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Apple dips toes into clustering

The computer maker begins selling a version of its server that can be linked in groups, or clusters, capable of tackling mammoth computing tasks.

Following in the footsteps of larger competitors that sell Intel-based products, Apple Computer has begun offering a version of its server that can be linked in groups, or clusters, capable of tackling mammoth computing tasks.

Some Apple customers have been building computing clusters on their own out of Apple's existing dual-processor Xserve systems, but Apple removed some elements of the general-purpose model to cut the price and increase the appeal of the new configuration, said Doug Brooks, Xserve product manager.

The system is competitive with current Intel-based products, said Illuminata analyst Gordon Haff. But Apple has strong competition from Dell Computer, IBM and Hewlett-Packard, all of which already have established businesses selling technical computing cluster products.

"Apple's always going to be under the pricing gun compared to Dell in particular, so anything at all they can do to jettison unnecessary pieces and drive their prices down has to be a positive," Haff said.

Apple's system costs about $3,000 with dual 1.33GHz PowerPC G4 processors, 1GB of memory, a 1 gigabit-per-second Ethernet port and a single hard drive. Compared with the general-purpose Xserve, it lacks a CD-ROM drive, a video card, a second Ethernet port, and the ability to accommodate multiple hard drives, Brooks said.

"," groups of low-priced servers ganged together to solve technical computing challenges typically using the Linux operating system, are increasingly popular as a way to solve some computing challenges. Some clusters even ascend to supercomputer status, as in the case of the 2,304-processor behemoth built by Linux Networx for Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory that ranks as the world's fifth-fastest supercomputer on a list of the top 500 released twice each year.

Dell was the leader in the market for Intel-based supercomputer clusters, with revenue of $65 million, but IBM is rapidly growing and had revenue of $60 million for the same period, according to IDC. HP took third place with $48 million.

High-performance cluster customers include companies in oil and gas research, financial services, digital animation, aircraft design and life sciences. Apple so far has customers in life sciences, including Genentech and the University of North Carolina, and in digital content creation, Brooks said.

Apple's Xserve systems are in some ways better adapted to the high-performance computing market than for the general server market. Where general customers rely on a large collection of server software such as databases and system management tools--software that's not always available on Apple's systems--technical computing customers often write their own software. That makes it easier to translate it to a new computer.

Also easing that software transition is the fact that Apple's Mac OS X operating system is a variant of the version of Unix, itself a cousin to Linux.

The Apple system can run a variety of common clustered computing software packages, including the BLAST tool for scrutinizing DNA sequences and the Message Passing Interface (MPI) commonly used to route communications among computers in a Beowulf cluster.

Apple's system is 1.75 inches thick, a measurement known as "1U" in the world of rack-mounted servers. IBM, Dell and HP all sell 1U dual-processor systems as well.

"When I last looked, (Xserver performance) seemed pretty comparable for a 1U form factor," Haff said. However, he added, "if you go to 2U (3.5 inches thick), there are definitely faster configurations in the Intel space."

One key part of clustered systems, especially ones made of dozens or hundreds of individual computers, is software for managing the machines. Apple's existing tools are sufficient for the task, said Tom Goguen, director for server software.

Among other things, the servers can boot up from a central disk over the network, letting an administrator change the configuration of multiple servers by changing the network disk's software then rebooting the servers, Goguen said.

The Xserve for cluster computing includes a 64-bit, 66MHz PCI slot that can accommodate the high-speed networking cards from Myricom that often are used in high-performance clusters. A more unusual feature is the high-speed Firewire ports, which can be used in conjunction with standard Internet networking technology to link multiple servers.