Next week Apple will have a product event, presumably to announce the next generation of MacBook Pro notebooks. Every year we see these upgrades. The notebooks get faster with more storage and every couple years they look a little different. This time, however, there will be another change — the addition of a new type of peripheral data port called Light Peak that promises, at 10 gigabits-per-second — to be the fastest-yet connection between a Mac and a storage device or even from one Mac to another. And this latter use is key because in addition to Light Peak-equipped MacBook Pros, I expect to see next week a Light Peak Mac Mini. Now that’s interesting.
Light Peak was Apple’s idea in the first place, promoted to Intel by Cupertino as an interface to replace FireWire 800, USB 3.0, SCSI, SATA, you name it. There are precedents for Apple proposing new connection technologies like this. That’s how both FireWire (IEEE 1394) and WiFi (802.11) came to be. Like FireWire, Light Peak uses a daisy chain topology, so most computers will only need one or two Light Peak ports. But unlike FireWire, Light Peak will come in both optical and copper versions, with the machines to be announced next week likely to have Light Peak copper, which is limited to three meters per hop.
In time the optical versions of Light Peak will offer 100 gigabit-per-second speeds over distance up to 100 meters along with a separate electrical connection in the same cable that will easily power large displays. One size fits all.
In one sense it is easy to see Light Peak as just another Apple-inspired technology intended to keep peripheral profit margins higher for a generation or two. That’s what appears to have happened with Apple’s Mini Display Port screen connector. Light Peak is also Apple’s way to leapfrog USB 3.0 for a faster, again higher-margin, platform. But there’s a lot more to Light Peak than that.
MacBook Pros will mainly use the new ports to mount external hard drives for video editing, so we can expect a drive or two to be announced next week as well. But it’s the potential Mac Mini application of Light Peak that I find so fascinating.
Remember that last year Apple stopped making xServe, its 1U server platform, seemingly abandoning the server market and causing outrage in some customers. Apple at the time made lame excuses about how it was somehow more efficient to use big Mac Pro boxes which, yes, had more processors and more cores, but still made no sense at all in a data center environment. Apple was done with the enterprise, we all figured.
Enter the Light Peak-equipped Mac Mini, hopefully next week as “one more thing.”
Remember that Mac-based supercomputer a few years ago at Virginia Tech? Apple got a lot of press from that installation first using G5-based Mac Pro boxes and then Intel-based xServes. But the installation was definitely non-trivial, as was the software.
Now imagine a supercomputer built from Light Peak-equipped Mac Minis. You’d unpack the Minis, plug them into power, plug them into each other with one Light Peak cable each, then load your software in one of the Minis, reboot them all and go out for a frosty beverage. That’s it, thanks to Light Peak, xGrid, and Grand Central Dispatch.
Xgrid has been built into OS X for years, offering some nice loosely coupled multiprocessing capabilities that few people have taken advantage of. Grand Central dispatch is now built into OS X that allows high efficiency task scheduling not just on the local multi-core machine, but down to individual program threads between tightly coupled machines (think FiberChannel). But Light Peak makes FiberChannel look slow, is inexpensive (FiberChannel is not), and is super easy to set up. And don’t forget Apple has invested gigabucks in that huge North Carolina data center — a data center that is schedule to open very soon.
Start with a Light Peak-equipped Mac Mini. Need more horsepower? Just get another Mini and connect with Light Peak. Grand Central will automatically distribute the load across multiple devices. A 2U rack will hold eight Mac Minis that, tightly coupled, will run rings around an Xserve. Better yet, given a good high bandwidth connection, OS X will be able to access applications and data in the cloud as though it were local.
This combination of seamless local and cloud computing could open up whole new markets for Apple which you may also have noticed has started opening Business Stores.
It’s not that Apple doesn’t want enterprise business, they just want to support the enterprise market from the same simple product line, selling Mac Minis by the ton. With Light Peak, xGrid, Grand Central Dispatch and Mac Minis used as compute bricks, organizations will be able to build servers of any size, automatically backed-up from the woods of North Carolina.
Apple is out-Googling Google.