Apple is experiencing the first signs of success in the US server market.

The company has attracted new converts among hardware resellers with Xserve. Companies used to selling servers from Sun Microsystems and IBM have started to add the Xserve to their lineups, saying the system brings Apple's celebrated ease-of-use to a powerful server. The combination of elegant software and a well-constructed system have the resellers convinced Apple can reach out beyond its loyal customer base and into the data centre.

"It surprised us, because the demand for Xserve is better than we thought it would be," said Robert Wilkins, executive vice president of computer seller PC Connection. He added: "Our sales have more than quadrupled on the Xserve in the last month, and we have a good mix of new customers and existing customers upgrading to the new server."

Stirring Although analysts doubt Apple's ability to bite off a big chunk of the server market, they do say the company has come up with a system that could stir up healthy competition with its rivals. Apple's Unix-based Mac OS X Server operating system – with an unlimited-client license, coupled with its competitively priced hardware – could be the keys to making the Xserve attractive to new customers. Apple has also added several management and security tools to version 10.2 of Mac OS X Server that could bolster Xserve's appeal.

"The new Apple gear runs Unix as its foundation, so there is a real opportunity for people who like something graceful, but also need all the normal network services and standard Unix/Linux kind of stuff," said Jonathan Eunice, an analyst at Illuminata.

Hardware resellers are picking up the product. Since its founding in 1989, Marathon International Group has been a Sun server reseller. However, the company will add the Xserve to its line up after hearing positive reports.

Jim Hall, president and chief executive officer at Marathon, said: "Because the OS is based on Unix, it communicates easily with Unix servers such as Sun machines on the back-end running Oracle or other database software such as MySQL. It has features such as built-in firewall software, the Apache Web server with PHP and Perl extensions, Sendmail, and single or dual PowerPC processors that make it a great front-end server."

Solaris system Hall sees the Xserve as a natural fit in his Sun line-up. Administrators familiar with Sun's Solaris version of Unix can fall back on a command line interface with the Xserve, but also manage the server through Apple's popular Mac OS X GUI (graphical user interface).

Hall said: "Apple takes the stability and portability of Unix and adds its end-user interface to it. The users who don't need, or want to know they are running a Unix OS don't have to."

The use of Unix also means that plenty of business and "enterprise class" software already exists for the Xserve, with "only minor porting" efforts required to get it to run on the new server.

PC Connection's Wilkins agreed that ease of use is one of the key factors that makes the Xserve appealing, particularly with small and medium-sized businesses.

Costs Wilkins said: "Apple has a winner on its hands with OS X Server. It's easy to put up, and it does not take a super tech-genius to run the thing. This helps mid-sized businesses cut down on some of the administration and technical-support costs with a PC server."

Apple's addition of management features to the latest release of its server OS could make life even easier for administrators. The management tools resemble those found on easy-to-use appliance servers on which users can add new users or change account details with a few clicks.

Early feedback has Apple convinced that it can expand out of its home ground, the education and graphics markets, and toward the business sector.

Alex Grossman, Apple's senior director of server and storage hardware, worldwide product marketing, said: "A lot of companies don't want to look at their previous vendor. because they feel that they are out of touch. The markets are driving interest to us. We are seeing a number of Sun resellers come over and say: 'You know what, we would like to drive the Xserve.' "

As it tries to drum up new business, Apple faces the tightest hardware market in years. The company will need to stay competitive on price and go up against vendors with much more complete hardware arsenals, Eunice said.

Hard sell Eunice added: "The challenge is, who is going to buy it? There is so much pricing pressure and competition in the market. The reality is that Apple will have a hard time going to financial communities or telcos with this product."

Apple needs to provide a clear message to potential customers, and convince them that the company is fully behind Xserve for the long haul, Eunice said.