[Beowulf] Joe Blaylock's notes on running a MacOS cluster, Nov. 2007

Robert G. Brown rgb at phy.duke.edu
Wed Nov 21 11:18:22 EST 2007

On Wed, 21 Nov 2007, Geoff wrote:

> While their OS is indeed constrained to their hardware, you can freely 
> install and run other OSs on their hardware (Windows, Linux and *BSD) so I 
> would agree they tend to position themselves as a hardware company but I 
> disagree that they will need to make a choice in the future about that... 
> unless market conditions change, of course.

Well, given that Apple was basically driven to the brink of bankruptcy
(and saved only by massive infusions of capital and because of the fact
that Microsoft couldn't afford for them to go away either, or else
NOBODY could even PRETEND that they weren't the competition-killing
monopoly that of course they are anyway), given that Jobs second effort
died a well-deserved and horrible death, given that Sun microsystems is
sweating its way through even its huge accumulation of capital with
little end to the bleed in sight, given that the corporate graveyards of
the past are littered, quite literally, with companies that tried to do
both, well... I think that market conditions COULD change overnight.  Oh
DEC and NeXT, we hardly knew ye...;-)

I also think that Apples' current success has a lot more to do with its
adoption of a Unix base and quiet absorption of a large chunk of
unix-derived code into its code base than anything else.  Oh, and a few
devices like the iPod that gave them market cred once again with the
young market, which had been more or less completely one over to
game-playing Microsoft.  But we'll see.  Jobs has proven adept at
succeeding wildly and then squandering it all with one or two terrible
and religious decisions (because Apple was never a company, always a
cult).  Has he learned from his mistakes?  We'll see.

> I think more companies and vendors need to better focus on the integration 
> between hardware and software.  Being one or the other results in too many 
> gaps in the implementation of useful technologies.  Having a default choice 
> with a good track record and a clear focus is a "really good thing" (TM) in 
> my opinion.  It does increase the cost of the computing platform but there is 
> plenty of room in the universe for that.

I agree, actually.  If Dell simply decided to invest the TINY bit of
money required to build and support a "Dell Linux System" and actually
drop prices to match -- the biggest piece of work it would require of
them is to use some care in their hardware choices and dump the cheapie
broadcom WLAN NICs, for example.  The only other thing that would be
needed would be to actually market them.  As I noted earlier, to really
trick out even a home computer with something beyond MS Works (a.k.a the
most useless free package in the universe) costs the hidden cost of the
base OS plus hundreds of dollars in AV, Office, and applications.  In an
apples-to-apples marketing campaign, they could demonstrate the real
cost savings not of $50 but of more like $500 in buying otherwise
identically outfitted systems, each perfectly adequate for use in a home
computing environment.

>> Sun needs to make the same choice.
> Perhaps.  In my view they have made some unfortunate compromises.  The lack 
> of floating point performance when the Niagra processors hit the market was a 
> bad compromise, for example. I am sure they saw their AMD offerings as a 
> balance to that. Their initial implementation of a cheap 3rd party IPMI/SMDC 
> solution for their x2100 series systems has been a huge PITA for my current 
> client.  There is such a thing as too much choice and Sun was (and perhaps 
> still is) offering too much for customers to be able to make an informed 
> purchasing decision.

They are hampered in so many ways.  They are a high-margin sales company
in a world where computers are such a complete commodity that there is
no margin in them any more.

So are they a company from whom you can buy really great servers?  Maybe
but so is IBM, so is Penguin, so is Dell, and even Apple servers are OK.
Lots of tier 1, plenty of tier 2, and then there is tigerdirect.com...
So why pay THEM anything much over market, which means their marginal
profit is going to be low.

Are they a company that sells Solaris?  Sure, but nobody wants to buy it
anymore.  Linux -- even from e.g. Red Hat -- is at worst competitive
with it, at best free in comparison to it.  Linux comes with 8 gazillion
applications, automated update mechanisms, a constant stream of
innovations and improvements, new device support, and none of it has to
be supported by Sun's SEs.  Customers have become savvy to the
advantages of having open source as well.  So now Sun GIVES away Solaris
if you ask them nicely, and are moving open -- just about exactly
fifteen years too late.

Curiously, I told Duke's Sun rep just about fifteen years ago "Y'know,
you've got a fully functional Intel-based Unix -- if you focussed on it
and sold it for $50 a pop full retail for all these Intel PCs and worked
on developing a real software base for it, you'd own the Universe in
three years...".  They scoffed.  Sun sold HARDWARE at the time, Sparc
boxes, and no way were those Intels ever going to take that market away.

So Sun has finally learned the hard way that they're a software company
after all (or that they can be a very modestly profitable hardware
company in competition with all the other modestly profitable hardware
companies), but now they are too late to be able to make real money with
a high volume of low margin sales, and Linux absolutely guarantees that
(whether or not they can take out MS) nobody else is ever going to make
money from a low value of high margin sales in the business ever again.
And Apple is appallingly vulnerable to the same thing.  Their ONLY real
advantage over linux besides the mystique and religion is the relative
ease of use of the user interface and of course their complete control
over the hardware.  Either one could go away at any time.

Too bad...


Robert G. Brown
Duke University Dept. of Physics, Box 90305
Durham, N.C. 27708-0305
Phone(cell): 1-919-280-8443
Web: http://www.phy.duke.edu/~rgb
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