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Whither OS X Server?

Sections: Apple Software, Desktop Macs, Features, Mac mini, Mac OS X, Mac Software, Macintosh/Apple Hardware, Operating Systems, Opinions and Editorials, Originals, Servers, Snow Leopard, XServe

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Snow Leopard ServerWith the recent demise of XServe (Apple’s flagship server product), technology bloggers have been abuzz with speculation that OS X Server must be next on the chopping block. Has Apple completed a mystical transformation into a consumer electronics company, devoid of concern for desktop hardware? Does Apple not care at all about data centers? The answer is resoundingly “no,” though the justification for the move is not quite so simple.

Justify Your Existence

Apple knows how to ride a wave. There was a mythical “iPod Halo” posited back in the day when the iPod started to get really successful. The theory went that iPod users would be favorably influenced by their iPod’s ease of use and then get an insane desire to buy a Mac, because they assumed it would be just as polished. Scoffers appeared immediately, but slowly faded from sight as iBooks (and later MacBooks) became a staple on college campuses and Apple Stores sprang up around the globe. In this wave of success, the Xserve stands out as a consistent underperformer—Steve Jobs himself said that hardly anybody was buying the Xserve. The Mac Mini server has, according to reports, eclipsed the sale of all other server configurations that Apple offers, meaning the writing is on the wall. Apple is simply staying true to its marketing roots and following the market. Clearly smaller workgroups, like small businesses or embedded Mac-only units within larger businesses are using the Mac Mini as a viable alternative server, so Apple’s research and marketing dollars would be better spent improving that offering.

There Can Be Only One

The idea that OS X Server automatically dies without the XServe is ludicrous. Much of what Apple has done with OS X server is simply building a graphical interface onto existing Unix and leftover NeXT networking tools. As proven by the $29 Snow Leopard upgrade, Apple is not looking to generate huge profits from software sales (something that has been immensely profitable for Microsoft with Office and Windows Server products). Assuming the Mac Mini server continues to sell well, it will be in Apple’s best interest to keep selling it. There are enough small businesses who need basic network services and do not have their own IT departments, and a slightly modified Mac Mini or Mac Pro is much cheaper for Apple to produce than the XServe, leaving them more money to invest in new OS X Server improvements.

The Xserve also fails to serve any strategic purpose in Apple’s product lineup. Rather than delivering an OS X Server iDevice manager, Apple has integrated with Microsoft Exchange, which provides remote device management capabilities. Were Apple to deliver an iOS management console for corporations, it would have to provide a corporate-friendly server solution (read: a box that would easily integrate into a data center). Providing the easiest tools using existing technology is a much better way for Apple to get iOS devices into corporations, rather than trying to preach a new OS and hardware to CIOs around the world.

The Apple of today chooses its battles wisely. For example, by creating enough momentum behind open standards, like HTML5, they have managed to break several Microsoft strangleholds, with Microsoft promising support for HTML5 in future releases of IE. Attempting to design server hardware, an OS, and expecting corporations to add additional staff resources would be an exercise in futility. Apple ceded the desktop war to Microsoft to pursue a much bigger pie in consumer electronics; that market is now expanding into corporate use, and Apple is applying the best strategy to continue that growth. Rather than delivering an arguably better but different solution (think NuBus, AppleTalk, and RISC processor architecture), Apple is choosing a widely available if inferior technology to drive adoption.

Does the Show Go On?

There are a number of ways that OS X Server will continue after the XServe stops being sold. Most obviously, the Mac Pro and Mac Mini will deliver the software to their intended target markets (depending on the intensity of the tasks). That leaves only corporate data centers who need a rack-mountable server with lots of power (meaning that both the bulky Mac Pro and anemic performing Mac Mini are right out).

Given that OS X now runs happily on Intel hardware, it is not all that far fetched that Apple could allow for running OS X Server in a virtual machine. The licensing was relaxed with the introduction of OS X 10.5 to allow multiple copies of OS X Server to run on the same Apple-branded machine; a simple change in the licensing language would make it legal to run the OS on any x86 server hardware. Apple would still profit from the sale of the software, and waste zero dollars building the server hardware. Given that the Apple-built XSAN hardware was retired in favor of allowing XSAN to connect to qualified storage and fibre channel hardware, virtualization is a viable alternative.

Other authors proposed that the demise of the Xserver represents a catastrophe for cash- and tech support-strapped schools, because the XServe and OS X Server represent a significantly cheaper alternative to traditional Windows server licensing. $499 for an unlimited license of OS X Server does indeed represent a great value, but that value has not gone away. And a $2,500 Mac Pro or a handful of Mac Minis end up being cheaper than the $3,000 Xserve, anyway, and such resource-constrained school systems are not likely to care about the loss of the 1U form factor. Focusing on more useful improvements, like better remote administration or innovative student-teacher interaction software would provide more value to the education market than continuing to churn out a loss leader hardware box.

Is the end of the XServe cause for concern? To a select few institutions, yes. If they are completely reliant on the XServe, the bulky Mac Pro or wimpy Mac Mini are simply not viable replacements. But rather than pandering to maintain absolute compatibility and make everyone happy, Apple is chasing a bigger prize. Hopefully, they will come up with a solution for customers who absolutely require a 1U rack mountable system (there is no shame in virtualization, Mr. Jobs), but the demise of this particular piece of hardware does not automatically mean the loss of the software it ran. OS X Server still has viable markets—in fact, the death of the XServe is likely due to its poor sales in comparison with its Mac Mini Server cousin. Apple will kill off products that make little or no sense, but as long as the Mini stays strong, OS X Server is here to stay.

When that product hits end-of-life, there may be cause for alarm…but not before.

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  • Malus Malum

    The Xserve is a bit of a painful form factor. 1U server made sense in a world where ISP's and Co-Lo providers charged by rack space. Those days are largely gone. They now charge by power consumption which ties directly to cooling and delivering high power capacities to individual cabinets. Putting 15,000 VA into a rack is incredibly hard to cable, power and cool.

    Most places are happy just to give you another cabinet.

    The thin long servers just forced everyone to go buy 4 ft deep racks to accommodate all the long servers that jammed up the backs of your cabinets with cables, blocked air flow, and prevented you from shutting the cabinet doors.

    The rails that came with the XServe were unbelievably crappy. It was embarrassing that there was an Apple logo on them. I'm not a big fan of Dell, but boy do they ever make nice server rails.

    I'd be very happy if they modified the Mac Pro a little bit.

    The removable XServe drive trays should stay. They are wonderful.

    Mounting an XServe requires a traditional cabinet or a 4 poster.
    They don't go on a shelf or desk nicely, and they don't fit in a traditional relay rack.

    Change the Mac Pro so that you could take the handles off, and attach rack mount ears to it, and mount it sideways in a rack, cabinet or relay rack.

    A 19" form factor Mac would make an awesome Home Theatre PC, Small Company Server, or desktop machine.

    See ATech Fabrications cool cases if you want an idea of what a Mac Pro server could look like.

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    (Disclosure" rel="nofollow">http://www.atechfabrication.com/products/HeatSync_7000.htm>

    (Disclosure: No, I don't work for ATech, I don't even live in the same country. I'm just lusting after a Mac Pro logic board mounted in their Water Cooled Fanless HeatSync 7000 Case. Yes, I used to work for Apple as a Sr. Systems Engineer)

  • rogerthat

    Thanks for a well written, enlightened, well reasoned look at the issue. You make lots of sense.