On Xserve: Is Jobs Nuts Or What?

Steve Jobs is one crazy guy. Absolutely bonkers. Heis pissed off people with .Mac, angered others by charging full price for OS X 10.2, and heis making a foray into the server market in a time when most computer makers are pulling back on market exploration.

Such behavior can only be the result of a twisted mind, or some sick, fiendish individual who obviously does not have a clue about keeping a company profitable. Crazy? Maybe. While Jobs has not made many friends lately, even many of the folks irritated by his .Mac move will grudgingly admit that Jobs is far from being the dullest crayon in the box. One need only look at Xserve to see just how shrewd the man is.

Xserve, by most accounts, is thus far a success. According to Phil Schiller back in July, Apple had 4000 orders for the little 1U server before the logos were even printed on the shipping boxes. Now, ITworld.com is saying that some server vendors are eager to stock Appleis Xserve because customers are asking for them. Thatis not too shabby.

Apple needs Xserve to be a success because it needs to spread itself around a bit more, Apple canit be dependent on the few niche markets on which it has historically relied. To remain a viable business, it has to develop new income streams where market share is not the biggest metrics for measuring success. The IT server market is ideal in this respect: income is dependent on how many servers and maintenance plans are sold, not how many desktops a machine occupies. Servers can represent a good steady income from maintenance contracts and hardware upgrades.

Thereis no doubt the Xserve, even in its grandest configuration, is only an entry-level player in the server arena. Established UNIX server makers have offerings that cover the entire spectrum of the price/feature rainbow, and if Sun or IBM ever wanted to have a price war with Apple thereis little doubt that Apple would look like Custer at Little Big Horn. So why would an IT manager bother with Xserve? What is it about Xserve that has piqued the curiosity of people who think of drive storage in terms of terabytes?

The answer is easy: IT managers, like everyone else, are looking for that Holy Grail of computing; the simple to use server.

If you want to put a smile on a CIOis face, tell her that youive got something that is guaranteed to reduce IT cost and doesnit require a Ph.D. to run it. Information technology is the backbone of business, without a relevant and robust information infrastructure, a business will whither and die like fallen fruit under a tree. Even so, budgets for IT shops face cuts all the time, especially now in these tough economic times.

Companies have to balance the need to keep being productive, which sometimes means upgrading its IT foundations, with the need to return a decent profit, or, in some cases, any profit. CIOs are constantly under pressure to reduce operating costs, hence pricey upgrades are frowned upon.

Witness the backlash Microsoft is currently experiencing with its licensing plan. While locking in a company for several years, guaranteeing a steady income for Microsoft in the process, such a plan may not be a wise business move for many corporations who feel they need to keep their options open, and who balk at being forced to pay for more than what they feel they need.

Also consider the current state of UNIX server offerings from the more established vendors; while each vendor has historically had its own version of UNIX, now most are actively moving to support Linux. Both Sun and IBM offer low to medium priced Linux servers, each with its own modified Linux OS. While the offerings and support are a boon to the Linux camp, the bottom line is that Linux, in its current state, wonit win over many Windows administrators, people who may not feel good about tinkering with servers via a command line. Remember that these people are certified Microsoft admins, many have had little to no experience dealing with typed in commands that have a string of arguments, or creating command line scripts to get things done. Of course these admins can learn to handle Linux but often the learning is trial by error in an often unforgiving production environment. CIOs want their people to be able to set up a server in the quickest possible amount of time and know that it is set up right. Thatis where Xserve shines.

Xserve offers a more forgiving platform than Linux, it defaults on the side of security. Xserve is simple to setup; if offers many of its services through a very useable GUI so that Windows admins should not feel overwhelmed, but if you need to dig in and twiddle with some of the finer options, something most UNIX gurus are apt to do, a command line is ready and waiting. Being able to set up file sharing across several platforms, getting a Web server online quickly, and being able to confidently administer a server with almost no training is what Xserve offers. Oddly enough, those are the very features IT managers are looking for in a server.

Sun, IBM, and others will soon begin offering no-brainer servers that approximate the price of Xserve, but Apple has tapped into a vein that it just might be able to exploit enough to get its foot into an already crowed market.

Steve Jobs is one shrewd guy. He has seen an opportunity in the server market, a market so thick with vendors if you spat at one youid hit three, yet heis testing the waters with Xserve. Only Jobs is nuts enough to try something like that; and just crazy enough to make it succeed.

Vern Seward is a frustrated writer who currently lives in Orlando, FL. Heis been a Mac fan since Atari Computers folded, but has worked with computers of nearly every type for 20 years.