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Inside Mac OS X Snow Leopard Server: Apple's server strategy

Apple's modern server strategies

Apple continues to sell Mac OS X Server, primarily to its education users, but has never managed to make much of an impact with its server operating system despite its being relatively easy to set up and use. In 2002, Apple debuted the Xserve as its return to selling dedicated server hardware. The new model made some impact in high performance computing but has never been a major part of Apple's hardware revenues.

Given that Apple is now a major player in serving its own media store with iTunes, the world's leading mobile software outlet in its App Store, manages a leading HD movie trailers video service, and serves up push messaging and cloud sync services to millions of paying customers, one might wonder why Apple's own server products haven't caught on better in the general market for server software.

Apple continues to develop consumer and workgroup server products in a variety of overlapping and complementary areas:

Mac OS X Server: Apple's server package supplies core network services such as DNS, DHCP, web, file sharing and printing. Directory services supply a level of security and convenience for network services, providing users with secure single sign-on for everything they need to do, all without transmitting their actual passwords over the network.

Collaboration: Mac OS X Server has also expanded in recent releases to offer a series of new workgroup services: calendaring, contacts, wiki collaboration, and of course email and instant messaging. This package offers an alternative to Exchange Server and in some cases SharePoint, although many Exchange admins are quick to revile the product as not being identical in scale and scope to Microsoft's offerings. Still, Apple's product costs very little for a group of 100 users, while Microsoft's popular alternatives quickly add up to cost tens of thousands of dollars.

Mac OS X Server costs

iPhone services: Apple is also integrating Mac OS X Server with its iPhone platform, serving up customized wiki pages to mobile users, supporting a new secure proxy called Mobile Access that allows users to access their Intranet and sync their email, calendars and contacts via SSL without having to manually set up a VPN connection.

Podcasting: A relatively new feature of Mac OS X Server, Podcast Producer, allows schools and companies to set up advanced workflows for digitally taping lectures and events and automatically submitting them to a server system that processes the video, adds corporate titling and video effects, and then distributes the finished product as podcasts via iTunes, QuickTime Streaming Server, or a local media library.

Xgrid: A key feature of Podcast Producer is its integration with Xgrid, Apple's network distributed processing technology. Xgrid allows a company to set up client machines to accept tasks from the server when they are idle, which results in video processing at supercomputer speeds with zero additional hardware purchases.

Mac OS X Server suffers from a split personality that on one hand seeks to be point and click simple for Mac users, and on the other hand attempts to provide advanced users with a large degree of control. Most users will quickly graduate from the basic "Server Preferences" admin tool and want to dive into the more complex world of Server Admin, but the inherent complications involved with managing a server can overwhelm many Mac users expecting wide open flexibility and sheltered simplicity in the same package, at the same time.

Pro Apps: Apple's server products have also meshed with the company's Pro Apps. At the end of 2006, Apple acquired Proximity's "artbox" products for video asset management, and released the technology as Final Cut Server early last year. The product doesn't require Mac OS X Server, but can scale up from a workstation to a large installation running on server hardware.

Database: The company's FileMaker subsidiary quietly makes workgroup database products that similarly don't require Mac OS X Server, but can scale up from a desktop installation to a server-based network deployment.

Server hardware: Apple continues to sell its Xserve, and expanded its server offerings in designing a relatively low cost Fiber Channel RAID appliance in 2003; it discontinued the effort five years later to delegate its RAID storage sales to a partner.

SAN software: It continues to sell Xsan, a software product designed to allow multiple servers or clients to access a networked storage appliance at once as a local drive (called a "Storage Area Network"), rather than as a network file server; this allows for multiple servers to share the same storage pool and provides for advanced fallback, so that a server can fail and a secondary backup system can take over, reading the same storage (such as its email or database store) rather than requiring a backup recovery.

Cloud services: It has become fashionable to ridicule Apple for being behind in the scramble to announce "cloud services" initiatives, but Apple has been operating .Mac and its rebranded MobileMe to a population of a few million paying customers. The original rollout of MobileMe in tandem with iPhone 2.0 was flawed, but Apple quickly took steps to correct problems and has delivered competitive push messaging and online services that have expanded in innovative ways at regular intervals. The company added iDisk access to cloud files from the iPhone and iPod touch, and created new "Find my iPhone" messaging, remote lock and wipe features that very few other consumer mobile devices can claim.

On page 3 of 3: Leveraging third party server support