On-again, Off-again: Apple Servers
2018-02-16 11:13:51

In Apple's continued heritage of never knowing a good thing when they have it or whether to dedicate resources to something that isn't as profitable as they would like, Apple has once again gotten out of the server market.

Apple recently announced that they were going to discontinue the server tools for OS X. While Apple had long ago left the server hardware market, many hoped that since they kept a good set of tools around for the software (up until 10.8 - more on that later) that hardware might follow again. Especially so, with the promise of another modular Mac Pro.

But alas, it isn't to be, at least not in the short term.

This writer has had the pleasure (or displeasure) of working with all of Apple's server products in one way or another over the years beginning in 1992. Just like the tic-tok of a clock, Apple has gone from embracing the server market to barely recognizing that they ever did anything in it previously. On-again, Off-again. Something that Apple has gotten too good at for many a product.

Servers: The Early days

AppleShare was Apple's first foray into the server market, albeit with software. AppleShare was designed to be an office print and file server. It worked well allowing multiple users to be granted access to different disk partitions or printers. One advanced feature was its ability to support multiple AppleTalk networks and separate out traffic based on the AppleTalk Zone. Routing features were included to route from one zone to another. I managed a Macintosh IIx with six different AppleTalk zones; four NuBus 10Base-2 Ethernet cards and both serial ports with LocalTalk / PhoneNet connectors.

We used the LocalTalk networks to handle most of the printers since few had Ethernet connectors at that time and the computers that supported an Ethernet card sat on one of those networks. Data transfers between office computers was blazing fast for the day, with transfers only slowed down when you need to send something to a printer.

Tik - Server Hardware

Apple's relationship with server hardware goes back to 1993 when they came out with the Workgroup Server line, which were off the shelf Quadra's or PowerMac's with the addition of a DAT drive for backups in some models or speed bumped processor. These were pre-bundled with the aforementioned AppleShare software and sold as servers for office file and print sharing. Most were nothing special and were mostly a way for Apple to charge more for a different badge on the front.

The Workgroup Server 9150 (introduced in 1994) was the first of Apple's specific server hardware and the first that I had daily experience with. The 9150 was my desktop computer for over a year. It didn't act as a server for anything except for my own needs. Overkill yes, but having that larger than life 9150 sitting next to my desk was quite a thrill and sense of pride. It was placed prominently so that anyone walking past my office could see it.

Apple maybe realizing that there was demand for actual server hardware, not something rebranded or speed-bumped, the came out with the Apple Network Server (ANS) line. By the time the ANS 700 came out in 1996, I was working for a small dial-up internet provider that happened to be near the local Apple reseller. The company I worked for put together a deal with the store owner to let us use the 700 in our Data Centre and the dealer could bring customers over to see it and show it off. We got free hardware and the dealer got a chance to show the server in an environment it was made for.

The 700 was a true beast with seven SCSI-2 bays up front for disk, CD-ROM or DAT drives. It also had room for two additional fixed internal drives along with dual power supplies and six PCI slots. The ANS ran a version of IBM's AIX OS, something well-trusted for data centre work. We loaded it up with Netscape's Netsite Communicator and ran it as a web server for customers websites. It also initially acted as the primary authentication and email server for customers. The 700 was a trooper and ran without a hitch (which you would expect from an AIX box) for several years, before the dealer asked for it back. I was proud to have that box in our data centre and so were most of the employees. Most of us were Macintosh users, so having an Apple branded server handling email and websites for customers was quite the feather.

Tok - No one is buying this beast

The Network Servers never sold well so Apple only had the initial two offerings and did little to update or upgrade them, Apple exited the server hardware market 14 months after their introduction. Although a lot had been built into the unit to support upgrades (processors on daughter cards etc), due to lack of interest from server customers and Apple's lack of knowledge in approaching those customers, the ANS was doomed. Apple did continue to sell Workgroup Server's and then the Macintosh Servers, but these were nothing more than rebranded Power Macs.

Tik - Let's get into data centres and IT departments

In mid-2002, Apple introduced the Xserve line. This was the first server built from the ground up as a new server. The 9150 and ANS both borrowed from other Apple hardware or IBM servers. The Xserve was something new. Apple had listened and came up with a rack-mounted 1U dual-processor server with up to four hot-swap drive bays that was perfect for the server market.

I was fortunate at the time to be in a position to talk to the product manager for the Xserve and Apple's PR team and I gave them an earful when they tried to get me excited with the Xserve. It was hard to get excited about the Xserve when all I could think about was 'how long before Apple kills it'. To me, this was the first true server designed for IT professionals and data centre's and I didn't want to see it become another ANS and be forgotten in a year.

To this day I don't remember the manager's name, but I will forever remember when he assured me that the Xserve was going to be around for a long time and would soon be joined by a RAID array.

True to their word, Apple not only released that array, they followed the original Xserve G4 with a G5 version. Fans rejoiced when Virginia Tech Uni in the States announced that they were building a supercomputing cluster from 1100 Xserve G5's. Virginia Tech was already a fanboy favorite by building a cluster of PowerMac G5's which at the time was ranked the third fastest supercomputer. The Xserve cluster ranked #7 when it was in place and later dropped to #14 in 2005 and #28 in 2008. To have an Apple manufactured server cluster even in the top 100 for one year is impressive, but for four years is monumental. Not to mention the initial year of being in the Top 10.

When Apple was in the process of transitioning away from PowerPC based machines to Intel, the Xserve was not left out. It continued for three Intel iterations where the G4 and G5's had just one each. Over the years, ATA drives were replaced with SATA, Cluster Compute Nodes were available and SAN software was introduced to tie the Xserve and the Xserve RAID together for large data markets. Maybe Apple was in the server market for the long haul after all.

Tok - Desktops and Laptops are where it's at

While the Xserve has been Apple's longest surviving server, it too was abandoned in 2010 with Apple pushing customers to regular hardware running OS X Server software. Why build dedicated hardware when OS X Server can run on any Apple hardware? And so the physical server was gone.

Tik - How about some good software to go along with hardware?

Apple macOS X Server software was bundled with the Xserve's or purchased separately to run on PowerMac's and even the diminutive Mac Mini's. The biggest difference between the server and non-server software was the management tools included and pre-installed software versions of PHP, MySQL and BIND. It was the tools that truly showed what Apple was good at - making things easy to use.

For anyone who has ever had to enable services, or configure DHCP, LDAP, Sendmail, BIND etc they know what a pain in the arse it can be. OS X Server put an easy to use interface upon all of that. In large Macintosh offices the server software could also act as a local update repository - eliminating the network tie ups with the all too important Internet connection when OS or app updates were available. Most importantly, in typical Apple fashion - it just worked.

OS X Server made the loss of the Xserves a little easier to swallow. Ok, the hardware was gone, but OS X Server running on a Mac Mini is a pretty nice little server and you can cram a lot of them into data centre racks. As long as Apple continues to work on the server tools, the IT world using them is in good shape.

Tok - Having everyone in an office talking to Siri is more important

Leave it to Apple to habitually screw a good thing up (reference: 2013 Mac Pro, Final Cut X, Quicktime X etc). When 10.8 of the OS was in development, someone at Apple decided that the tools were too administrator centric and needed to be more average user capable. Granted, OS X Server had made it much easier to administer a server and you didn't have to be an IT genius or boffin to do it, but this was taking it too far.

The 10.8 version of the tools stripped out of the useable 'power-user' functions and threw everything else into Control Panel options. Some functions were controlled from the Control Panel, others from the 'Server' app. No confusion there.

Now anybody could setup OS X Server since nobody needed to configure anything beyond users and websites. Must've been the same genius who decided a powerful video-editing suite no longer needed to do things that pros want and instead need a super-pretty ready, for 'Clippy' the paperclip interface; rather than be functional.

Bloody Hell, Apple. Different product, same dance. Learn damnit.

In typical Apple fashion, not understanding that when you cripple a product you're going to loose customers, they recently chose to EOL what was left of the server (cough) tool market.

In this authors opinion, Apple did the server market best with the combination of the Xserves and OS X server (prior to 10.8). Even without the Xserves, the market continued with the Mac Mini. As an IT professional of several decades, I wish that the tools originally created with OS X Server were part of something like FreeBSD (btw - FreeBSD and OS X share just about everything except their kernels). If Apple could come up with an OS that would install on standard Intel hardware but include updated versions of the OS X Server tools of old, they could knock a hefty dent in the Linux market.

Will Apple ever come back to the server market, probably not. Maybe a CEO down the line will want to get back into the graces of IT professionals, but we doubt it. More likely the British monarchy will fall.