Will Retiring Xserve Boost Apple’s Data Center Prowess?

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Apple officially stopped producing and selling its Xserve servers Monday, but that doesn’t mean the consumer-centric company is done in the data center. When Apple announced the Xserve demise in November, Dave Courbanou at The VAR Guy raised the question of whether Apple might have realized that despite its prowess among consumers, it simply isn’t cut out to sell servers en masse to enterprise customers, but that there is a future for Mac OS X as a guest operating system in VMware environments. It’s an intriguing notion that I think has legs should Apple decide to pursue it.

When it came to selling servers, it seems like Apple never really understood (or just never cared about) IT practices and budgets. As with most Apple products, Xserve users appear to love them and run them for a long time, but Xserve wasn’t really priced for large-volume purchases in enterprise data centers. In all my years talking about data center architectures, I don’t know if I ever came across anyone running Apple gear, much less at scale. It’s arguable, however, that the Mac OS is just as important to Apple’s products as are their physical form and function. If Apple actually does want to secure big-money data center deals, why not do it by just selling software?

Working with VMware to let Mac OS run as a guest operating system in vSphere environments would let enterprise customers get the benefits of Mac while still saving money on commodity servers. If Apple licensed the software in a reasonable manner, perhaps it could catch on. Taking it a step further, perhaps Apple could work with cloud providers to make the Mac OS an option within their offerings. Why not? It’s relatively little work for Apple, but could return big results if the OS really is what sets Apple products apart from their Windows counterparts. Not only might existing Xserve customers ultimately make the shift to Mac OS X on VMware or in the cloud, but so too might non-Apple users previously scared away by the high price to build an Xserve-based architecture.

Of course, there are plenty of reasons to think this scenario might never play out and that Apple’s post-Xserve enterprise strategy really does just revolve around selling Mac Minis to SMBs. One is that, as Courbanou noted, his theory is “all pure conjecture based on some loose findings” — those being some random parameters within vSphere discovered by a virtualization expert — and another is that Linux has been so successful at replacing Windows because it’s open source. Compared with Windows, which has a broad partner and application ecosystem, and Linux, which is open source, Mac OS X might look like the worst of both worlds, even if it does work like a charm.

Still, it’ll be worth watching how Apple proceeds in the enterprise space, if it does at all. The company revolutionized the consumer space by getting ahead of the curve; doing that in enterprise IT means moving beyond expensive physical servers and establishing a presence in the cloud. Apple achieved the first part of that by getting out of the server business, but we’ll have to wait and see whether it actually has a plan for the second step.

Image courtesy of Apple.

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