Apple SVP Jon Rubinstein on the Reinvention of Hardware
"We're starting to get pull from a variety of places because, in the storage world, as long as you're compatible [and] have the appropriate certifications, people [only] care about how much it is per megabyte," Apple senior vice president Jon Rubinstein told MacNewsWorld, citing the Xserve's increasing popularity.
Apple's senior vice president of hardware engineering, Jon Rubinstein, joined the company in 1997 in tandem with the return of CEO Steve Jobs. Since then, he has overseen Apple's transformation from rudderless computer maker into the hardware visionary that introduced such classics as the flat-panel iMac, the Power Mac G5 and the iPod.
Rubinstein has more than 25 years of industry experience. He designed HP's 9000 series and 300 family of workstations and also worked on HP's 9836 design team. Later, he worked with Jobs at NeXT Computer, directing product development. Before joining Apple in 1997, he was executive vice president and COO of FirePower Systems.
Rubinstein spoke with MacNewsWorld during the recent Macworld Conference & Expo, just hours after Jobs announced some significant additions to Apple's hardware lineup: the iPod Mini, the G5 Xserve and the Xserve RAID.
When you came on board in 1997, what did you see as your biggest challenge in the hardware arena?
Jon Rubinstein: That was a long time ago. I'm going to be celebrating my seventh anniversary in a few weeks.
That biggest thing was that Apple had lost its focus on making great products. We did a whole bunch of restructuring, reorganizing, getting the resources into the right places, and hiring a bunch of new people to come and help. But in the end our objective was to make the best products in the world.
What was Apple's business plan that allowed you to create a range of new hardware, from the Xserve to the iPod?
Rubinstein: We didn't start with a business plan. The first objective was to fix the company. We cancelled a lot of stuff and a lot of businesses. We focused on making great Macs. That was our initial focus.
One of the first things we realized was, "Gee, we don't have a consumer product anymore." That's how the iMac came around.
From there, we figured the world is going portable, and we started making really world-class portables -- iBooks, PowerBooks, et cetera. It wasn't like the long-term business plan [was], "Gee, we're going to do an iPod because we want to be in the consumer space now." It was really: Fix the company, get down to what our basic strategy is. And the strategy is around the Mac being the digital hub. That's the key. That's how products like GarageBand, iPhoto, iTunes, even the Pro products [came to be].
How did you come up with Xserve and Xserve RAID?
Rubinstein: Our customers asked us to. At our Worldwide Developers Conference every year for quite a few years we have [had] a "Meet the VP" or "Beat the VP" -- I'm not quite sure which -- but the number one feedback was, "Hey, we want a rack-mount server." So we explored our traditional customer base. I personally went to a dozen places to understand what their needs were, both on the server side and on the storage side. And that's how this product developed.
This is the second generation. For the first one, we were very humble -- "Hey, this is what we think you want."
Our goal is to [meld] high performance [and] high capability with the Mac look and feel, both in industrial design and mechanical design, for tremendous accessibility and easy serviceability. Then [we add] a UI to that long list of open-source pieces, plus system admin to make it so that you can administer a server and RAID just like using GarageBand. It's the same kind of feel as iTunes or iPhoto, because many environments where people use our servers and our RAIDs don't have a full-time system admin. Usually there's a small group of people, and someone's got to go do it when [he or she] is not doing what [he or she] is normally doing.
At the same time, we found ourselves in larger corporations [running] a heterogeneous environment, where people said, "We really like the Xserve RAID, but will it work with a Windows box? Can you certify it?" So we put the effort into getting it certified with Windows, with Linux, with Solaris. And we support a variety of the more common fibre-channel switches [like those from] QLogic and Brocade.
How will the Xserve G5 differentiate itself in the marketplace?
Rubinstein: The Xserve G5 is really a new class of server . There are really two halves of the G5. There's the G5 processor, which gives you tremendous performance -- 64-bit computing -- and there are a whole bunch of things that come with the processor itself. Then there is the G5 architecture, which brings along the rest of the machine. In the case of the server, we added ECC (error-correcting code), the high-band I/O subsystem, PCI-X, multiple Gigabit Ethernet. There's this large machine architecture that's been integrated on a couple of chips that come with the G5, so one of the tasks of engineering was to take that capability, that performance, and move it from the tower down into the 1U environment.
At the same time, we didn't want to lose our ability to rack and stack these things. One of the things that was key in our design was, if you want to build a small cluster, you want to just put 1Us right next to each other. There are a lot of 1Us you can't put next to each other, that won't go in a rack. You have to leave space between them, and we didn't want to worry about stuff like that. You want 48 nodes, you can put one Xserve G5 and 47 Xserve compute nodes all in one rack.
That seems to go to the issue of scalability.
Rubinstein: High-performance computing is moving from the traditional supercomputer center to really becoming much more personal. A workgroup can have its own supercomputer. Maybe it doesn't have 1,100 nodes with 2,200 processors [like Virginia Tech's]. But they can set up a computing environment that meets their needs. And because Mac OS X clusters so well, it's very straightforward to do.
It is striking that the Xserve RAID costs one-third of the price per gigabyte compared with Dell's, given that Dell has a reputation for being a low-cost leader. Now that you have this competitively priced product, have you been getting increased interest?
Rubinstein: We're starting to get pull from a variety of places because, in the storage world, as long as you're compatible [and] have the appropriate certifications, people ... just care about how much it is per megabyte. So we are seeing a lot of data centers saying, "Wow. Traditionally, we don't use Macs, but we have some Macs and know about them, and here is a really interesting offer from Apple where we get much more cost-effective storage."
That was one of the key things about the second generation of this product: It does have certifications.
The price of the Xserve RAID goes against the conventional wisdom that Apple's products are too expensive.
Rubinstein: If you look at the value you get and look at the whole solution, many times we're actually a lot cheaper. When you buy something with us, it comes with the wheels. While one component may not be the cheapest you can buy, if you look at the whole solution, we're a tremendous value. I think all of our products are really good value propositions.
Many analysts have made comments like, "Apple should port to Intel chips." Are you surprised that these people seem to forget that Apple is a hardware company?
Rubinstein: No, it's not surprising. The world is accustomed to things being sliced horizontally. If you look at the Wintel world, everybody kind of does a piece, and the common wisdom was anybody who did it the other way, that was a bad model. We actually embrace the other way because we think it's one of our strengths -- our ability to look at the whole problem, from the bottom to the top, from our ASICs to our application software. That's what makes the iPod such a wonderful product, from the way your iBook works to how your iPod blends into it and interacts with iTunes and our back-end services and .Mac. It's the whole solution, and I think that's what our key strength is -- that we engineer the products from start to finish.
We care about the user experience. We think about how people use our products, and we strive to build the best products in the world.
Are you flattered or irritated when people either copy or rip you off?
Rubinstein: Innovation is near and dear to our hearts, and one of the things about being innovators is that everybody is going to copy you. It's just kind of the way it is. And there are some things we can protect and some things we can't.
Some things we don't want to protect, like AirPort Base Stations [802.11 wireless technology]. When we came out with AirPort, we wanted the world to take it. We invested a tremendous amount of money, resources, et cetera into making it a reality and into marketing it to get people to see what was possible. We were thrilled when the rest of the world jumped on the bandwagon. I have to say I never figured you'd be able to wander into McDonald's or Starbucks and have AirPort there.
We see ourselves as being the technology and innovation leaders of the industry, and it's natural people are going to copy us. We just don't like straight rip-offs.