Apple’s Xserve rackmount server and Mac OS X Jaguar Server had their work cut out for them to break into the competitive server market when they were released earlier this year, but analysts think the pair has some advantages over the competition. One of the stiffest competitors in the coming years may be from blade servers.
One of the biggest expenses for a company is space. Whether in an IT closet, or outsourced at a hosting facility IT managers constantly fight the battle of fitting an ever increasing requirement of computing power and storage into smaller spaces.
Typical configurations for blade serves allow 16 to 20 servers to fit in the space of three 1U servers. Blade servers consist of two main components: Single board, ‘blade’ computers and a chassis to house the blades. Each blade is a full server consisting of processor, memory, storage and NIC(s) all integrated into a single card.
Once the blades are mounted in the chassis, all that is required is a single power cord and a single network cable. With this operation complete, up to 20 servers will be powered and online.
Part of the problem with this configuration is the upfront costs. Priced at US$1,499, Dell’s recently released PowerEdge 1655MC (which comes with a single Intel Corp. 1.26-GHz Pentium III chip) is cheaper than the Xserve, but Apple points out that the blade server doesn’t come with the much more expensive rack needed to get the servers running.
The rack, which can cost approximately $5,000 dollars on its own, would mean an organization would need to deploy a significant number of blade servers to make the initial costs justifiable. Apple admits that blades do allow a “grow as you go” environment for companies, but they also point out that much of the cost is paid upfront.
“Unless you are deploying a large number of blades in one enclosure, you really don’t save any money, it actually costs you more money and you end up with last year’s performance,” Alex Grossman, Apple’s Director of Server and Storage Marketing, told MacCentral.
Market research firm International Data Corp. (IDC) sees a growing market for blade servers in the future. The Framingham, Mass. based company has estimated blade server sales totaling about $120 million this year, with the market growing to $3.7 billion in 2006.
But Apple doesn’t see the cheaper offering from Dell appealing to customers because of its lack of power and shared resources that blade servers rely on.
“The problem is that most people that want to deploy servers like that need real servers with horsepower, storage and Gigabit connectivity,” said Grossman. “When you start using blades you’re sharing the Gigabit, the storage and with Dell’s new blade you end up with Pentium III horsepower. It’s really not the bargain it looks like.”
Companies like IBM offer more powerful versions of the blade servers that run a Xeon processor. The Xeon-based servers from IBM cost approximately $1,879, but according to Apple there are drawbacks to these faster running chips.
“The Xeons draw a lot of power and generate a lot of heat,” said Grossman. “You almost need to put them in a dedicated rack with their own air conditioning and their own power running to it. This is unlike an Xserve where you can put 42 of them in a rack and just run on the power you run the rest of your data center under and use the same cooling.”
Cost of ownership is something Apple has focused on with its Xserve and Mac OS X Server products since they were introduced. Analysts feel that this is an important message for Apple to get across to customers and may lay the foundation for future growth.
“One of main things they are hitting on is Total Cost of Ownership (TCO),” DocuLabs analyst, David Homan, told MacCentral. “Apple is going after a lower TCO, which is something competing products have been hitting on for a while now. This is Apple’s entry into the space and it’s positioning them for the corporate market and it’s going to eventually allow them to have the possibility of expanding out of their core markets by addressing some of the needs of system administrators through lower cost of ownership.”
Lower cost of ownership extends beyond the Xserve with Apple’s Mac OS X 10.2 Server software. The Xserve comes with an unlimited license for Mac OS X Server, which could add up to a huge cost savings for companies that purchase the product. Companies choosing a Windows-based blade server must purchase a software license for each machine.
“Make no mistake, they are going squarely after Microsoft with this and several other initiatives — I think they have taken the gloves off with that relationship,” said Homan. “This has some implications in terms of TCO, not only from a cost of ownership and administrative costs, but also the upfront licensing fees. It makes a lot of sense for them; they need to be aggressive in pricing to enter new markets. They need to present a compelling reason for users to switch over and going forward with this pricing strategy is one way they are going to accomplish that.”
However, many web and Internet servers today rely upon open-source alternatives such as Linux or one of the free BSD variants — the same core that is at the heart of Mac OS X. IBM also has a major marketing campaign under way for their servers which utilize Linux.
Homan also points to the Apple’s design as a big selling point for potential customers. The remote monitoring capabilities of Mac OS X server and easy access to components on the Xserve, while not revolutionary, will help Apple sell the machines in the long run.
“Things like smart monitoring and having a display panel on the front so you can easily tell if there is a problem with a drive or a subsystem; the hot-swappable drive bays that are front accessible; the way the unit is designed with the top coming up and forward so you can access it within a typical server rack are all things that make a lot of sense if you’re administering these systems.”
When Apple first released the Xserve, they said the machines were designed with their customers in mind, giving their core markets server technology they wanted. In an effort to keep costs down, the Xserve shipped with ATA drives instead of the ubiquitous SCSI drives normally found in server machines. Apple has defended its decision, saying that ATA 100 has almost as much performance as SCSI, but are significantly cheaper.
“Apple customers have clearly told us what they want and we designed the Xserve for them,” said Grossman. “Our customers want high density computing that’s affordable and easy to manage; Xserve fits that bill today.
“I doubt you will see the blades go in places where they have implementations of four, six or 10 servers; it just doesn’t pay to do that — it’s just going to be for those people who want hundreds of servers,” said Grossman. “Quite frankly with the Pentium III in there [the Dell 1655MC] you are not going to see them in areas where we are strong like compute clusters and bioinformatics, where people need the performance. Clearly our performance with applications like Blast on the G4 versus the Pentium III is highly superior — in some cases we’re 52 times faster than a Pentium III running the same Blast data.”
Apple’s first generation rackmount server brings the company a long way from selling desktop G4s with server software. A recent report from market research firm Gartner Dataquest breaks out Apple’s server performance. Out of a total of 488,858 units shipping this quarter, 5,700 were Apple systems — a 1.2 percent marketshare. On their own the numbers aren’t overwhelming, but consider that for the same quarter a year ago, Apple shipped only 1,525 server units. That’s a year-to-year growth of 273.8 percent, the best growth on the list.
With the growth trends in the blade marketplace Pentium IIIs will be replaced with faster alternatives. Based on market forecasts, it is clear that Blade servers will grow to be a force in the server market, but Homan thinks that Apple’s offering gives the company a good place to start in the server market.
“Apple has made some significant strides recently,” said Homan. “The Xserve has the same quality as machines you would typically find in a data center type environment. Overall the Xserve is a big step forward for Apple and positions them well as an entry-level server.”