Mar 012011

Could a future “Mac Micro” be a replacement for the Xserve?

Armed Forces Day Celebrationphoto © 2009 DVIDSHUB | more info (via: Wylio)Apple recently released the new generation of MacBook Pros. Of the new and updated features, the one that really got me thinking was the inclusion of the Thunderbolt port. Thunderbolt is the release name for a technology developed by Intel under the name Light Peak. (Why the name change? Perhaps because Light Peak suggests a fibre optic connection and this implementation runs on copper.)

Thunderbolt is an I/O technology that provides two independent and bidirectional channels, with a theoretical maximum speed of 10 Gbps in both directions. As a rough guide, that’s about two to three times as fast as the recently unleashed USB 3.0 – but that’s not all. Along with data, Thunderbolt can simultaneously carry video, audio and power. It’s also easily transcodable (via simple adaptors) to USB, Firewire, Ethernet, HDMI and most other protocols you may need. Dan Frakes and Dan Moren have done a great analysis of Thunderbolt for MacWorld.

Sound too good to be true? One cable to replace many?
Well, that was the goal of Intel’s engineers – one cable between your computer and all your peripherals that need a high-speed connection. Just daisy-chain them together and lose the current rat’s-nest under your desk. Intel has posted a video showing a simple but effective demonstration of how this all works.

So that’s one thing.

Now, a couple of months ago, Apple released an update to its MacBook Air ultra-thin laptop. The original MacBook Air wasn’t a big seller – thin and light, sure, but underpowered and too expensive. The new Airs feature upgraded Intel Core 2 Duo CPUs running at 1.4 or 1.6GHz. Faster than the previous model, but definitely not in the speed demon class. But the machines feel fast – substantially faster, in fact, than their professional MacBook Pro cousins of the day.

Why? The new Airs shipped with a solid state drive (SSD) for storage, rather than a conventional hard drive. The SSD made reading and writing of data much faster than reading and writing from a physical, spinning mechanism. Fast enough (if, say, RAIDed together) to keep up throughput to a Thunderbolt network.

That’s the second thing.

The new MacBook Airs also ship with no optical drive – no internal DVD or CD drive. System restore, if needed, is via a supplied USB thumbdrive.

Along with the smaller footprint of the SSD compared with a hard drive, losing the optical drive has made an enormous difference to the overall size of the case. The new Airs fulfilled the promise of the original model by becoming light, thin, fast and reasonably priced – a winning combination, as borne out not only by universally positive reviews, but also by a rush of paying customers.

And that’s the third thing.

Now, imagine this combination of features migrated to a potential new version of the Mac Mini. (Indulge me and let’s call it the Mac Micro).

  • Fast, compact storage (possibly RAIDable in less space than a single conventional spinning-mechanism hard drive)
  • Superfast, single cable connectivity to pretty much anything (including other new Mac Micros)
  • No optical drive, so the size of the case is no longer defined by the size of a DVD
  • And while you’re at it, make a Pro version by upgrading the CPU to one of the Intel Core i7 chips used in the new MacBook Pros.

You’re starting to talk about a very powerful, very connectible, very compact computer.

How small? Could it be as small as an Apple TV 2? Could it be even smaller?

Let’s add a few more ingredients into the mix:

  • Apple has just finished pensioning off its Xserve rackmount server solution
  • It appears that Mac OSX Lion (10.7) will be able to install as Mac OSX Server simply by choosing that option at install time
  • Apple has reportedly offered Mac OSX Lion to enterprise for security certification

So, imagine a bunch of these wee beasties fitted into, say, a single unit rackmountable frame. Taking a modular approach, maybe each frame could carry four to six hot-swappable Mac Micros, connected via Thunderbolt and running under Mac OSX Lion Server.

That’s a ton of grunt in a 1U package – and fast grunt at that. Pretty tasty for, say, render farm, shared processing or scientific visualisation requirements. Whether it could compete pricewise with established Windows or Linux based solutions is another matter. (Although, we have recently seen the bizarre turnaround of Dell being unable to compete on price with Apple in the tablet market… funny old world.)

Of course, this is all just me blowing smoke.
The “Mac Micro” doesn’t exist and it may never exist.

But it sure sounds attractive, don’t you think?

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