April 15, 1996, Issue: 706
Section: Sneak Previews

Apple Bears Fruit In Unix Arena

By Joel Snyder

Apple's alliance with IBM has borne new fruit: Two network servers based on the PowerPC chip and running IBM's AIX operating system. Yes, you heard it right: Apple is now selling two Unix servers, the Network Server 500 and 700, that run IBM software. I had a chance to work with a beta version of the Network Server 700 for a few weeks and was thoroughly impressed. The idea of Unix with its impenetrable syntax may make Macintosh managers cringe, but Network Servers are almost as easy to configure and manage as a Macintosh.

Taking the First Bite Network Server 700 is designed from the ground up as a high-performance and high-reliability server (the Network Server 500, its slower little brother, is almost identical, with a slower system clock and fewer reliability features). Our system started with a 150-MHz PowerPC 604, 1 MB of cache, 48 MB of memory and two 4-GB Fast/Wide SCSI disks. Apple provides the AppleTalk protocol stack along with "try-before-you-buy" versions of Apple Filing Protocol (AFP) servers from IPT and Helios, the leading Unix AFP server vendors. I managed to get the Network Server up and running as an AFP server in about two hours. Most of that time was spent waiting for the CD-ROM to spin.

Network Server 700 is also designed for speed. Attached to the CPU are dual PCI buses, each running at full width and speed. One PCI bus is used for on-board controllers: two Fast/ Wide SCSI bus controllers, one standard SCSI-I controller, a 10-Mbps Ethernet adapter and a video adapter. The other bus is available for additional options such as RAID and Ethernet. By building in two Fast/Wide SCSI controllers, the Network Server 700 architects let you know what the box is designed to do: Move disk data as fast as possible. Do the math yourself and you'll see. Two SCSI channels, each 16 bits wide at 10 Mbps means a maximum possible throughput of 40 Mbps. That's four times the speed of Ethernet, so the Network Server 700 gives you six additional PCI slots for 10-Mbps or 100-Mbps Ethernet adapters, as well as additional SCSI controllers.

Anyone can pull hardware together and make it go fast. Apple has gone one step further to provide reliability and expandability. Disks, tapes and CDs are mounted into small drawers that you can install or replace in seconds. The CPU can be swapped out in about a minute. There are two redundant load-sharing power supplies, either of which can be replaced without shutting down the system. Even the fans can be changed without opening the case or shutting off the system.

The Network Server 700 has room for eight drives, six of which can be swapped in seconds, letting you put 32 GB of very fast and very reliable storage on your network without breaking a sweat or running a single external cable. This capability is especially nice because cables are one of the least reliable parts of any computing system. A powerful diagnostic and hardware utility program runs in the absence of an operating system. Even if you're running Network Server with redundant disks and swapping them out with the power still on, restoring a backup tape (the Network Server that I tested had a 4mm DAT installed) is still an unpleasant task when necessary. The usual Unix incantations to restore a dead disk drive are probably worth practicing by Mac-oriented managers before a crisis hits.

Sweet Fruit Off the Vine All of these capabilities would be wasted on the Macintosh world if Mac managers had to become Unix gurus to make the Network Server work. Fortunately, AIX is about as manageable as Unix will ever get. Its SMIT GUI management interface is easy to navigate and operate, even though most managers won't need to use SMIT after the first day. The GUI-based management tools run on Macintosh workstations to handle complicated storage management tasks, user administration and the AFP file server. The Legato NetWorker is included and I ran the backup and restore application.

Network Servers are not just network appliances designed to push AFP files out the door as fast as possible. They're real AIX Unix systems with full binary compatibility with IBM's servers. Most anything that runs on AIX will also run on a Network Server, including databases such as Oracle and Sybase. Apple is pushing its Macintosh-based systems as Internet servers, but Network Servers seem like perfect corporate Internet servers: very fast, lots of disk, high reliability, expandable and easy to repair. What more could a Web master ask for?

Pricing may be competitive with IBM's PowerPC/AIX systems, but it's going to look pricey to buyers of Sun and Intel products. Network Server is aimed at production publishing houses-a traditionally strong market for Apple. These are organizations that need lots of fast disk storage that never goes down. Sound familiar? Give Apple a call.

Joel Snyder (jms@opus1.com) is a senior partner at Opus One, in Tucson, Ariz. He spends most of his time helping people build large information-sharing and e-mail systems.

Copyright 1996 CMP Publications, Inc.