Apple CEO Steve Jobs opened Apple's recent annual Worldwide Developers Conference with a keynote that put an end to weeks of speculation about new products and features in the next generation of Mac OS X.
The announcements Jobs made can be broken down into four major areas: information about Apple, the new Mac Pro, the new Intel-based Xserve and a preview of Mac OS X Leopard, which is due out by next spring. But what do the upcoming changes mean for Mac professionals -- both those who work in the IT field and those who use Macs as part of their daily job?
Enter the Mac Pro -- exit the Power Mac G5
The big hardware announcement was the Mac Pro, which defied rumours on two major fronts. First, it did not sport a new case design; the externals of the case are essentially the same as the Power Mac G5 it replaces. The inside case design, however, is significantly different, owing to less need for cooling hardware because the Mac Pro's Intel processors run significantly cooler than G5 chips. The processors themselves were the other surprise. While virtually everyone expected Apple to use the new Intel Core 2 Duo processors aimed at desktop PCs, known as Conroe, Apple opted for the higher-performing Xeon-based Woodcrest processors typically used in high-end servers.
The Mac Pro includes two dual-core Xeon processors, effectively giving it the power of four Xeon processors -- more than double the computing power of any other Intel Mac (and setting it higher than most Intel PCs) and twice as fast in real-world tasks as the Power Mac G5 Quad it replaces.
One reason for the additional power might be that many professional Mac users work with applications such as the Adobe suite that are not universal apps. This extra power should provide significant improvements when running such applications under Rosetta emulation. It also simply provides professional users with more raw power, thus differentiating the Mac Pro from Apple's other desktop offerings and most PCs. (A comparable Dell PC would be as much as $1,000 more than a standard Mac Pro.)
The Mac Pro enclosure is even more of a technician's dream than any of Apple's desktop-pro computers, which have offered easy access to all major components since 1999. The Mac Pro sports four bays for hard drives, but these bays use modules similar to the Xserve. These make installing drives incredibly simple because there is no need to deal with cables of any sort. Easy RAM and PCI card access also remains. And the new system sports dual optical drives, which can increase the ease and efficiency of CD or DVD duplication.
The Mac Pro will be available in a single standard configuration that includes two 2.66GHz dual-core Xeon processors, 1GB of 667MHz DDR2 RAM (which can be expanded up to a whopping 16GB -- more than any other desktop Mac in history), a single 250GB Serial ATA hard drive, 16x SuperDrive and four PCI Express slots (one of which is double-width for graphics cards). It includes an Nvidia 7300 GT graphics card with 256MB of GDDR SDRAM.
Build-to-order variations on the machine are virtually limitless with processor speeds ranging anywhere from 2GB to 3GB (all are dual-core Xeons in a dual-processor configuration). Up to four hard drives can be installed, providing up to 2TB of storage.
It goes without saying that this machine packs an incredible amount of power into a relatively small package and at a remarkable price point: US$2,499 for the standard model. What's truly nice is that it can easily be compared component by component to competing PCs, showing the value of the machine.
When Steve Jobs announced that the Mac Pro meant the completion of the Intel transition, I imagine every systems administrator listening had a small heart attack before he announced the new Xserve. While I hold no doubts at all that the Mac Pro has the power and the storage capabilities to make it an excellent server, the Xserve's form factor, remote monitoring capabilities and overall rack-mount server sensibilities make it a must-have for any serious Mac infrastructure. And the new Xserve doesn't disappoint.
Like the Mac Pro, it uses the dual-core Xeon processors from the Woodcrest family, and it uses them in a dual-processor configuration, giving it quad-core performance. Apple claims that it is more than five times faster than the existing Xserve G5 models. Each processor has an independent 1.33GHz frontside bus.
Like existing Xserves, it sports three hot-swappable SATA drive bays and remote monitoring capabilities with Apple's Server Monitor tool, and it can be controlled remotely using Apple Remote Desktop. It also continues to offer two onboard Gigabit Ethernet ports and two eight-lane PCI Express slots (one of which is PCI-X).
One difference, however, is that you no longer need to sacrifice a PCI slot if you want to attach a monitor to the Xserve. The new Xserve now includes a built-in ATI Radeon X1300 graphics card with 64MB of SDRAM and sports a mini-DVI connector. While the Xserve continues to be rack-mountable and operates perfectly in a headless environment, it is now equally usable by those in smaller organisations that want to be able to configure it from an attached screen and keyboard. This is something that has long been a sore point in many small organisations that have wanted the power of an Xserve along with the ability to manage it locally without having to lose a PCI slot to install a video card (or buy Apple Remote Desktop).
The new Xserve will ship in October, with a base configuration that includes two dual-core 2GHz processors, 1GB of 667MHz DDR2 RAM and a single 80GB SATA drive for US$2,999. Build-to-order configurations include processor speeds up to 3GHz, 32GB of RAM, an additional load-sharing power supply and up to 2.25TB of onboard storage. PCI Express cards for Fibre Channel connection to Apple's Xserve RAID and SCSI devices and additional network ports are also available.
Without a doubt, the new Xserve is a very high-performance server with an excellent price point.
Mac OS X Server for Intel
Although it wasn't specifically addressed in the keynote or a press release, Apple will begin shipping an Intel version of Tiger Server with the new Xserve in October. The Xserve will include a an unlimited client version of the Mac OS X Server, and it is not yet clear whether Apple will make the Intel release of Tiger Server available as a separate product or whether non-Xserve customers will need to wait until spring to purchase an Intel version of Leopard Server.
This brings us to Mac OS X 10.5, or Leopard. There has been no end to the speculation of what would be included in the preview. To quickly recap, Steve Jobs included the following 10 features in his demo:
- 64-bit processor support throughout the operating system, including the ability to run 32- and 64-bit applications side by side.
- Time Machine, a continuously running backup application that allows users to maintain a backup of every file on their computer -- either on a second hard drive or a server. Time Machine also allows users to go backwards and forwards in time to locate specific versions of files that have been changed or deleted and sports an impressive user interface. As with Spotlight, developers will be able to integrate Time Machine into applications.
- A complete package approach that includes a final release of Boot Camp for running Windows in a dual-boot system (Apple will not include virtualisation in Mac OS X, leaving that for developers such as Parallels to provide) and significantly enhanced Front Row and Photo Booth updates.
- Virtual Desktops called Spaces that allow users to place similar applications and open files in separately defined areas that promote ease of workflow. Drag-and-drop and Dock support will be included in Spaces.
- Improved Spotlight searching, which will allow searching of remote computers and servers, as well as advanced search options.
- Core Animation, which will enable developers to create complex animated effects easily for any manner of use.
- Revamped Universal Access, which offers vastly improved voiceover, closed-captioning and other improvements.
- More robust Mail, offering easy rich (HTML) mail editing as well as notes and a systemwide to-do feature.
- A next-generation version of Dashboard that includes Dashcode tools for developers and the ability for end users to create widgets out of any portion of a Web page.
- A much more robust iChat, with features like Photo Booth effects, the ability to place graphics or video as a background in video chats, the ability to share your screen/desktop with remote users, and the ability to do slideshows and keynote presentations through a feature called iChat Theatre.
Also mentioned but not demonstrated was the fact the iCal will be multi-user.
Of the Leopard announcements, it's worth focusing on several in greater depth.
First, there's Time Machine, which has incredible potential for systems administrators and technicians. Although many commercial backup tools offer the ability to back up workstations, the client tools are often somewhat clunky and mean additional licensing fees.
Time Machine, paired with a dedicated backup server, could eliminate the need for third-party software. This could easily cut the cost of developing an extensive backup strategy.
Its apparent ease of configuration and the fact that the operating system on the workstation would manage the backup creation and access on the server (rather than vice versa, as is more typical) will simplify creating a backup strategy and make restoring data much simpler. The fact that the user interface is easy to understand -- and at the workstation level -- also means that users could more readily retrieve lost or deleted files without the need for a systems administrator, and possibly without the need for any aid other than a quick call to a help desk. It also means users need not worry about copying files to an alternate location for backup, as is often done in situations where workstations are not backed up.
The Spotlight update is also big news. Systems administrators often spend a great deal of time planning share points and folder structures so users can easily locate files. But it can sometimes be difficult to create an ease-of-use situation while maintaining security. The ability to search remote servers will help users locate files much more easily. Again, this could result in fewer help desk calls when users can't remember where they have saved something. Spotlight's dramatic ability to search within files will also be handy, especially in networks that contain multiple servers and many share points.
The issue Apple will need to resolve is ensuring that Spotlight searches don't generate so much network traffic that they create problems. It may also force systems administrators to be much more conscious of permissions in folder hierarchies. Generally, being able to stop someone from browsing for files where they shouldn't have access can be very effective. However, users can often locate and open items by search or by file path, even if they can't browse for them. The expanded searchability of network data may allow users to find files, even if those files are located within folders that would traditionally block outside access.
Mail's next generation promises to be very inviting. I've often heard Microsoft Outlook users complain that Apple's Mail is too limiting. Integrating notes and to-dos is a great move, though since Mail is not truly a PIM application, it seems a somewhat arbitrary place for to-do lists. It might have been better to roll iCal into Mail with these features.
That to-dos will be integrated as a system-level feature is icing on the cake. Being able to create a to-do at any point is beyond helpful. One of the reasons I never used Outlook's to-do list was the simple fact that it required me to stop what I was working on, switch to Outlook and then choose the to-do list in order to add an item. That would completely break my concentration (so I'd just write stuff down on a scrap of paper, which I'd usually lose). Any professional Mac user will benefit from this feature.
And since I've mentioned complaints from Outlook users, the lack of multi-user support in iCal has got to be mentioned. I'm actually surprised this feature was mentioned almost as an afterthought in yesterday's keynote. What's even better is that not only is iCal multi-user -- and integrated with Mail's new to-do feature -- but Leopard Server's implementation of multi-user iCal functions is CalDAV-based. CalDAV is a standard method for sharing event data that is supported by other applications, including Outlook. This means that iCal's multi-user functionality is also multi-platform. In fact, this makes Leopard Server a great competitor for Exchange Server in a multi-platform environment.
Finally, let's talk about iChat for a moment. Instant messaging has always had a minor role in the professional world. Yes, it's easier than sending an e-mail and less obtrusive than a phone call, but it's still always seemed like something for mainly personal communication. The new iChat Theatre feature changes that dramatically. Yes, sharing and being able to narrate a slideshow is cool. But being able to make presentations remotely is beyond big business. Companies have been developing separate technologies for video conferencing, remote presentations and other forms of distance collaboration for years. And here it is, completely free, using hardware built into almost every Mac and using free software. And, when used with iChat server under Leopard Server, this feature can be encrypted for secure communication.
This is most definitely a far cry from the earliest versions of iChat.
Another great new iChat feature is the less-mentioned ability to IM the contents of your screen. This ability, which has been built into Apple Remote Desktop, is great for collaboration (you can actively edit a document in Photoshop while the client is looking at it in real time) or for help desk purposes; a help desk agent can see exactly what is happening and offer advice (although Apple Remote Desktop would be a better choice here). Needless to say, there is a place for this new iChat in the professional world (and the world of personal contact and fun). And at no extra cost, that place can enable small businesses the collaborative abilities formerly not available to them.
All in all, Apple has given Mac professionals a lot to look forward to in the coming year.
Ryan Faas is a freelance writer and IT consultant specialising in Mac and multi-platform network design and troubleshooting. He is the co-author of Essential Mac OS X Panther Server Administration (O'Reilly Media, 2005) and the author of Troubleshooting, Maintaining, and Repairing Macs (Osborne/McGraw-Hill, 2000). He is a regular contributor to Inform IT. For more information, visit RyanFaas.com.