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So Sayeth Soup: Racking the Cube

By Soup, (soup@macedition.com), 21 July

Sure, the Cube looks cool, but who are they going to try to sell these things to? It’s too much moolah for the SOHO space, and the iMac is kicking butt and taking names in that segment already. The big, bad content creation professionals are doubtless already hocking their Sandman back-issues to afford a dualie G4 tower, and there’s no way in hell they’d touch a box with no expansion bays or slots – if for no other reason apart from wanting more monitors than there are on the set of Jeopardy hanging off their system. You’re pretty much stuck with one screen on the cute lil’ Mac Toaster. So, far as I can tell, this thing is aimed squarely at techno trendoids with more disposable income than is really good for ’em. Hey, that’s me...

I suppose they can make some inroads in the kiosk market: it’d be easier to shoehorn a Cube into one than an iMac or G4 Tower-o-Power. Also, musicians who need a deck on deck when they hit the stage will probably look fondly on the lil’ Apple-branded breadmaker with the 15" flat panel as the only show to take on the road. But apart from these vanishingly narrow segments, who they gonna sell these to? The corporate enterprise market?

Well...

You better sit down for this. And if you make hardware accessories for the Mac, now’s a good time to call your venture capitalist.

Most places that use a lot of computer equipment at once, like vast government conspiracies and lawsuit-happy corporate giants and, well, just about anyone that has an IT department, use industry standard racks to house their equipment. The typical rack is a big metal cabinet with two pairs of rails lined with mounting holes. The standard everyone uses is the 19", which is really 18 and three-eighths inches wide, measured from the middle of one mounting hole to the one opposite. You use these holes to bolt in big, heavy boxes to the cabinet, thereby allowing you to cram a lot of different equipment in a small space. A big UNIX mainframe or supercomputer, like the S80 from IBM, is just a big rack crammed with rackmounted CPU, disk, and peripheral enclosures. It may have a nice swinging door and plastic covers to hide the ugly steel racking, but it’s still just a fancy rack crammed full with enclosures and cabinets rather than a giant-sized computer case like your G4’s.

Racks come in handy especially when you need to get a lot of computers into a small space. ISPs with a lot of web servers, ASPs with a lot of web and database servers, render farms, and Beowulf supercomputers all require just a whole bunch of plain old computers to tackle a single job, and they all love rackmount equipment. This is because they can cram twice as many computers in the same amount of space regular towers or desktops take up. The big problem is when one of them breaks. Unbolting and bolting back in individually racked equipment really sucks: it’s awkward at best and backbreaking at worst, usually requiring two people to manage. If you’re lucky, you might find a rack enclosure that slides out on rails.

Now, the Cube is, if you lay it on its side, about eight inches by eight inches. Put two of them side-by-side, and that’s 16", leaving you around two inches left over if you wanted to squeeze ’em into the width of a rack. They’d take up about 4u (one "u" is around 2 inches) worth of vertical rack real estate, but considering most rackmounted computers only give you a single system in a 4u rackmount chassis, it’s not an ungodly amount of space.

Now, I want you to take a look at Apple’s Cube in all its naked splendor. Picture sliding two of these Cube cores side-by-side into a custom-made rackmount enclosure (one with a fan in back to take care of cooling chores now that the Cube is on its side in an enclosed space). No more hassle giving your rackmount systems maintenance: just push the handle in, and pull the whole shebang out. Replace the drive, upgrade the RAM or just slide in a new core, and away you go. Gone in 60 seconds.

When you consider that two Cubes with Gigabit Ethernet and a hypothetical rackmount chassis would cost less than five grand, every IT manager on the planet should perk up and take notice. There are faster systems designed for rackmount use, there are smaller and cheaper systems for rackmount use, but there ain’t nothing out there that would be smaller, cheaper, and faster. Sun’s Ultra220r is nowhere near as fast and twice as expensive. Cobalt’s Raq is smaller and bargain priced, but not too quick on its feet. The nearest PC equivalent to a dual Cube-core setup would be two Compaq Proliant 1850R boxes, which will set you back $9,000! All of these options are a pain to service in the rack, and none of them come with Gigabit Ethernet as an option, never mind FireWire! (The Proliant and Sun do have more drive bays, though.) As a bonus, the all-in-one cable makes a spiffy and easily managed way to connect to a remote control monitor/keyboard switch, too.

You can cram a cabinet full of Cube cores to run a Mac-centric ISP. You can stuff more machines with G4 horsepower running the Filemaker Pro or 4D databases behind your ASP business into the rack at your co-loc. You want to accurately predict when the next twister will carry off your mobile home? A large installation of rackmounted Cube cores running AppleSeed would be an absolutely lethal supercomputer combination for the budget-minded and Unix-averse. If you want a little more low-level software oomph, an Velocity Engine-enabled Beowulf Linux cluster is the ticket. Talk to these guys at Black Lab; they can hook you up with the software for free and hand-holding for a reasonable price.

The Cube breaks no ground as a desktop, but when you start thinking outside its clear plastic box, the possibilities are astonishing.

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