The One in Which I Get Out My Magic 8-Ball and Predict the Future of Mac OS X and Server Technologies


The developer preview of Mac OS X Lion (version 10.7’s big-cat name), to which I do not have access, includes the amazing installation option to install Mac OS X Server. What once was a $1000 (since dropped to $500) standalone product will most likely be included in the standard-issue Mac OS X package. You know, the one that costs about $99 to buy. Amazing.

While others (via have doubted that this is really the case, I’m going to go on record as saying it’s not only true, but will also guess as to why.

Let’s gather some dots and then connect them, shall we?

First, Apple has all but eliminated its line of server products. Other than the dedicated Mac mini Server, there are no more server-specific hardware products to be had. The Mac Pro Server is essentially the same box as the regular Mac Pro, after all. XServe is dead. XServe RAID is dead, too. With no serious computing iron to offer, a server room is going to be devoid of Apple products. There’s food for thought…

Second, Apple is building a huge data center with lots of serious serving power for the iTunes store. They also know a lot about how to serve data between computers using MobileMe. To me, that adds up to a lot of learned-by-experience knowledge about something called cloud computing, where the data are not necessarily in one particular place but are all over the place. As long as you don’t see any difference between having the data locally vs. in “the cloud,” it shouldn’t make any difference.

Third, Apple has some intellectual property brewing around cloud computing. Googling “Apple patent cloud computing” yields a pretty satisfying list of things to look at. Apple has its head in the cloud, quite literally.

Fourth, rumor has it that Apple is going to introduce a plan targeted at small businesses which will supply faster turnarounds and loaner machines for a very-reasonable $500 per year. Neat.

Fifth, Apple will be supplying Mac OS X Server technologies with every one of its desktop machines. Every one of them. Not just a few high-end machines. All of ‘em.

Finally, the cursor blinks at the same rate that it used to and I still type slowly, even though the processor power available to me, the user, has grown immensely. We may have gigaflops and terabytes on our desktops, but we still vastly underutilize them in a typical business setting.

Now let’s connect the dots.

(Oooo! That sorta’ looks like a unicorn!)

I think Apple is aiming to eliminate the server room entirely. Furthermore, I believe that with Server on every desk (and eventually I think at least some of it will be a default part of installation, mostly hidden), Apple will move the server room out to the front office. What once was one or more pieces of dedicated server hardware and software will be distributed across the machines in the workgroup or business. This approach makes use of Apple’s cloud technologies and will utilize all of that unused—but already bought!—computing power that we have on each user’s desk.

When? It won’t happen instantly, or even soon. No, I’ll peg the release date for this massive shift in computing to the release of version 11 of Mac OS X—what’s that, two, three years? It’ll take a big shift in mindset of Apple’s customers to accept this kind of radical change in how we think of “servers.” Also, the technology has to catch up with the plan, such as the need to implement some sort of new underlying file system which is certainly a prerequisite for this kind of thing (ZFS, anyone?). All of this will require some positive track record, presumably which Apple’s starting right now with OS X Lion.

I don’t think I’m going out on a limb here. Think about the advantages to both the users and how I think Apple sees things, and it makes good business sense for Apple as well as a good user experience.

For one, there’s no need to buy super-powerful hardware to do server stuff, especially if you have spare gigabytes and gigaflops sitting around idle. Why buy redundant capacity? Not buying more computers saves the business some money, and narrows Apple’s product line significantly. That’s good for both us and for Apple.

By getting rid of the server room, we users save money and space and possibly the time or expense of a dedicated system administrator. Why not administer the whole thing yourself? Or perhaps just hire an Apple-certified Consultant on an as-needed basis and pay the minimal fee per year to get your business-essential hardware replaced/repaired quickly? That sounds remarkably inexpensive to me. That’s another good deal for Apple, its consultant network, and us users, too.

If you are going to buy into this cloud server thing, presumably you’re somewhat locked into the Apple ecosystem. That benefits Apple, certainly, but it could also be perceived as a benefit to the consumer like the tight integration of iPod/iPhone/iPad and iTunes has proven beneficial to the user experience.

And what if that big data center in North Carolina were to sprout a twin? Could that become a backup for your business data cloud? Short answer: yeah. Can you say subscription model?

As a final thought, I don’t believe that Apple has any interest in big business with this initiative. As we’re often told these days, the heartbeat of America is the country’s small businesses (sorry, Chevy) and that’s a huge market. Maybe this will be trickle-up technology, but I doubt it: the Microsoft juggernaut has that one wrapped up for the foreseeable future, and I think the sysadmin community (which certainly “knows this can’t possibly work”) will be extremely resistant to the decentralized server model, at least one that is this decentralized. Who knows? It may not work on the big business scale. But I think… well, never mind. You can guess what I think.

I’m sure that I’m missing a few benefits and a few points which suggest that Apple really is headed this direction.

And I might be completely and totally wrong.

But, Oh! How I don’t want to be wrong… It’s just too cool an idea for it not to be real.

(Sorry I’ve turned comments off for the time being. Stupid spammers thought I needed to see their crap on my blog, so until I get hooked up with Disqus, things will be quiet. Let me know via E-mail—contact info over there on the left under “Pages”—and I’ll post your comments as part of my original posts.)

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