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Apple should start taking enterprise servers seriously

Not as cool as iPods, but profitable

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Comment Aside from Steve Jobs' hormone imbalance iTunes minus DRM, there wasn't a whole lot happening at MacWorld 2009. And if you were looking for Apple to do something interesting in the enterprise server space, Macworld was definitely not worth the trip.

It's always been something of a mystery that Apple hasn't been more of a force in servers. Back in the 1980s when Apple was dependent on Motorola 68K processors, it was understandable that the company would focus on desktops, and then laptops. But as Apple transitioned to PowerPC chips from IBM and Motorola in the early 1990s, and IBM delivered capable PowerPC servers of its own, Apple had a chance to deliver a scalable and broad server lineup running its own Mac OS operating system to a class of customers who didn't want NetWare, Windows, proprietary midrange boxes, or Unix servers. And yet, Apple never really tried to create a commercial server business.

It dabbled, doing the bare minimum to give its desktop users the option of staying all-Apple for their networks. Apple created Workgroup servers in the early 1990s based on 68K chips, basically beefy workstations with server operating systems on them. (There is nothing wrong with that, this is what all the Unix boys did at the low-end of their server lines). The Apple Network Server came out in early 1996, but stupidly ran IBM's AIX instead of Mac OS, even though it did provide some Apple networking services, spiritually it was not really an Apple computer. The Xserve machines, which debuted in 2002 running PowerPC chips and which have used Intel processors since late 2006, are real servers, and are most definitely Macs. But, Apple basically sells one machine: a two-socket box that is still more expensive than an x64 alternative running Windows and Linux.

Just a cool aid?

This is not a server line, even though it is a foundation from which Apple could work - and should have done already. To not have a broad server line, in fact, is to admit that people and businesses buy Macs mostly because of inertia from having done so in the past or because they think it somehow makes them cool.

With Nehalem Xeon processors for servers imminent and Intel, Super Micro and others already having engineered motherboards for them, now is as a good time as ever for Apple to rethink its server plans. I contacted Apple PR on Monday to try to get a server marketeer or engineer on the horn to discuss the company's server plans beyond its stopping selling its own RAID disk arrays and sticking with the one "Harpertown" Xeon two-socket Xserve box. Alas, Apple has been too busy to respond - as appears to be its custom. But maybe its techies are too busy working on full 64-bit memory support and adding the Zettabyte File System created and open sourced by Sun Microsystems for the future "Snow Leopard" Mac OS X 10.6 release announced last June.

Anyway... you don't need to talk to Apple to talk about the possibilities. For one thing, Mac OS X is essentially Unix with a pretty face, and for a lot of companies, if an Apple server was priced right and real enterprise applications were available, it would be a much more secure option than Windows Server 2008, and a much easier option than Linux. This is particularly true among the small and medium businesses that are shopping for servers for the first time. Once you get them, they tend to stay unless the experience is horrible. And as Apple has demonstrated aptly for more than two decades, it can sell an experience better than it can sell iron. With the economies of the world tightening and SMBs crunched and looking for a platform that is easier to use and administer, it is a good time to get a line of tower and rack servers - real servers, not just workstations with server operating systems - into the field.

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