Last week Apple announced they were going to stop selling their Xserve line of server hardware, move that caused most people to think, "Wait, Apple makes server hardware?"
The answer is "Yes, they do!" (Err, I mean "they did.") Xserves were real 1U rack mounted servers, like this:
More important than the server hardware, though, is that just like Windows, Mac OS X comes in both server and workstation flavors. At this point Apple is still committed to the server OS. Last week's announcement is just that they're not going to build their own dedicated server hardware anymore.
So a server version of Mac OS X with no server hardware? Where are you supposed to run this thing? Apple is suggesting two options: either the "server" edition of the Mac Mini (basically a regular Mac Mini with the optical drive replaced by a second hardware), or a Mac Pro workstation (their full-size desktop workstation).
No matter how you look at the decision to kill the 1U rack-mounted Xserve line, it makes sense. The base Xserve sells for USD$3,000 and includes a single quad-core processor, 3GB RAM, and a single SATA drive. Similarly-configured servers from Dell or HP cost well under $1,000. (Even subtracting $500 from the Xserve for the cost of the Mac OS X Server license, you're still looking at about a 2-3x price premium for the Apple hardware.) Of course the "Apple Tax" is nothing new, as Apple products have always carried a premium over non-Apple versions of similarly-powered systems. The main difference is that in the case of servers, the price premium for Apple's industrial design doesn't really make sense. (I mean who cares how pretty your servers look?)
So now that Mac OS X Server is only supported on desktops, where does that leave enterprises who want to use it? Do you think they'll put shelves back in their datacenters and fill them with desktops? Of course not! And the main reason they won't is not because they don't want to put this kind of hardware in their datacenters, but because OS X Server is not exactly something that enterprises use. Sure, it's great for workgroups and collaboration. But any serious environment is going to have other products to do these things. (For example, what type of servers is Apple going to put in their new 500,000 square foot datacenter? And what OS will they run? My guess is not Xserves and not OS X.)
Actually the official Apple Xserve transition PDF says "The aluminum enclosure is robust enough to be used on its side if supported and if front-to-back airflow is not impeded," and they also talk about how a shelf full of Mac Minis is under the "power and cooling envelop" of the Xserves... Sounds like a blade solution to me!
Time to virtualize OS X?
In most of the articles about the end of Xserve, many commenters have asked whether now's the time for Apple to allow OS X Server to be virtualized and run on non-Apple hardware.
I would love this.
For the record, I don't know whether would ever happen because (1) Apple does not allow OS X to run in any form on non-Apple hardware, and (2) Mac OS X Server tends to be aimed towards SMB environments where the current Mac Mini and Mac Pro hardware are fine.
From a desktop & application delivery standpoint, virtual Mac OS X Server would rock
There are plenty of companies who need a little Mac here and there. While it's long been possible to deliver remote Windows desktops and apps to Mac users, it hasn't been as easy to deliver Mac desktops & apps to Windows users.
So while connecting to a remote OS X desktop session from a non-Apple device is okay, it's not possible to run the actual back-end remote OS X desktop on anything but Apple hardware. This means that all those cool Aqua Connect Terminal Servers have to run on Apple hardware, which up until now could have been Xserves. But now with those being killed, I wonder if that also kills Aqua Connect in the enterprise? I can't see real companies deploying Mac Minis and Mac Pros in any significant quantity in a datacenter.
But if Apple were to allow customers to run OS X Server in a virtual machine, then we'd really have something! Apple could still get their software revenue for OS X Server while not having to worry about actually making the hardware. Of course right now OS X Server is licensed per server, so it's unclear as to whether that would change if OS X Server instances were run in VMs.
The other complexity is that like Windows, the server and workstation editions of OS X share many similar components, so getting OS X Server running on anything other than bare-metal Apple-branded hardware might set the precedent that the same thing should be available with OS X Workstation.
Of course another option is that Apple could create a multi-vendor HCL (similar to the one for Windows) and certify certain pre-designed server hardware configurations, essentially allowing OS X Server to run on bare metal non-Apple servers.
I'm not going to hold my breath on this, but it would be cool.