Apple to plant new seed with rack server

A new Apple is about to fall from the tree.

From its headquarters in Cupertino, Calif., Apple Computer Inc. is set to unveil Tuesday its first dedicated rack-mount server, as it attempts to flesh out its line of server hardware used by customers in key markets.

Few details have been revealed about the product ahead of its debut. Apple chief executive officer Steve Jobs gave a brief preview of the server during his keynote address last week at the Worldwide Developer Conference in San Jose, Calif.

What is known: The hardware takes up 2U (3.5 inches) of vertical space and will run a server version of the company’s Mac OS X operating system. A photograph of the product shown briefly at Apple’s conference suggested a black and silver design in keeping with the company’s penchant for stylish hardware.

Long anticipated by Mac enthusiasts, analysts this week said they expect the server to be an important addition to Apple’s product line for such tasks as file serving, print serving, e-mail serving and Web hosting.

“I would see this as being predominately a complementary product for the markets where Apple plays,” said Gordon Haff, a server analyst with research company Illuminata Inc., based in Nashua, N.H. “If you’re Apple, you don’t really want someone bringing a Windows server in if you’ve got the desktop environment sewn up.

“It will do pretty much all the functions that small servers are used for,” he added.

The size and shape of rack-mounted servers provides a convenient way for storing large numbers of them in a small space. Space issues can be particularly acute at schools, some analysts said, traditionally an Apple stronghold.

“The trend has been more and more toward rack-mount servers,” Haff said. “They are more and more common even in small- and medium-sized businesses.”

One thing that has facilitated the debut of Apple’s rack-mounted server, several analysts agreed, is the release of the company’s latest operating system, which is touted as being more stable than previous versions and can support systems running on multiple processors.

“For a long time Apple really didn’t have an operating system that allowed it to be able to sell a mid-range server. It wasn’t set up for that,” said Dan Kusnetzky, vice-president of systems software research with IDC, in Framingham, Mass.

Apple currently offers server towers running versions of its operating system. For a short time it sold these running IBM Corp.’s AIX operating system, a Unix variant, Kusnetzky said.

In its early days, the company also offered its own version of Unix, called A/UX, according to Haff. “They were never really successful with it,” he said. “They made a bit of a play in the low-end server space, but we’re talking about relatively ancient history here.”

With the introduction of Mac OS X, Apple buoyed its operating system with the help of Unix. Mac OS X is based in part on BSD, an operating system which has its roots in early versions of Unix from Sun Microsystems Inc. and others, Kusnetzky said. “It has been a server operating environment for quite a number of years,” he noted.

Thanks to its ties to Unix, “Mac OS X has the potential of going anywhere Unix goes,” Kusnetzky said, citing examples such as small embedded appliance servers, mid-range servers and mainframe servers. “As a category, Unix covers the gamut, from the very, very small to the very, very large.

“I’m not saying that (Mac OS X) is ready for all of these different configurations, but it certainly has the potential.”