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Apple's Mac Muscles An And Woos Scientists
Who Need Complex Computing Power

By Hiawatha Bray, Globe Staff, 8/20/2002

High-powered computers are the ''tech'' in biotechnology. So it's no surprise that Cambridge- based biotech giant Genzyme Corp. uses lots of muscular workstation machines, most of them running the sophisticated Unix operating system.

But what is surprising is that some of these powerful Unix boxes bear the trademark of Apple Computer Inc. They're Macintoshes - the same user-friendly computers that have earned Apple a loyal following among artists, publishers, and home computer users.

Apple is in the midst of a high-profile effort to persuade consumers to abandon computers using Microsoft Corp.'s Windows operating system in favor of the Mac. It's a campaign that'll heat up this week with the release of Jaguar, the newest version of Apple's OS X operating system. But OS X has already made inroads among scientists and engineers. They say the software has transformed the Mac into a computer capable of heavy-duty scientific and technical computing tasks.

Scott Sneddon, a senior scientific fellow at Genzyme, has been using Macs for years on clerical tasks. ''I'd be making PowerPoint presentations on the Mac and sending e-mail to people on the Mac,'' Sneddon said. Meanwhile, he would develop and run chemical analysis software on cheap PCs running the free Linux operating system, or on Silicon Graphics workstations running a Unix-type operating system called Irix.

But then came OS X, the most radical update of Apple's operating system software since the Mac came to market in 1984. Unlike previous versions of the Mac operating system, OS X is based on Unix, a sophisticated operating system invented at AT&T Corp. in the 1970s. Unix today is the favorite operating system for scientific and technical computing, so Sneddon was thrilled to learn that his favorite personal computer could handle the same kind of heavy lifting as his Silicon Graphics machines.

''OS X is a better Unix development environment than Linux or Silicon Graphics Irix,'' he says. Now Sneddon writes his software on a dual-processor Mac workstation in his office, producing chemical analysis code that runs on the Mac but can easily be modified to work on the Irix and Linux machines as well. Sneddon also uses a Mac PowerBook laptop with a wireless high-speed Internet connection that lets him tinker with his code while at home.

Sneddon's story isn't unusual. Lots of scientists are taking a long second look at a computer that many of them, not long ago, might have dismissed as a toy.

''OS X, I think, is the best Unix I've seen come along, ever,'' said Craig Hunter, an aerospace engineer at NASA's Langley Research Center in Virginia. Hunter and nine of his colleagues are replacing their Silicon Graphics workstations with Macintoshes.

Hunter uses computational fluid dynamics software to simulate airflow over the wings of an airplane. It's extremely complex work that he sometimes runs on a Cray supercomputer with 64 processor chips. But Hunter says the PowerPC G4 processors used by the Mac are as powerful as those in the Cray.

''If I put together 64 G4s, we'll get the same performance as the Cray for a lot less money,'' he said. Indeed, Hunter's department has purchased seven Apple XServes - rack-mounted Macs designed for use as servers - to link in a high-speed computing cluster.

Gaurav Khanna, assistant mathematics professor at Long Island University in Southampton, N.Y., tells a similar tale. Khanna designs astrophysics software to simulate the effects of a collision between black holes in space. Up until this year, he and his colleagues relied on a cluster of Silicon Graphics machines. Now, they're being replaced with Macs.

''Before OS X, I used to have a Mac for essentially the same thing everybody else used it for,'' such as word processing, Khanna said. ''I never used it for doing real science.'' Besides, much of his physics software uses the computer language Fortran, which didn't run well on earlier versions of the Mac. But ''with the coming of OS X, which is really Unix underneath, converting all that stuff is incredibly, incredibly easy,'' Khanna said.

And it'll keep getting easier, as software toolmakers gear up to build better languages and code libraries for the Mac. Numerical Algorithms Group, a Chicago-based company, specializes in creating computer languages tuned to the demands of scientists. President Rob Meyer says the company had stopped making products for the Mac a decade ago ''because basically Apple moved away from scientific computing.''

Now they're back, with a new high-performance Fortran for OS X and the Mac G4 chip. Meyer, a longtime Windows user, is so impressed with OS X that he's thinking of adopting a Mac as his personal machine.

Apple is using a barrage of TV and print ads to win consumers away from Windows computers. The company's efforts to appeal to technical users have been more low-key, including print ads that talk up OS X's Unix roots, and demonstrations of Apple products at scientific conferences, such as last week's Drug Discovery Technology meeting in Boston.

Phil Schiller, Apple's senior vice president of worldwide product marketing, says his company can't provide hard numbers on how many Macs are being purchased by scientists and engineers. But he says there's been a surge in interest from technical publications planning articles about OS X, as well as increased sales to universities.

Apple is trying to help the trend along by working with key scientific allies to make the Mac even more attractive. For example, a DNA searching program called BLAST is a vital tool for many biotech researchers.

''This is their Microsoft Office,'' said Schiller.

Apple worked with the biotech company Genentech Inc. and Stanford University to write a version for OS X, which also took advantage of the special features of the G4 chip.

''Our scientists found that they could accelerate it dramatically,'' said Schiller. Apple makes the new version of BLAST available for free, but to run it researchers would have to purchase Macs. If Schiller is right and the OS X version is much faster than the others, scientists in the ferociously competitive biotech business will cheerfully shell out for new computers.

None of this poses much of a threat to Apple's archrival, Microsoft, which derives little of its revenue from the scientific market. According to industry research firm International Data Corp. of Framingham, just over a million Microsoft-based machines were sold into the heavy-duty workstation market last year, compared with total sales of 133 million Windows computers worldwide.

But Apple's science surge could spell trouble for the top makers of Unix workstations, such as Silicon Graphics Inc., and industry leader Sun Microsystems Inc. IDC reports 405,000 Unix workstations were purchased worldwide last year; by comparison, Apple sold 3.2 million desktop and laptop computers. Apple's Schiller said that with OS X under the hood, every Mac is a Unix workstation.

But Sun and Silicon Graphics executives say that the Mac push into scientific computing has had no impact so far.

''To hear that people are moving from high-end graphical workstations to a low-end commodity box is a trend that's been happening for some time,'' said Dan Stevens, a marketing manager at Silicon Graphics. Stevens said his company's market for large, ultra-powerful systems remains secure.

Brian Healy, a marketing manager at Sun, thinks the Mac isn't quite ready to become a major player in scientific computing.

''I think they got serious when they moved to Unix,'' Healy said. ''Their move to OS X was a good move on their part.''

But he added, ''They're still a little bit immature. They're just starting in with OS X. They don't have the app [software] support we have.''

This view is shared by Kara Yokley, who tracks technical workstation computers for IDC. Yokley thinks scientists and engineers will be slow to migrate in large numbers to the Mac.

''There's still the issue of how it fits in an overall solution set,'' she said. ''It's just a different flavor of Unix. ... A lot of the applications aren't there yet.''

In addition, both Silicon Graphics and Sun computers use chips that process data in 64-bit chunks, rather than the 32-bit chip used in the Mac. The 64-bit chips allow for the processing of extremely large databases, beyond the reach of a 32-bit system.

Both Healy and Stevens say that Apple is in no position to challenge them in this market segment. They expect that most of Apple's gains will come at the low end or mid-range of scientific computing.

It's a relatively small market. But then Apple is a relatively small company, and every market share gain counts for a lot. Besides, Apple has a history of successfully dominating market niches. It may have found a new one in the nation's laboratories.

Hiawatha Bray can be reached at