have to know where all the other nodes are," she said.

Other companies, including Platform Computing, Parabon Computation and Entropia also focus on grid software similar to Apple's Xgrid.

The real key to increasing server sales, Bozman said, is for Apple to clearly stake out particular markets in which it thinks it can gain ground.

"What they need to decide is what markets they want to go after--and bring additional resources to go after those," Bozman said.

Bozman said Apple also needs to make it easier for those that want to use Macs in high-end computing. Although Virginia Tech was able to build a powerful supercomputer for considerably less using Macs, "they did a lot to make it happen."

Adding the G5 gives Apple the performance boost it needs to compete on a technical side. "It's a well thought-out product," Bozman said. "The next phase should be to ramp up volume sales."