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

Years before Mac OS X 10.0 was first released in 2001, Apple launched Mac OS X Server, targeting its newly acquired Unix-based operating system technology at the education and workgroup server market. Apple has struggled ever since to find a broad server strategy that works. The solution may be as obvious as the iPhone App Store.

Mac OS X Server has remained firmly stuck in the background even as Mac OS X has blossomed. Over the last decade of Mac OS X's development, Apple transformed its legacy Mac operating system from an outdated relic stuck in maintenance mode throughout most of the 90s into a highly regarded system that gets as much or more respect from industry critics as any other desktop operating system.

Apple accomplished something that many others in the industry failed to do: marry the power and familiarity of Unix with accessible ease of use in a commercially successful product. Ray Noorda tried to do this at Novell in the early 90s; Caldera's OpenLinux also failed to take over the task from Novell ten years ago. United Linux and a series of followup attempts to standardize Linux all failed to accomplish their aims. A variety of efforts to sell Linux to consumers since then have all made very little progress outside of a small niche of hobbyist users.

Apple's ability to successfully tame Unix, something it largely inherited from Steve Jobs' NeXT and the years and tens of millions that went into creating what would eventually become Mac OS X at Apple, seemingly should have resulted in tremendous success for Mac OS X Server as well. But that never really happened.

Apple's miserable server history: 1985 - 1998

Unlike NeXT, Apple never really managed a serious server business. In the mid 80s, Jobs originally had pushed Apple's management to invest in aggressively selling the Macintosh to businesses following the model of the original Xerox Star machines which the Mac team had drawn many of its original design influences from.

Jobs envisioned a Macintosh Office, where Macs were networked with shared laser printers and file servers. That vision would prove to be well ahead of its time for the mid 80s; after being ousted from Apple, Jobs took his concepts to NeXT and built just that. His original NeXT Computer supplied advanced networking savvy, state of the art desktop laser printing, and delivered the server power of its underlying Unix foundation with ease of use that rivaled or exceeded the Macintosh.

Meanwhile, Apple leisurely shipped AppleShare software for turning a Mac into a dedicated file server; it attempted to shoehorn background services into what was really a simple appliance desktop OS that wasn't really up to the task. The company also began selling A/UX, a version of Unix with some basic integration with the Mac System 7 desktop. Apple later partnered with IBM to deliver Apple-designed servers running AIX (IBM's distribution of Unix), targeted as serving Mac clients in education. None of these efforts were taken very seriously.

When Apple acquired NeXT, the small niche of 'powerful development tools on a Unix foundation' that NeXT had struggled to assemble in its desperate plans to sell its advanced technology in some fashion ended up being associated with Apple's own inability to deliver serious server gear or a coherent strategy. The customers NeXT had managed to collect mostly jumped ship, leaving Apple with the NeXT Curse: lots of great technology but no idea how to effectively market it.

Apple server history

Mac OS X Server: 1999 - 2009

Apple's first plan was to simply drop NeXT's advanced desktop operating system onto its Mac hardware and present its customers with a single huge upgrade: blazing performance, far greater reliability, powerful server and networking features, advanced development features, and much greater compatibility with foreign computer systems. The new system was code-named Rhapsody, to fit in with Apple's series of music-related names for Mac OS releases, including the never released Copland and Gershwin as well as Harmony (Mac OS 7.6), Tempo (Mac OS 8), Allegro (Mac OS 8.5), and Sonata (Mac OS 9).

Mac users were suspicious of the new changes Rhapsody would bring, but Apple's third party developers were furious. Such a plan would require a massive overhaul of their applications, with no guarantee that the new Mac platform would even sell. Their massive resistance resulted in Apple backpedaling to plan B. That involved spending several years merging existing Mac OS procedural development APIs into the new operating system so that existing legacy Mac code from Adobe, Macromedia, and Microsoft could continue to sell "as is" on the new system, with only minimal work from the developers.

It would end up taking nearly five years for Apple to ship a version of Mac OS X that could serve as its official replacement for the old Mac OS, which Apple continued to update and sell in the interim. At the same time, Apple almost immediately shipped the existing Rhapsody as Mac OS X Server 1.0, which was essentially NeXT's operating system with a minor interface overhaul designed to make it look more like a Macintosh.

Mac OS X Server evolved into a "bonus package" of server tools applied to each new release of the desktop Mac OS X. Those server tools were aimed at managing groups of Macs and providing file and print services. At a time when the "Network Computer" was turning into a raging buzzword, Apple delivered NetBoot as a service of Mac OS X Server, which allowed administrators to boot up iMacs over the network using a single disk image.

On page 2 of 3: Apple's modern server strategies