Erik Ableson 6 minute read
April 28, 2008

Apple in the enterprise

Wow, following a few links here and there and ended up on this thread which is pretty much representative of all of the Apple in the enterprise threads that I see on message boards: a whole lot of non-sequiturs. It's not even a discussion, there's just people popping in with comments out of the blue that are for the most part wrong, anecdotal and do nothing to move the discussion forward.

The link that led me to this thread appeared to have nothing to do with the flow of the conversation, but was regarding how Psystar's offering would impact the availability of virtualisation of OS X Server. I fail to see just how this will have any impact at all, but the point of virtualising OS X Server is near and dear to my heart.

The current EULA for OS X Server permits the virtualisation of OS X Server as long as you have a license for each instance. Fairly normal, straightforward policy. The catch is that you must be running it on Apple hardware which is basically an extension of Apple's OS X licencing policy and the fact that they are a hardware vendor with a software development arm that goes beyond the basics of writing device drivers for their hardware.

Your current options for running a virtual machine on Apple hardware are reasonable enough for small scale are Fusion or Parallels or Microsoft Virtual Server. These are all pretty simple products that are based on the "old" virtualisation model which is an application running on a commercial operating system. The problem with this is that your OS was not designed to host multiple virtual machines running concurrently. We can do so, but it's not optimal.

If you're serious about virtualising your production environment, you're running VMware ESX (or possibly Xen if you're the adventurous type). Currently, ESX does not run on xServes or any other Apple equipment, mostly due to the EFI vs BIOS setup. For VMware to release an EFI enabled version should be relatively easy, but there needs to be a business case for it. That business case is waiting on Apple's go ahead. VMware is certainly capable of building and running OS X compatible virtual machines on ESX, but it's the sort of thing that you want to do in partnership rather than as a shot across the bow (resulting in lawyers making money). You have to factor in that the only current benefit would be for existing Apple customers to consolidate both Windows and OS X Servers on one machine. I imagine that this market is probably pretty small so there's little incentive for VMware to port ESX to the xServe.

Something to remember about the impact of the kind of virtualisation offered by ESX is that server vendors are selling a lot fewer servers and the projections over the next 10 years aren't pretty. I've done a number of ESX deployments where the server refresh cycle went from 100 servers hitting end of life and instead of generating 100 purchases, were consolidated onto 6-8 servers. Granted these were heavy duty servers, but it wasn't a 10-1 price difference either. This is going to accelerate as virtualisation becomes more and more mainstream. I visit clients' server rooms and see a lot of empty racks these days.

Apple is certainly evaluating the best way to approach the marketplace given the impact virtualisation is having. As a server vendor, this is a direct threat to their current hardware business model. I see a number of a different approaches they could be considering:

Try and follow the same path as the desktop. They have succeeded in selling the value of OS X to the consumer with the bonus that with Boot Camp or Fusion or Parallels they can continue to use their existing operating systems and software. This is seeing great fruits in the consumer space, but I don't think that this is viable in the server space since ESX-style consolidation is based on pure bang for the performance buck and requires lots of connectivity that you can't easily squeeze into a 1U server box. So even if there was an ESX version capable of running on the xServe and although it's a competent enough server, it's simply not designed for this kind of massive consolidation.

Go head to head with the current server offerings from DELL and HP. The primary machines I see being used for ESX are 2U bi-pro machines at the low end in order to have enough slots for the connectivity and redundancy required. And I'm seeing fewer and fewer of these as larger clients consolidate on 4-processor, 4-core servers with 64-128Gb of memory. Apple could take a completely different route and build a partnership with VMware to offer an ESX 3i version on the xServe and add a 4-processor model. But this seems highly unlikely given that Apple doesn't have the service and support infrastructure in place to make this a credible offer to those companies that already have long-standing maintenance agreements with the existing big players. Why would I make such a large investment in Apple-specific hardware in order to be able to run a few OS X Server instances? A very hard sell.

Sell OS X Server as a software-only product licensed for virtualisation deployments only. Treating the Server version as an entirely different software only product makes sense. They've already made the first step with the virtualisation on Apple hardware, so now all that remains is to offer a version tailored for specific virtual environments.

This would rarely be in competition with an xServe sale. The companies that have deployed serious virtualisation environments won't be buying xServes, no matter how attractive the software capabilities of OS X Server. I've already run into this situation where the OS X Server wiki and collaboration tools were evaluated and found to be a good fit, but that the current policy was everything virtualised. So there's no lost hardware sale, but rather an easier entry point into an client that might otherwise be impenetrable.

Apple gets to keep some of their historic advantages by running in a virtual machine. Everything about the virtual hardware is tightly controlled and rarely subject to change. The traditional technical advantages of a stable hardware platform remain valid.

Selling OS X Server in a virtual only version strikes me as a no-brainer. I only hope that someone high up at Apple agrees.