Apple edges back toward the data center

The arrival of the Mac Pro could indicate a renewed push

Last summer, when I wrote about Apple's relationship with enterprise IT, I talked about earlier Apple decisions to stop producing its rack-mounted Xserve server and refocus its server platform, OS X Server, on the small business market. Since then, Apple has largely focused on making its consumer-oriented products -- the iPhone, iPad, and Mac -- as enterprise-friendly as possible. These devices ship with out-of-the-box support for key enterprise technologies like Active Directory, Exchange, ActiveSync, and a wide range of mobile device management (MDM) solutions that can manage both iOS devices and Macs.

That strategy makes a lot of sense because it removes the need for a large investment in infrastructure or software dedicated specifically to supporting Apple's products. The strategy also built on the BYOD trend that has reshaped the very concept of how IT handles mobile technology. It's a strategy that Apple should continue.

Recently, however, Apple seems to be falling back into some of its old habits and it now looks like the company may be starting to inch its way back to the data center.

Key enterprise items in Mavericks Server

The latest installment of OS X Server maintains a very prosumer appearance, one that makes it attractive to small businesses and users that need key functionality but don't want to invest in heavy IT infrastructure. Many underlying IT-oriented technologies like BIND for managing DNS or Apache for hosting web services and complex web-based applications still exist, but are either hidden from less experienced users or delivered with a simple GUI that only delivers basic functions.

But Apple has delivered additional functionality that seems to go beyond the SMB market in Mavericks Server.

Caching Server in Mavericks, for instance, is designed to improve the experience of downloading and installing iOS and Mac apps and updates. As users who are connected to a business network access the iOS and Mac app stores, Caching Server automatically stores a copy of each app or update they download. As other users request the same app or update, the service automatically delivers them from its local cache.

This has a couple of big benefits: It relieves network congestion and delivers the apps and updates much more quickly.

Although small businesses with a handful of devices can benefit from this feature, they won't see a huge impact when they implement it. The organizations that will see a benefit are those that have a large number of users with Apple devices -- mid-size companies and enterprises.

Another enterprise-oriented feature that debuted in Mavericks Server is Xcode Server. Xcode is the primary development tool for creating iOS apps and Mac software. Although Xcode's integrated development environment is generally considered to be well-designed and quite functional, it has never really been designed for heavy collaboration.

Xcode Server changes that in a couple of key ways. It creates a central repository for code and support for versioning of that code. This makes it much easier for project managers to get a clearer view of a development effort and makes it easier for developers working on a team to share works in progress. It also allows developers to run extensive app testing by setting up bots that run on the server rather than on individual Mac workstations. This streamlines and automates testing, and because a more powerful machine can be used, these processes can occur faster, freeing up resources on the developers' machines.

There are, of course, plenty of smaller app development companies or teams that could benefit from Xcode Server. But as enterprise apps become a more important part of enterprise mobility, it's easy to see Xcode Server as a feature designed for development teams in larger organizations.

The new Mac Pro

Apple's new Mac Pro may also signal a shift to providing more enterprise-worthy hardware. After offering what amounted to a new Mac Pro trailer at WWDC last summer, Apple finally launched the new machine in December, when demand immediately outstripped supply. Now, a month after the Mac Pro's introduction, estimated ship times are still listed at several weeks; order today and you're unlikely to see your new computer before March.

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