Apple is turning science into an art form with its high-end computing products. Macworld news editor Jonny Evans spoke with Apple’s science-&-technology markets director Liz Kerr about the company’s offering for the global sci-tech community.

Apple’s commitment to providing powerful solutions for scientists is becoming part of the company’s core business as its products for this market continue to gain in popularity.

At a recent event in Glasgow – Intelligent Systems for Molecular Biology – Apple was a sponsor and ran a cybercafe. More than 2,000 life-science professionals from across the world attended the event, which also incorporated the European Conference on Computational Biology. Apple demonstrated Xgrid and Mac OS X to attendees, and Apple’s science-&-technology markets director Liz Kerr flew to Scotland from Apple’s Cupertino HQ to attend.

She told Macworld UK: “There’s three main things scientists need. First, they need results fast. Science is inherently very competitive, and the ability to get results and make the next decision – whether to continue an experiment or move to another – really matters. Decisions like these are made daily, especially on the commercial side."

She added: “Scientists also need to be able to be creative. Apple thinks of science as a creative profession, and not different from the DTP or video markets, Scientists have to be creative in how they approach their problems, and the Mac platform helps them with that.

“Scientists need to find solutions that make financial sense. This was the case at Virginia Tech, and continues to be the case elsewhere.”

University challenge

Top US college Virginia Tech deployed 1,100 Power Mac G5s to form what was at the time the world’s third-fastest supercomputer.

Kerr said: “Virginia Tech was a great case study for us, because they did something no one had done before. It showcased the power of the technology to a group that probably hadn’t seen it before.”

That group liked what it saw. The University of Maine is now building a 256-node Xserve G5-based supercomputer that is financed by the US Army. Military contractor Colsa is also engaged in building a 1,566-strong cluster, which is expected to become the world’s second-fastest supercomputer.

One of Apple’s solutions is its Workgroup Cluster for Bioinformatics, a cluster of 16 Xserves in a noise-suppressing, movable chassis.

Kerr revealed how the cluster is benefiting scientists in very real ways: “Oakland Children’s Hospital is using one for its ground-breaking research into Chlamydia. The cluster was a perfect fit for the project, a result of which will hopefully be better healthcare for people, especially for those in developing countries.”

Kerr revealed that one US Navy team is using a Workgroup Cluster for bioterrorist-attack detection research. “It’s the Navy, so they won’t tell us what their data is, but they are very pleased, and are adding nodes to it.”

A 75-node cluster has also been installed at Singapore’s Life Sciences Institute. “They’re trying to develop a bio-tech industry there,” Kerr said.

Apple drops in

Kerr’s understanding of scientists’ needs is rooted in her background – she took a PhD in Immunology and worked at leading US biotechnology company Accumetrics. Eight months ago, Apple came calling.

“There’s something about Apple. If Dell had called I would’ve deleted the message. It just would not have interested me. Apple holds a fascination for a lot of people, myself included.”

She added: “The real goal is to have scientists spend time on science, not computers. Scientists want to be scientists, not IT experts. Apple’s technology is a very powerful tool, but it’s up to the scientist to apply it in a clever way, and they will do that.”

The science market is a technical market that understands Unix and open standards, Kerr said: “These people for the most part care about standards, and understand them more than anyone else on the market.

“The days when scientists would use their computers for spreadsheets and emails are gone. It’s really hard to be a successful scientist without access to sophisticated tools.”

“Take the seeming difference between video and sci-technologies. The truth is that these technologies are aligned. One example is 3D visualization. In life sciences, you have people looking at 3D models of DNA and proteins, and they want to rotate these models, in order to see how they fit with other molecules. They must be as real and as accurate as possible.”

Ease-of-use, stability, low maintenance and G5 processor power also matter, and Kerr is optimistic on this score. “If you think about where we are now with Mac OS X 10.3, and what’s coming in Tiger, it’s incredible. Scientists finally believe Apple got it right, and the professional markets are starting to pay attention, too.”

She added: “You don’t have to compromise ease-of-use and design in order to make a computer high-powered. There may have been some confusion on this in the past. The feeling that ‘if it’s easy-to-use it can’t be serious’ is completely not the case, and I think we’ve demonstrated that.

“We’d like to continue to provide nice solutions to the science market, to demonstrate we really care about it. They need to know we’re not fickle about this. Science is a core market for Apple, and is a key part of our strategy.

“Many of our customers are happy to demonstrate our solutions and talk about what they have done, and that says more than people at Apple ever can.

“I’ve spoken with many people who have replaced their Silicon Graphics machines with Power Macs.” Kerr doesn’t claim Power Macs offer all the functions of an SGI machine, but said: “What I’m learning is that people who buy SGI Workstations don’t use all that functionality, and so replace them with Power Macs.

“They might not be new SGI machines, but people are discovering that for ten per cent of the cost they can get a Power Mac that does everything they need, and performs better than their SGI. I think that this is an interesting trend.”