Apple and the enterprise: A complicated relationship

It's been one step forward, two steps back over the past 15 years for Apple and enterprise customers

When Microsoft shipped Windows 2000 and Active Directory, Apple didn't really have a solution for identity management or for linking Macs to an enterprise network. The company was just beginning the transition from its classic Mac OS -- the first version of which had shipped on the first Mac in 1984 -- to OS X. Although Apple did ship a public beta of OS X in second half of the year, the final release didn't arrive until March 2001.

The classic Mac OS was not for multi-user systems. It offered limited user account creation and management for file sharing between Macs, but there was no built-in mechanism for logging into an individual Mac -- it booted right to the desktop, where you had full access to the entire file system and all installed software.

Apple did make a couple of attempts to create a multi-user system, however. In the early 1990s, the company shipped At Ease, which provided some multi-user support, first on a single Mac and later for multiple Macs on a network. But At Ease never gained much traction beyond some pockets of the education market for it which it seemed to be designed.

In planning the transition to the true multi-user environment of OS X, Apple added a modicum of multi-user functions in Mac OS 9 that allowed each Mac to support multiple users with basic file permissions, individual user settings and preferences, and limited account-based restrictions. Apple also created Macintosh Manager, which redirected Mac OS 9's multi-user functions to a server-based data store and copied certain settings and configuration files from that data store to an individual Mac. It wasn't really an enterprise-grade solution, even when incorporated into the first few releases of OS X Server, but it was a functional pre-OS X stop-gap.

Apple tries going it alone

Apple's first real move toward enterprise functionality, including identity management, came with OS X and OS X Server. The first release of OS X was essentially the Unix-based core of NeXTStep with an Apple-inspired GUI on top of it. NeXT gave OS X solid enterprise bones right away, including support for local and network user accounts.

NeXTStep and the first releases of OS X and OS X Server relied on a proprietary user and client management system known as NetInfo. Functionally, NetInfo served many of the same roles as Active Directory. It allowed for centralized user and computer accounts and user authentication for access to network resources; worked with the file system to support a POSIX permissions model; and it could be used to define user settings and experience in the same way group policies do in Active Directory.

Although NetInfo worked and remained in the mix of Apple's enterprise components for several years, it had some serious limitations. The biggest one: It was proprietary and didn't integrate with other platforms.

The other achilles heel for NetInfo in early OS X releases was that it didn't support directory server replication. That meant that either a single server had to support the enterprise identity functionality for an entire organization or multiple servers -- each with a unique directory of users, computers and configuration data -- had to be deployed. Even though it was possible for Macs to search for enterprise identity data across multiple servers, the process was far from the multi-master replication capabilities of Active Directory domain controllers.

The proprietary nature of NetInfo led Apple to sell a complete end-to-end solution to enterprise IT. Today, Apple is well known for its end-to-end approach to technology; in many ways, it's been a winning strategy because it allows Apple to maximize profits and create a controlled ecosystem. It's also the same strategy that allowed Apple to disrupt industries so effectively and deliver some of the most polished products on the market. iTunes, with its link to the iPod and iOS, is the greatest example of what Apple can achieve using it.

Apple didn't have a lot of luck selling that end-to-end system to enterprise IT. Part of that was because of the proprietary nature of Apple's solutions. But the company was also still pulling back from its near collapse in the mid-to-late 1990s. At the time, its market share was abysmally low and it was a complete outlier in virtually every business market.

Panther brings a new approach to enterprise

OS X Panther (and Panther Server) was one of the most important releases of OS X from an enterprise perspective. It rectified the limitations of NetInfo by introducing a broad-based solution for enterprise identity and directory services. It also added support for Active Directory. That represented a major shift in Apple's strategy, as the company quietly acknowledged it couldn't succeed in business without really offering support for existing enterprise systems.

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