Apple's OS X server strategy: Data centers for everyone

Recently, Apple previewed more features that will be available in its upcoming release of Mac OS X 10.7, "Lion." We first got a glimpse of Lion at Apple's Back to the Mac event in October, when CEO Steve Jobs said that several technologies developed in Apple's iOS mobile operating system would be brought back into Mac OS X as part of Lion. Since iOS evolved from earlier versions of Mac OS X, the "back to the Mac" moniker made sense.

The big question after that early Lion sneak peek was whether Apple would produce a Lion version of its server platform. Mac OS X Server actually preceded the client OS to market more than a decade ago, and the two have been updated in lock step ever since. In fact, every time Apple added a Mac OS X preview section to its website, it also offered a Mac OS X Server preview section -- albeit with virtually no fanfare.

Not this time. In October, Apple added a Lion preview page without the traditional Lion Server counterpart.

Just a few weeks later, Apple canceled its Xserve server line. The Xserve, a 1U rack-mounted server that Apple introduced in 2002, had become a standard fixture in Mac-specific organizations, as well as in the server rooms and data centers of businesses that support both platforms.

The Xserve was also the principal SAN controller for Apple's Xsan file system running on Apple's original Xserve RAID hardware and, after the Xserve RAID was discontinued, on compatible hardware from other vendors. (Apple now pushes the Mac Pro as a controller for Xsan.)

Though the question of Apple's overall enterprise and server strategy remained murky, it seemed unlikely that the company would abandon business customers completely.

Lion Server as separate entity: Gone

Now we know that Lion Server will be built into Lion itself, meaning that Mac OS X Server's code, functionality and services will be bundled with the client OS. Lion Server as a separate entity is gone, but its inclusion in Lion means that a lot more users will get a chance to try it out -- either at home or in the office.

That's a bit shocking, particularly if you're used to dealing with Microsoft's client and server products. I can't imagine Microsoft ever giving away Windows Server in any form for the price of a client license. Even Apple has always charged more for Mac OS X Server than for its client OS releases (though it's worth noting that Apple used to offer a 10-user license version for $499 and an unlimited license for $999, though it killed the limited version with the release of Mac OS X 10.6, Snow Leopard, and dropped the unlimited version to $499).

Of course, it's important to note that the code bases for Mac OS X and Mac OS X Server have always been almost identical. Some of the Unix services, like the Apache Web server, that power Mac OS X Server's features are included in Mac OS X, though they lack some Mac OS X Server-specific additions or GUI management tools. Over the years, Apple has added support for a number of common enterprise technologies to Mac OS X, including the ability to join Active Directory infrastructures, access Microsoft Exchange services, and work seamlessly with Windows file- and printer-sharing protocols. Similar platform-agnostic enterprise features also made their way into iOS, which isn't surprising, given the increasing adoption of the iPhone -- and, over the past year, the iPad -- within businesses.

Mac OS X Server has been a solid Unix-based platform, and Apple has focused in recent years on making the wide range of directory services, user/client management and collaboration features it provides easily accessible to nontechies. That ease-of-management approach helped boost its use in small businesses, which have taken advantage of the unlimited client access that's standard, along with a variety of built-in services -- user management, file sharing, calendaring and collaborative tools, email and Web services.

Apple also pushed Mac OS X Server for small businesses. And it released the Mac Mini server, a modified version of the small-form Mac Mini that shipped with extra storage instead of an optical drive and came with a pre-installed version of Mac OS X Server. The Mac Mini server offered a complete SMB server solution for as little as $1,000.

Lion Server -- the basics

According to Apple's website, Lion Server will offer the same simplified setup options found in Leopard and Snow Leopard. These features make it easy to create a small-office Mac/Windows network that includes centralized user accounts; file and printer sharing; automatic setup of basic Mac workstation options; an internal calendar and contacts server; automated network backup for Mac workstations; email and instant messaging that can be internal-only or connected to the Internet; Web hosting; an internal or public wiki; and secure VPN access.

The process is almost idiot-proof. If you can select a few checkboxes to enable services, and you have a domain name, you can have them all up and running in a matter of minutes once installation is complete.

That same simplified setup also works well for classrooms or departments that are part of a larger network infrastructure. Apple makes it easy for a server to join an existing Active Directory domain or forest (or some other LDAP-based directory system). In this instance, all services are provided by the Mac server but rely on existing user accounts stored in the organization's infrastructure.

Building that ease of use into Lion itself is going to be a huge boon to any small office or department that wants to run its own server without making demands on the main IT department. With no extra costs and the ability to set up core services on an existing Mac, small businesses, home offices and individual schools can all get their basic networking needs met virtually for free.

iOS support and management

In addition to basic services, Lion Server will also include new iOS-specific features. Most noteworthy is a new Profile Manager that can be used to manage iPhones, iPads and iPod Touches, as well as Macs running Lion.

Based on information from Apple, Profile Manager appears to be a Web-based tool that builds on the existing iPhone Configuration Utility. This means anyone with Lion Server should be able to build configuration profiles that can be used to secure iOS devices, pre-configure features and settings, and potentially pre-install apps. Apple indicates that Profile Manager will be able to push settings and configurations to managed devices over the air (something sadly lacking in the iPhone Configuration Utility).

This could easily put Lion Server in the running with third-party management tools for iOS devices. Whether Lion Server will be on par with those products isn't clear. Even if it supports full over-the-air device management, it may not provide the same level of device monitoring as existing management consoles. And it's important to note that most mobile device management vendors support multiple mobile platforms, not just iOS.

As a result, Profile Manager probably won't be an option for enterprise environments. But for small businesses that are Mac- and/or iOS-specific and have more modest mobile management needs, Lion Server could be an ideal -- and essentially cost-free -- option.

In addition to managing iOS devices, Lion Server will support iPad file sharing. This could be a big deal, because right now there is no centralized file-sharing tool for iOS. Apple's primary method is to rely on iTunes syncing, which is clunky at best. The company does offer an app that pairs with the iDisk feature of Mobile Me, but it has severe limitations and is really only useful for copying files to an iPad or iPhone. The best existing options are third-party services like Dropbox, though again there are limitations because iOS lacks a user-accessible file system. (Many Microsoft Office-style apps can access services like Dropbox and Google Docs directly, however.)

Apple's file-sharing system will be based on WebDAV in Lion Server and will allow users to natively access and share documents from the company's iWork apps. While this will boost the usability of iWork, it's hard to say whether Lion Server plus iWork on the iPad will be a broad solution. It has the most potential for the small-business market that Apple appears to be targeting, along with home users who want a simple way to share files between a Mac and an iPad. Apple's answer to file sharing will have to compete against third-party apps and services that are already available and may provide a smoother overall workflow.

Beyond the basics

Providing the basics is fine, but what about going beyond them? Apple is mum on the topic of what (if any) more-advanced features will be bundled with Lion Server as a component of Lion. However, published screenshots of a Lion Server installation indicate that it will include all of the standard Mac OS X Server administration tools found in current and previous releases. This tells me that Apple will almost certainly bring the full set of advanced Mac OS X Server features to Lion Server.

That's quite a lot to include with a client OS that will probably cost about $129 per license (assuming that Apple prices Lion similarly to other major Mac OS X versions, like Leopard and Tiger).

The features of Mac OS X Server that require more-advanced configuration and administration offer a wide range of services, some of them extremely powerful and scalable -- though scaling them would be easier on dedicated hardware, like the now-discontinued Xserve.

These include the ability to:

* Act as a SAN controller.

* Manage a large deployment of Apple's native Open Directory system.

* Use Apple's NetBoot, NetInstall and NetRestore technologies for mass deployments.

* Provide granular client management.

* Manage network home directories and sync those directories with portable Macs.

* Create and manage automated podcast capture, production and hosting.

* Offer advanced integration options with Active Directory.

* Provide secure remote access options.

* Integrate network search with Apple's Spotlight search technology.

* Provide a number of low-level network technologies, like RADIUS authentication.

* Provide advanced email, chat, web services, and calendar and contact management using the CalDAV and CardDAV standards.

Most of these features go well beyond the needs of individual users setting up a home server or small business. However, many are employed in Mac-only and mixed environments at schools and larger organizations. The fact that Apple continues to make them available indicates that the company isn't fully abandoning the enterprise capabilities of its server platform; in fact, by making them essentially free, Apple might actually encourage more widespread adoption. Given the price, many organizations may well explore these features, perhaps first as pet projects and later for daily real-world use.

As with Snow Leopard Server, Apple is likely to make it easy for organizations needing basic services to become familiar with Lion Server through its simpler administration tools, while at the same time opening the door to expanded use if needed or desired.

Brilliant or crackpot strategy?

Apple's decision to build Lion Server directly into the Lion install process could be brilliant. It offers a free trial for anyone who might consider using Mac OS X Server. This could easily appeal to small businesses -- certainly compared to the licensing and expense of alternatives like Microsoft's Small Business Server -- and it might even appeal to individuals. This could mean home users or educators, who could easily create classroom servers of their own. This could lead to further adoption of both Lion Server and related Apple technologies.

On the other hand, the move could make Lion Server seem like a hobbyist platform. Given that Apple has pretty much dismantled its enterprise hardware business and has never had the same enterprise sales focus as other technology vendors, it's easy to see this as a rational argument. If that turns out to be the case, Lion Server could well herald the slow demise of Mac OS X Server.

As with all things Apple, it's hard to see right now exactly what the company's strategy is or what its eventual plans are for Lion Server. One thing is clear, however, and that's that this move will offer any Mac owner access to a pretty impressive range of server features.

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 Faas is also the author of iPhone for Work (Apress, 2009). You can find out more about him at and follow him on Twitter (@ryanfaas).

This story, "Apple's OS X server strategy: Data centers for everyone" was originally published by Computerworld.

Copyright © 2011 IDG Communications, Inc.

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