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Opinion: Apple quietly raises the stakes

Normally I don't cover Macworld Conference & Expo, not because it's not an interesting show but because until now Apple Computer Inc. had not much to propose about storage. Things have changed.

Not everyone has realized this yet, but the storage world has a new star in Apple.

The Xserve RAID was clearly Apple's first significant step into storage. The unit comes with an elegant 3U rack-mounted enclosure -- which makes similar solutions from other vendors look as if they're wearing peasants' clothes.

Inside that shiny, silvery box, the Xserve RAID can store as much as 5.6TB in 14 SATA drives. No less important is the fact that you can connect its two FC (Fibre Channel) controllers to a variety of switches, as well as serve its storage to non-Apple servers.

The price of this beautiful baby? Approximately US$11,000 for a configuration filled with 250GB drives -- not bad at all.

In addition, during the week just before Macworld, Apple announced the release of Xsan, a revolutionary file system that can provision storage space directly from a SAN.

Why is having a SAN FS (file system) important? Because it moves the business of serving files to other servers or to client machines outside the confined vision of a single file server.

A SAN FS also makes networked storage truly shareable across multiple application servers because the system also manages and coordinates file access. Advantage No. 3 is more efficient use of storage: A SAN FS removes the task of managing LUNs (logical unit numbers) and volumes from other servers so that they can focus on their own files.

I can almost hear your objection: "But there's already a technology for doing all that in NAS." True, NAS vendors promise the same benefits, and they deliver -- to a point.

The big difference is that a NAS system is essentially a chameleon that mimics the file-handling and networking behavior of various OSes. By contrast, a SAN FS is a completely new animal, built to make the most of networked storage without the compromises inherent in the legacies of the past. Various vendors, including Advanced Digital Information Corp., IBM Corp., Silicon Graphics Inc., and a brilliant recent entry, Panasas Inc., already have their own SAN file systems, and Microsoft Corp. is (still) cooking one.

With all that in mind, I was understandably anxious to hear what Steve Jobs had to say about Xsan in his keynote. To my surprise, he didn't say much: a short reference to the announcement, a sarcastic comment on how Microsoft Longhorn isn't quite there yet, and then he moved on.

Was Jobs downplaying Xsan? Possibly. Other vendors would have made a product such as Xsan the centerpiece of their show. But hey, this is Apple; they think different.

To be fair, Mr. Jobs had a lot to cover in those two hours, but I'll let others tell you about the captivating applications of Tiger, the new version of the Apple OS, the soon-to-be-ubiquitous iPod Shuffle, and the surprisingly affordable Mac mini. But if you want to know a little more about Xsan, read the excellent preview from my good pal, P.J. Connolly.

Something tells me we haven't heard the last word about Xsan, but I couldn't get any hint about future developments from our friends at Apple. They did, however, emphasize that Oracle -- impressed with the price/performance ratio of Xserve RAID -- is planning to bring its 10g application development tools and database to the Apple realm. Nevertheless (or I should say, just because of that), I'll keep my eyes on this "new" storage player -- and so should you.

Mario Apicella is a senior analyst at the InfoWorld Test Center.

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