Apple should start taking enterprise servers seriously
Not as cool as iPods, but profitable
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.
A range, with headroom, now
An Apple server needs the same kinds of features and options that you see in Wintel boxes today: a range of processor sockets and speeds, networking, disk controllers, disk drives, integrated tape and other media for backup and recovery, and system management tools. There should be tower machines aimed at SMBs with one and two sockets, and maybe as many as four sockets, with enough disk capacity to provide a few terabytes of RAID 5-protected disk capacity. The rack form factor that Apple uses for the Xserves is not appropriate for office environments, which is why Hewlett-Packard, Dell, IBM, Fujitsu-Siemens, and others sell lots and lots of tower servers. (And this is a lesson that has been lost on Sun Microsystems, hence it has not done as well in x64 servers as it had hoped.) Ditto for rack machines. There should be low-cost, single-socket, barebones machines, mid-sized ones like the current Xserve, and larger machines with four sockets. That means supporting the "Dunnington" four-core and six-core processors from Intel at the least. And maybe, just maybe, Apple needs to go as far as to support a line of machines built on Advanced Micro Devices' "Shanghai" Opteron processors.
I realize, of course, that two-socket servers are the bulk of x64 sales. But no enterprise customer wants to buy into a platform that does not have SMP scalability. They want headroom in terms of CPU, memory, and I/O capacity - even if they never actually use it.
The iron is the easy part. No question about it. Enterprise customers are not driven by coolness (unless they are roasting inside their data centers), but rather by their application choices. And this is probably why Apple has been less than adequate as a server supplier. But this is not an impossible task. For a modern server platform, there are a few dozen databases and bits of middleware that absolutely need to be certified to work on the platform. Vendors throw a party when a given Unix or Linux release breaks through a 2,500-application barrier, and it is not unusual for a release to top out at around 3,000 applications over the course of its life. The task is not insurmountable. If the key server platform providers can do it, along with the operating system suppliers Microsoft, Red Hat, and Novell, then Apple can do it, too. Let's face it: If Itanium can get application support, Mac OS X should be a relative snap.
And because VMware's ESX Server hypervisor has already been tweaked to virtualize the existing Leopard Server (Mac OS X 10.5), virtualization is not an issue. (The product is called VMware Fusion, but it is really ESX Server.)
Just to be clever, Apple could do something it already has the most expertise in the world doing: emulating applications from one platform on its current x64 iron. The "Rosetta" emulation environment, which allows Mac OS applications compiled for PowerPC iron to run on Intel-based Macs, could be used to move Unix and Linux applications over to Mac OS X. Of course, that would mean striking up a new licensing deal with IBM, which ate Transitive, the owner of the QuickTransit emulator that underpins Rosetta, last fall. And that might be a bit tricky, with IBM's Power processor expert, Mark Papermaster, in court trying to get his job as a tech guru for Steve Jobs over at Apple. IBM doesn't want Papermaster to move over to Apple, and it sure doesn't want Apple to jump into the server racket, either.
The other option, of course, is for an intrepid server vendor not afraid of litigation to hack Mac OS X onto their existing x64 server lineup. It has been done by wiseguys on desktop machines, but given that enterprise customers are running mission-critical applications and they like real tech support, this idea is not really tenable. But it is what Apple deserves, just the same. ®