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Unix Xserve line gets a rapid Apple boot

Talk about sudden migration plans. HP 3000 customers might have been stunned to learn back in 2001 that HP was halting manufacture of the servers in two years. But Apple has announced it will cease producing its Unix Xserve systems in three months, ending manufacture on Jan. 31, 2011. The move gives a stinging meaning to the proposition that Unix boots quickly.

Xserve_rack Ending product line investments is never announced without cries of suffering from the companies who invested in IT environments. In an odd twist on the HP exit plans and migration hopes for the 3000, Apple is not dropping a fundamental environment so much as its hardware. Unix, in a much modified and improved version, drives every Macintosh system running today -- the reason it's called OS X, just like HP added the "iX" when it added Posix commands to MPE in the '90s.

The website The Register -- not a shrinking violet when reporting on HP's Itanium hardware plans -- had similar invective in its article about Apple's Unix server pullout.

To put it bluntly, this bites.

According to the Xserve Transition Guide that Apple put out last week, the company will sell Xserve machines through January 31, 2011 with the standard one-year warranty. The company also pledges to honor any and all warranties for Xserves and will ship 160GB, 1TB, and 2TB disk drive modules until the end of 2011. When supplies run out, that's it. You'll be hunting around the Web for second-hand dealers for parts.

The Register goes on to figure that Apple was never serious about selling Unix to enterprises (not at all a mirror of HP) and that the company has many other ways to make a profit aside from beefing up an IT shop Unix solution (probably right in line with HP's situation, so long as Services and printer ink continue to perform at a profit.) But the demise of any Unix solution, or even a decline as in Sun's fortunes, is important to any company's transition situation. Every technology gets "sunsetted," as the most gentle CIOs call the end of building a server. The enduring question becomes when the end arrives, and will an IT pro have to manage the transition.

The Register's writers figure the handwriting was on the wall for the Xserve line when Apple didn't announce a new lineup of the machines sold since 2002, a refresh that would incorporate socket-compatible Intel CPUs. The latest six-core "Westmere-EP" Xeon 5600 processors that would offer a "huge performance boost" at limited technology re-engineering costs.

It was easier to understand, if not business-justify, why the writing on the HP 3000 wall was apparent to some software vendors when HP didn't include the 3000 in the 2001 futures charts for the Itanium processor line. Nothing at all was socket compatible in there -- and then there was the matter of rewriting MPE/iX to run on a processor that was better at emulating x86 software than anything else.

HP handled this kind of a rewrite four years later when it made the first announcement of OpenVMS running on Itanium. But along the way HP also killed the best hardware for running VMS when it axed futures for the Alpha chip. At the time of HP's 3000 exit announcement, the company had to shed similar products to justify a merger with Compaq, owners of OpenVMS.

Apple's got no such justification to prune the Xserve out of its lineup -- more than $40 billion in available cash, the record stock prices above $300 a share, leaping profits and other business defining a market where HP will be playing catch-up in the mobile OS market. What the Xserve does share with the HP 3000 is its unique status in the Apple lineup. No matter how well the computers served their customers -- an Xserve cluster ranked in the Top Ten of supercomputers just a few years ago -- Apple didn't sell anything else quite like an Xserve.

HP is positioning Itanium and Integrity as a specialized processor and server line today, one that gets outsold by many millions of ProLiant/Windows-Linux solutions. A company larger than HP just cut out a specialized business server that didn't run Windows. Thinking Different, as the Apple mantra used to go, could be a less-certain way of computing for companies of HP and Apple's size.