Is Apple Serious About the Server or Not?

I've often wondered why Apple maintains a server OS and product line. From what I can see, they don't seem at all serious about the server market.

I’ve often wondered why Apple maintains a server OS and product line. From what I can see, they don’t seem at all serious about the server market.

Just because I’m a Linux guy, it doesn’t mean that I don’t find other operating systems interesting. First and foremost, I’m a geek, and I always want to try out the new shiny. I particularly like to pay attention to what other *nix OSes have going on, and the features that will make life as a system administrator easier.

With the release of Leopard a few weeks ago, I was moved to peruse the features you could find in Leopard server. While I haven’t had the chance to get any hands-on time with Leopard server, the feature list looks interesting — particularly for SMBs that might not want to try to hire an admin.

But, looking at Apple’s product line and server features, I have to ask myself if these folks are really serious about competing in the server space.

First, there’s Apple’s policy of only allowing its OS to run on Apple-bought hardware. This is an extremely annoying policy for desktop users, and near lunacy for any company that’s at all serious about getting a reasonably sized slice of the server market pie.

The folks at Sun have come to realize this, and are reaching deals to offer Solaris on Dell systems. I’m not ready to switch to Solaris, either, but at least I’d give Solaris a second look because I have some flexibility with regards to buying a server to use Solaris.

Where are the blades?

I also wonder, where’s the variety? If you look to HP, Dell, IBM, Sun, et al, you’ll see a wide variety of hardware: Low-end 1U servers, four-CPU heavyweights, blade servers, and other assorted options. Most organizations should have little trouble finding systems that meet their needs, thanks to the wide variety of open systems options.

And then there’s Apple. Assuming I’m willing to buy hardware through Apple, what are my options? You have the 1U Xserve, which is a respectable 1U system that can handle up to 32GB of RAM (at a whopping $23K for eight sticks of 4GB RAM…), two quad-core Xeons up to 3.0GHz, and three drives, and you have the Xserve RAID for storage.

And that’s it. Two systems to choose from. No blades, no big iron, nada. I’d pass on Apple’s offerings based on its limited selection of hardware alone.

What about Virtualization?

The other thing that really keeps me from taking Apple very seriously in the server market is its lack of a virtualization strategy. At the risk of sounding like I’m accusing Apple of failing to be buzzword-compliant, I’m not just saying that virt is important because it’s a hot topic these days. I’m bringing it up because virtualization is a key component these days in most companies’ IT strategy.

Forget the buzzword for a moment, and answer me this: What’s Apple’s answer for server consolidation and resource management? Assuming an organization does want to deploy Mac OS X, how can they partition their hardware for best resource utilization?

I’m sure part of this goes back to Apple’s need to control everything. I’ve talked to folks at various virtualization vendors (say that three times fast…) and everything I’ve heard indicates that Apple has no plan to allow Mac OS X (server or desktop) run as a guest host under virtualization — even on Apple’s own hardware.

OK, fine. But why doesn’t Apple offer its own virtualization offering? If Mac OS X had something like OpenVZ or Solaris Zones, that might be good enough. (Assuming an organization wants to be all Apple which is not likely in most cases.)

Now, being Apple, it’s entirely possible the Cupertino crowd has an “insanely great” virt strategy they’re waiting to spring on the world at one of the developer conferences or whatever. For all I know, Steve Jobs will be showing off a way to manage virtual machines using nothing more than a Front Row remote sometime in early 2008, but the company hasn’t disclosed anything regarding virtualization so far.

Anybody Got a Roadmap?

Actually, that brings me to my final point — Apple holds its cards far too closely to the vest for the server market. When I speak to major IT vendors like IBM, HP, Dell, and Sun, I can at least get a picture of the short and long-term plans.

What’s Apple gonna do? They’re not telling. Again, this is a strategy that’s worked for the company on the consumer side, but it’s not working for the IT side of the house.

OK, I’ve slammed on Apple long enough, but the question remains: Is Apple serious about the server? If so, I think they need to change their strategy. Despite my Linux leanings, I think that Mac OS X could be a contender if Apple could get out of its overly proprietary mindset, at least on the server side.

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