Apple's Tevanian on Windows CIFS, networked Quartz

Server ruminations

As of today, Apple's a serious server company again, and it played its hand just right today. It's choosing to fight on turf where it has home advantage, and isn't making claims to revolutionize servers, or topple Dell Computer from its rack-em-high, sell 'em cheap business overnight. Or anytime soon.

Although racks emerged from the needs of service providers to host lots of computers cheaply, the edge server business is one where Apple wisely won't go.

But Apple has a few aces up its sleeve. One is the rich history that it acquired with NeXT - although more accurately, you could argue that NeXT acquired Apple, and got paid for the privilege - and this is a case of the NeXTies remembering what they knew all along.

From Avie Tevanian's first day - and that's more than fourteen years ago now - NeXT was building systems that had to rub along with their neighbors, and we buttonholed Apple's software chief in Cupertino at the Xserve launch on the point.

Now much has been made of OS X's interoperability with Windows. To offer Windows clients file and print services, you need to talk CIFS, which Microsoft's Rob Short has described as "the cornerstone of our everything we do." CIFS encompasses SMB, and now other sins, but it's the latter that inspired the name of the Samba Project, the biggest and best known of the non-Microsoft CIFS interoperability projects. It's also the tollbooth through which you enter the Kingdom of Windows: and while other protocols have become commoditized and are essentially free - such as http - thanks to legible and open specifications, Microsoft can still charge a fee. Now thanks to OS X, Apple now ships more non-Microsoft CIFS clients than anyone else.

But Microsoft has darkened the horizon recently by declaring its intention to license "official" CIFS code, and pointed to a couple of patents. A draft license agreement specifically said GPL implementations were incompatible, prompting the Samba team to issue a "don't panic" statement.

But the patent threat applies to Apple, too. Was this a worry, we asked Avie?

"We always worry, like everyone else" he replied. "But I think we're in an OK position. The issue with the Microsoft license is with the GPL, and that affects a lot of people but not us," he said.

Wasn't there a danger that the patent issue could still be raised against any non-Microsoft implementation?

"I think that's covered by the 1997 agreement. That settled a lot of issues," he added.

That agreement did settle much of the then-current and likely legal battles between Apple and Microsoft, but how applicable it is to future disputes, only the respective lawyers know.

But it's safer to speculate that the patents themselves might be difficult for Redmond to enforce. At least one of them is no longer valid, according to developers familiar with CIFS.

We couldn't resist nagging Tevanian about another aspect of NeXT which was absent yesterday, and that was the ability to run applications remotely. Before the rest of the Unix world opted for X11, NeXT licensed Display PostScript windowing system, similar to Sun's NeWS windowing system. (Like DP, many thought NeWS superior, including James Gosling, the latter's inventor. (Although "hard luck Jim", you replied, when we last waxed nostalgic).

Would we get this ability with DP's successor Quartz?

Avie tackled this with some relish. "Many Mac applications draw into the frame buffer, but drawing into a background store for a networked app is much more expensive. You're doing the compositing into a background store. It's hard to do networked apps, there are a lot of transactions."

"And anyway for remote management, we've go this nice client/server protocol. This offers much better performance."

Which is a good answer, to a different question.

So it doesn't look like Networked Quartz is on the horizon any time soon. Or if it is, Avie isn't saying. Silicon Graphics has an impressive streaming protocol which lets remote users collaborate in different locations, and that we know compresses each frame buffer at a time, decompressing it at the other end. This isn't a million miles from the scientific and educational workgroups that Apple is targeting with Xserve, and you can think of more uses for a multi-user Quartz than we can.

"They're getting there," one veteran NeXT developer told us recently. "Soon we'll have the whole OS back."

But as Apple showed today, it's one step at a time. And in the meantime, there's always X11... ®

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