Apple edges back toward the data center

The arrival of the Mac Pro could indicate a renewed push

Last summer, when I wrote about Apple's relationship with enterprise IT, I talked about earlier Apple decisions to stop producing its rack-mounted Xserve server and refocus its server platform, OS X Server, on the small business market. Since then, Apple has largely focused on making its consumer-oriented products -- the iPhone, iPad, and Mac -- as enterprise-friendly as possible. These devices ship with out-of-the-box support for key enterprise technologies like Active Directory, Exchange, ActiveSync, and a wide range of mobile device management (MDM) solutions that can manage both iOS devices and Macs.

That strategy makes a lot of sense because it removes the need for a large investment in infrastructure or software dedicated specifically to supporting Apple's products. The strategy also built on the BYOD trend that has reshaped the very concept of how IT handles mobile technology. It's a strategy that Apple should continue.

Recently, however, Apple seems to be falling back into some of its old habits and it now looks like the company may be starting to inch its way back to the data center.

Key enterprise items in Mavericks Server

The latest installment of OS X Server maintains a very prosumer appearance, one that makes it attractive to small businesses and users that need key functionality but don't want to invest in heavy IT infrastructure. Many underlying IT-oriented technologies like BIND for managing DNS or Apache for hosting web services and complex web-based applications still exist, but are either hidden from less experienced users or delivered with a simple GUI that only delivers basic functions.

But Apple has delivered additional functionality that seems to go beyond the SMB market in Mavericks Server.

Caching Server in Mavericks, for instance, is designed to improve the experience of downloading and installing iOS and Mac apps and updates. As users who are connected to a business network access the iOS and Mac app stores, Caching Server automatically stores a copy of each app or update they download. As other users request the same app or update, the service automatically delivers them from its local cache.

This has a couple of big benefits: It relieves network congestion and delivers the apps and updates much more quickly.

Although small businesses with a handful of devices can benefit from this feature, they won't see a huge impact when they implement it. The organizations that will see a benefit are those that have a large number of users with Apple devices -- mid-size companies and enterprises.

Another enterprise-oriented feature that debuted in Mavericks Server is Xcode Server. Xcode is the primary development tool for creating iOS apps and Mac software. Although Xcode's integrated development environment is generally considered to be well-designed and quite functional, it has never really been designed for heavy collaboration.

Xcode Server changes that in a couple of key ways. It creates a central repository for code and support for versioning of that code. This makes it much easier for project managers to get a clearer view of a development effort and makes it easier for developers working on a team to share works in progress. It also allows developers to run extensive app testing by setting up bots that run on the server rather than on individual Mac workstations. This streamlines and automates testing, and because a more powerful machine can be used, these processes can occur faster, freeing up resources on the developers' machines.

There are, of course, plenty of smaller app development companies or teams that could benefit from Xcode Server. But as enterprise apps become a more important part of enterprise mobility, it's easy to see Xcode Server as a feature designed for development teams in larger organizations.

The new Mac Pro

Apple's new Mac Pro may also signal a shift to providing more enterprise-worthy hardware. After offering what amounted to a new Mac Pro trailer at WWDC last summer, Apple finally launched the new machine in December, when demand immediately outstripped supply. Now, a month after the Mac Pro's introduction, estimated ship times are still listed at several weeks; order today and you're unlikely to see your new computer before March.

That there was pent-up demand for the new Mac Pro is not surprising. Over the past few years, Apple made no substantive changes to the old Mac Pro design or lineup other than minor bumps to basic components like the processor. Even the design of the previous Mac Pro was an iterative change from the Power Mac G5 that it replaced. Until last year, there were constant rumors and concerns that Apple might discontinue a pro-level desktop altogether, leaving just the Mac mini and iMac as desktop options.

The new Mac Pro may not be a rack-mounted system like the Xserve and it doesn't offer the internal expansion capabilities of either the Xserve or the earlier Mac Pro, but that doesn't mean that it isn't range of PCIe expansion chassis that includes desktop and rackmount options with 20Gbps Thunderbolt 2 interfaces that enable a range of PCIe cards, including video capture, audio interface, 16Gb and 8Gb Fibre Channel, 10 Gigabit Ethernet, SAS and SATA HBA, and RAID controller cards.

It's worth noting that even modest Mac systems can be expanded the same way using a range of Thunderbolt expansion enclosures already on the market.

A round Mac Pro in a square hole?

Even with the Mac Pro's power, however, the device doesn't seem well-designed for the data center... unless you read this Apple knowledge base article in which Apple gives tacit approval and advice on how to safely used a Mac Pro on its side.

That tidbit from Apple coincided with an announcement from MacStadium -- a company that specializes in Mac server hosting and colocation, typically using Mac mini hardware -- that it had developed a custom solution for outfitting its data center with Mac Pros. The company boasts that it can accommodate as many as 270 Mac Pros in a server configuration using just 12 square feet of space in its data center. The company plans to offer hosting on Mac Pro units stored in its data center to its customers (when the machines become available) through either the rental of its own Mac Pros or those purchased by its customers using a send-in option.

MacStadium isn't alone in this endeavor. Mac Mini Vault offers similar colocation services and is also examining how it might accommodate the new Mac Pro.

At this point, it isn't clear whether MacStadium will make its solution available to organizations wanting to rackmount a Mac Pro in their own data center or server closet rather than in a hosted environment. Even if MacStadium doesn't bring its design to market, it's possible that other companies may do so. In addition to selling external Thunderbolt expansion enclosures, Sonnet already ships rackmount enclosures for the Mac mini that include Thunderbolt-based options for PCIe cards. So it's not a stretch to think that Sonnet could be developing something similar for the new Mac Pro.

Regardless of how the Mac Pro will physically fit into a data center, it seems like a very strong contender for organizations that have an investment in Mac servers, either as a primary server and directory platform or as adjunct systems that provide services not easily duplicated on non-Apple platforms like Xcode Server and iOS/Mac app development.

Will Apple make a full court press for OS X Server?

Although Apple seems to be keeping the door open for its own enterprise solutions, it's hard to see the company making a major push for its server platform to the average enterprise IT department. The company will benefit more by ensuring its consumer-oriented products are easy to integrate enterprise-ready options. That includes delivering a clear narrative to IT departments that are often skeptical of corporate bromides like, "You can integrate Macs into Active Directory with almost no effort" or "You can now manage Macs using the same MDM solution you use to manage iOS and Android devices."

It's not much, but the arrival of the Mac Pro and the addition of useful functions in Mavericks Server offer some tidbits of hope for enterprise IT shops. For those that have a years- or even decades-long investment in Apple solutions, they're small but welcome signs that Apple hasn't completely abandoned them or their users.

Ryan Faas is a freelance writer and technology consultant specializing in Mac and multiplatform network issues. He has been a Computerworld columnist since 2003 and is a frequent contributor to CITEworld.com. Faas is also the author of iPhone for Work (Apress, 2009). You can find out more about him at RyanFaas.com and follow him on Twitter ( @ryanfaas).

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This story, "Apple edges back toward the data center" was originally published by Computerworld.

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