It was a sad day for most Mac OS X Server admins when Apple announced they were discontinuing the XServe line because as Steve Jobs said, "They just aren't selling well." No replacement was offered, save for a beefed up Mac Pro and the Mac Mini server option. While both of these may work for some organizations, a real server solution was now missing from Apple's line-up.
Or is it?
Apple released their new processor for the coming year's iOS products when they debuted it in the iPad 2. This new processor is called the A5, and it is based on the ARM Cortex A9 reference processor. The A5 is a dual-core system-on-a-chip (SoC) running at a variable speed of 800Mhz to 1Ghz. This variable speed allows it to save more power when not performing major tasks.
The processor costs Apple more to produce their own chip than to buy an off the shelf ARM processor. Some estimate the difference to be around 50% more, but the extra cost gives Apple the ability to make a better chip by modifying the reference design to suit their needs. Apple will be able to reduce this cost over time by putting the A5 into every iOS device like the iPhone, iPod Touch, and AppleTV. The performance gains are well worth it and gives Apple a major advantage in the mobile market space. While we don't know what Apple plans for next year's A6, we do know ARM's plans for future ARM processors.
I remember back when I was in college having to log into a workstation or a mainframe through a dummy terminal. Mainframes and workstations dominated the computer industry and were big and expensive. If you wanted to use a computer, you had to use one of these. By the time I graduated, that had all changed. Personal Computers were cheap enough to not only fill a computer lab, but also for students to even own one. Intel and the x86 processor helped to start this computer revolution. The x86 processor brought computers down to an affordable level. The personal computer was much slower than a mainframe or workstation, but they were also much cheaper and fast enough to do the basic things. The personal computer (or PC) began to dominate over these more expensive mainframes and workstations. You can still buy Mainframes today and they are still much faster than personal computers, but they are only used where they need that extra processing power. Intel has come to dominate the personal computer market for processors. Apple used to use the PowerPC chip, but recently move to Intel due to lack of performance with the PowerPC. AMD still makes a drop in replacement for Intel's x86 chip, but most computers still come with an Intel chip inside. The prices for their chips range from as little as $100 all the way up to almost $900 per chip. That is nothing compared to mainframes which start out around $400K.
You may be wondering why I am taking this trip down memory lane. Well, history is about to repeat itself with a new player — who is not really all that new — ARM. ARM originally stood for Acorn RISC Machine. ARM processors are used in all kinds of imbedded devices from smart phones to digital video recorders or DVRs. Acorn Computer Ltd started making the ARM processors back in 1983. Apple got involved with the ARM chip back in the 1980s and Acorn spun off their partnered project into another company called Advanced RISC Machines Ltd. Apple then used these new ARM chips in the Apple Newton PDA, the first real mobile computer. Later, the company changed the name to ARM Ltd. ARM began licensing their chip in the early 2000's. The ARM chips have continued to be developed over the years, getting more powerful, yet still are very power efficient.