Xserve’s up

It’s very, very hard to make a server look sexy.

Companies have tried. Some models of Sun’s SunFire boxes have a royal-looking purple casing. IBM often opts for a more corporate black — its machines are the server versions of a Power Suit. Most vendors, however, seem to share the view

of the late Canadian pianist Glen Gould, who once told an interviewer his favourite colour was battleship grey. In our heart of hearts we expected more from Apple, but its belated entry into the rack-mountable server brigade looks, well, straight off the rack.

Oh, I scoffed when I saw it. Big time. “”I’m surprised they didn’t use a different colour for each rack,”” I said when a colleague asked me what I thought of the Xserve launch this week. Then there was the tag line in the marketing materials — Rack and Roll? For a company that managed to come up with one of the best slogans to describe innovation (“”Think different””), Apple for once seemed out of its depth, trying to raise the cool quotient in a category where cool isn’t really a part of the equation. (On the other hand, it’s really no worse than IBM’s infantile “”Magic Box”” campaign of two years ago, which nonetheless came as close as anyone else to teaching the public at large what a server does).

Apple executives know that for all the style points it has gained since the launch of the iMac in 1998, it has yet to become a serious contender in the enterprise space (beyond graphics design studios and advertising agencies, that is). It is hard to imagine why the company has chosen to enter a segment where it will immediately be surrounded by so many well-established competitors, particularly in a year where so few enterprises are purchasing product from these well-known names. Though it is reasonably priced for a two-processor machine, can anyone seriously picture an enterprise based on an infrastructure of Dell’s PowerVault or IBM’s x300 deciding to switch over to an Apple server?

The Xserve may give Apple a complementary offering to iMac customers in the education market, but it will take greater support from the software development community to see it gain much market share based on the server itself. In fact, the Xserve may finally provide the foundation for a real push on Apple’s part to promote Mac OS X, which is based on a Unix BSD kernel. When it finally came out of beta last year, Apple listed hundreds of applications, but numbers don’t tell the full story. Many of the programs offered were freeware or shareware. Compatibility problems between Mac OS 9.1 and OS X among Apple “”faithful”” did nothing to endear converts to the platform.

Apple CEO Steve Jobs gets along well with many other big names in the industry who share his drive to create alternatives to well-known computing products. These relationships will be important in bringing Xserve out of the Mac niche, though there is obviously some give-and-take involved. For example, Larry Ellison was quick to back the Apple server by announcing plans for a Mac OS X-based version of its Real Application Clusters — a technology that is as important to the future of Oracle’s business as .Net is to Microsoft’s. HP, meanwhile, is trying to raise the profile of its own software business, and its pledge to offer compatibility between OpenView and Xserve will be of mutual benefit to the two partners.

You can’t rule out anything. Sometimes success comes in the most unlikely places. The original Palm Pilot, for example, did not come from a major PC vendor but from 3Com, which was hardly the obvious breeding ground for a handheld bestseller. Analysts have already praised the Xserve for offering a number of the most popular features in an entry level server, and Apple certainly has a reputation for being in touch with its users. Is there room left for a new entrant? Maybe not, but if any company could manage it, Apple may be able to make room.

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Shane Schick
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