Apple edges back toward the data center

The arrival of the Mac Pro could indicate a renewed push

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That there was pent-up demand for the new Mac Pro is not surprising. Over the past few years, Apple made no substantive changes to the old Mac Pro design or lineup other than minor bumps to basic components like the processor. Even the design of the previous Mac Pro was an iterative change from the Power Mac G5 that it replaced. Until last year, there were constant rumors and concerns that Apple might discontinue a pro-level desktop altogether, leaving just the Mac mini and iMac as desktop options.

The new Mac Pro may not be a rack-mounted system like the Xserve and it doesn't offer the internal expansion capabilities of either the Xserve or the earlier Mac Pro, but that doesn't mean that it isn't range of PCIe expansion chassis that includes desktop and rackmount options with 20Gbps Thunderbolt 2 interfaces that enable a range of PCIe cards, including video capture, audio interface, 16Gb and 8Gb Fibre Channel, 10 Gigabit Ethernet, SAS and SATA HBA, and RAID controller cards.

It's worth noting that even modest Mac systems can be expanded the same way using a range of Thunderbolt expansion enclosures already on the market.

A round Mac Pro in a square hole?

Even with the Mac Pro's power, however, the device doesn't seem well-designed for the data center... unless you read this Apple knowledge base article in which Apple gives tacit approval and advice on how to safely used a Mac Pro on its side.

That tidbit from Apple coincided with an announcement from MacStadium -- a company that specializes in Mac server hosting and colocation, typically using Mac mini hardware -- that it had developed a custom solution for outfitting its data center with Mac Pros. The company boasts that it can accommodate as many as 270 Mac Pros in a server configuration using just 12 square feet of space in its data center. The company plans to offer hosting on Mac Pro units stored in its data center to its customers (when the machines become available) through either the rental of its own Mac Pros or those purchased by its customers using a send-in option.

MacStadium isn't alone in this endeavor. Mac Mini Vault offers similar colocation services and is also examining how it might accommodate the new Mac Pro.

At this point, it isn't clear whether MacStadium will make its solution available to organizations wanting to rackmount a Mac Pro in their own data center or server closet rather than in a hosted environment. Even if MacStadium doesn't bring its design to market, it's possible that other companies may do so. In addition to selling external Thunderbolt expansion enclosures, Sonnet already ships rackmount enclosures for the Mac mini that include Thunderbolt-based options for PCIe cards. So it's not a stretch to think that Sonnet could be developing something similar for the new Mac Pro.

Regardless of how the Mac Pro will physically fit into a data center, it seems like a very strong contender for organizations that have an investment in Mac servers, either as a primary server and directory platform or as adjunct systems that provide services not easily duplicated on non-Apple platforms like Xcode Server and iOS/Mac app development.

Will Apple make a full court press for OS X Server?

Although Apple seems to be keeping the door open for its own enterprise solutions, it's hard to see the company making a major push for its server platform to the average enterprise IT department. The company will benefit more by ensuring its consumer-oriented products are easy to integrate enterprise-ready options. That includes delivering a clear narrative to IT departments that are often skeptical of corporate bromides like, "You can integrate Macs into Active Directory with almost no effort" or "You can now manage Macs using the same MDM solution you use to manage iOS and Android devices."

It's not much, but the arrival of the Mac Pro and the addition of useful functions in Mavericks Server offer some tidbits of hope for enterprise IT shops. For those that have a years- or even decades-long investment in Apple solutions, they're small but welcome signs that Apple hasn't completely abandoned them or their users.

Ryan Faas is a freelance writer and technology consultant specializing in Mac and multiplatform network issues. He has been a Computerworld columnist since 2003 and is a frequent contributor to CITEworld.com. Faas is also the author of iPhone for Work (Apress, 2009). You can find out more about him at RyanFaas.com and follow him on Twitter (@ryanfaas).

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Copyright © 2014 IDG Communications, Inc.

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