BYTE's Look at the OS X Lion testing ground.

Shawn Ingram, Contributor

July 10, 2011

4 Min Read

BYTE -- With the Apple OS X Lion launch, Apple is test-driving its new billion dollar data center in North Carolina and testing it hard. For a lot of reasons.

Sources say the giant 500,000 sq. foot facility in Maiden, NC -- five times the size of Apple's second-largest center in Newark, CA -- must show what it's made of for this week's all-digital launch of Apple's hyped-up new OS, the upgrade OS X 10.7, more widely known as Lion.

It isn't all about Lion, sources add.

Beneath the all-digital release, there's a bigger goal, sources told BYTE. The all-digital launch of the 6GB Lion download to a giant, broad base of users is really designed to see how well Apple will deliver its even more ambitious iCloud service to a new generation of multi-touch, non-optical drive Macs and notebooks. Apple plans to debut them in August and ship September, sources say.

By then, Apple will have repositioned the optical drive-free MacBook Air as it cheapest, entry level device, sources told BYTE just hours before BYTE went live. Apple was not available to comment at that time.

"What better time? Right in advance of iCloud," says Rob Maxwell, lead incident handler at the University of Maryland and a BYTE senior contributor.

So far, Apple execs tell insiders they are confident the Maiden facility will succeed, sources say. "The center is huge and underutilized. No one is too worried," says a source familiar with the effort, adding that Apple is "already seeding" Apple stores with OS X Lion-equipped hard disks and SSDs, Wifi for digital download and, soon, for-sale USB keys with the upgrade.

A USB key with the download is already available for use in stores and will likely be commercially available to customers within 45 days, adds the source, pointing out that such a sale is all upside for Apple.

Apple will not and cannot rely on stores alone. Do the math. Apple Genius Bars generally have room for about 5 or 6 machines at a time. A five to 15-minute download per store customer will back things up quickly, and in-store WiFi isn't a limitless resource either. Impatient customers crowding stores is a hard fail for Apple in this regard. For Apple appearances are everything, and store employees are preparing for overnighters to deal with this possibility.

Digital delivery -- and the Maiden facility is key to this -- must work well for Apple to declare a success for Lion and continue along with its more ambitious plans later.

The Lion download doesn't have to work quickly. It needs to "just work," to turn a phrase Apple CEO Steve Jobs has made popular. Apple customers are used to slow download times on iOS. It isn't about speed. It's about precision and delivery of the $29.99 upgrade from the online store to the broadest base of users with this hefty upgrade.

Again, this is the most ambitious online delivery challenge Apple has ever taken up, and it signals a major turning point for the company.

At its World Wide Developer Conference (WWDC) in San Francisco last month, Apple CEO Steve Jobs telegraphed the plan, talking up the Maiden data center as the way Apple would deliver on iCloud promises. He didn't mention the Mac. But the Mac after all is just a device among many for Apple.


The Maiden, NC facility won't operate alone, sources say. For OS X Lion, Maiden will operate in concert with Apple's second-largest facility, the 110,000 sq. foot center in Newark, CA, its Cupertino, CA facility and likely those of third-party partners such as Akamai, sources say.

Apple needs to find out in a large scale test, and Lion is that test, if iCloud services really will work the way people will expect on current devices and the new Macs and notebooks coming in September, sources tell BYTE.

So far, Apple execs aren't concerned the delivery will fail, sources say. Even if it does, Apple has help on the ground via the Apple Stores and its distribution partners. Store employees are briefed and ready for the worst-case of crammed stores and impatient customers and will likely upsell them native applications that work with Lion's new features while they wait.

If it doesn't work, Apple still has time to rejigger well ahead of fall hardware announcements and iCloud's looming arrival. I'll be watching. For BYTE, I'm Shawn Ingram.

Gina Smith also contributed to the reporting of this story.

Based in Kings Park, NYC , Shawn Ingram is a senior editor contributor at BYTE. Follow him @shawn_i and email him at [email protected].

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