Despite Intel Migration, a Mac is Still a Mac: Page 3

Datamation columnist John Welch says it's important to distinguish between the emotional impact and the real world impact.
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The Zen of the Union

Intel, while a business giant, is at heart, an engineering company. When they come up with SSE, Hyperthreading, etc., they get excited. I used to hang out with some folks who did design work for them. When they have something cool, they get excited like little kids on their birthday. Running to a company like Microsoft with a cool bit of tech that may not be immediately useful tends to get you a ''Wow, that's um... really nice. How will it help us sell Windows?'' It's not a negative reaction, but it's not the reaction you want. The reaction you want is ''WOW!''.

Apple is, at heart, an engineering company. I know a lot of those guys. They love new, cool stuff. At their World Wide Developer's Conference, they have plugfests with FireWire and USB, just to see how weird you can build a functional, fully populated chain of devices. In the first WWDC I went to, they pulled off a maxed-out USB bus. It was critically important, because it beat Intel's record at the time.

MacHack. Apple engineers loved MacHack because it was a way to do really cool stuff, even if it was not always useful.

Apple creates hardware. They design motherboards. So does Intel. They both get excited about the same things at an engineering level. They sometimes had different, even opposing business aims, but the engineering teams of both companies live to do what no one else has ever done before. And that's reflected in the business aims of both companies.

This philosophical compatibility brings us to an important point: Intel now has a partner that can be a new source of ideas for chip design.

Apple knows hardware as well as Intel does. They help with microelectronic design. They're good at design. Intel's good at design. They're working together. I have to think that there's a very thick Intellectual Property sharing agreement between the two companies in this deal. Apple has never been, is not now, and never will be a Dell-type company, doing nothing but slapping logos and cases on motherboards from Intel. It is literally unthinkable to anyone familiar with the company that this would happen.

There's a final thing that Intel gets. What is the one arena where, in the last few years, they have been consistently beaten... and beaten badly? Scientific/High Performance Computing (HPC). Who has been beating them? Apple. Look to see some major improvements in HPC from Intel thanks to this partnership.

Impact on Corporate IT

Now that we've looked at some of the background of this deal, what does it mean to sysadmins?

Well, in the next six months, not much. If you need to buy a Mac, buy a PowerPC Mac. There's nothing wrong with them, and contrary to some of the more alarmist reports and rumors, PPC Macs are not going to be useless and/or nonfunctional on Jan. 1, 2006. They'll work even after the January 2006 Macworld Conference and Expo Keynote. They're great boxes, they will continue to be so for as long as you need them to be. As you get into 2006/2007, well, then you have to make some purchasing decisions... maybe.

I will now list all the major facts that we have on this decision:

  • Apple will, starting in 2006, transition its computer hardware product line to Intel CPUs;
  • They will not actively prevent you from trying to run Windows on these machines, but they will not actively encourage it;
  • They will actively prevent you from running a future build of Mac OS X on Dell boxes;
  • Apple is using technology from Transitive for their ''Rosetta'' feature, so that PPC applications can run, for the most part, unchanged on Intel-based Macs, and
  • Apple released an updated version of its development tools, Xcode, so developers can create Intel binaries.

    That's it. Five facts.

    There are a few more details, but nothing that contradicts this. We don't know exactly which CPU they'll go for, what the motherboard design will be, etc. We don't know what machines will be the first to make the transition, although it looks to be the lower end of the line, as it will be the easiest transition and cause the least amount of pain. However, PowerBooks and iBooks could be first, as well, since they need performance gains the most.

    We know some basics about Rosetta, in that so long as an application doesn't require a G4/G5, doesn't need drivers, and is generally well-behaved, it'll run fine.

    Rosetta is an important point here. It's not an emulator, but more of a translator. So there's much less overhead. There's a speed hit, although from what I've seen, it's not ridiculous, depending, obviously, on the application.

    So even if you buy an Intel-based Mac, it's not like your current software is automatically dead. Obviously, Apple learned some things from the 68K-PPC transition, which was much harder, for reasons I don't have space for here. One thing from that transition I will point out is that with this transition, the entire OS is running natively on both architectures, something that was most definitely not the case during the 68K-PPC transition.

    So, in 2006/2007, you'll have to look at the Intel hardware available and the available software. If the software you need isn't available, then is Rosetta a viable solution? If yes, get Intel. If not, can you wait for Intel? (Note to Apple...Roadmaps would be very good here. I know you don't like them, but in this case, make an exception.) If you can't, get the PPC.

    Again, major numbers of Intel-only applications will lag the new hardware by a year or so. That won't really be an issue until the 2008/2009 timeframe. The head of Microsoft's Mac Business Unit, Roz Ho, said the next version of Office will run on both. Adobe didn't say this, but unless CS Suite 3 isn't ready until 2009, it's a safe bet the next release of its applications will run on both, as well. I can't see everyone else being Intel-only by January 2006.

    Those are the main issues, and as you can see, they're small. For IS staff doing Perl/PHP/Shell/etc., it won't make a difference. All that stuff lives far above the hardware. In other words, this really is not anything to panic about. It's going to make for interesting purchase decisions in 2006/2007, but Apple makes that interesting anyway. Anyone who has dealt with Apple is well-prepared for that.

    Move calmly, plan, make sure your applications are available for the hardware you buy, and buy accordingly. It's just like every other hardware purchase decision that a sysadmin has ever made.

    Yes, Apple going to Intel is momentous, but it's not nearly as disruptive as the more emotional reactions I've seen indicate. It's still going to be a Mac, it's still going to be Mac OS X, it's still going to be running on Apple hardware. After all, that's why you buy Macs in the first place, and that's not changing.

    So stay informed, but don't get overly upset. In the end, I think it's a great decision.

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