Apple silicon Macs: 9 considerations for IT

Apple’s shift to customized ARM processors in its newest Mac models gives IT several things to consider when planning Mac purchases.

apple m1 processor chip

Last week, Apple unveiled new versions of the MacBook Air, MacBook Pro and Mac mini running on Apple silicon, the name Apple has given its in-house designed processors and other chips. The new Macs are powered by the M1 system-on-a-chip, an ARM-based processor that combines components typically found in discrete chips in most PCs and previous Intel-based Macs.

The new M1 chip offers incredible performance and battery life as well as instant wake from sleep. It also brings the ability to run iOS and iPadOS apps on the desktop for the first time. These Macs are the outcome of years of work behind the scenes at Apple and the most significant change Apple has made to any of its platforms in many years.

Apple has plenty of history with managing major hardware changes, some better than others, including two processor transitions for the Mac, the most recent being its transition from its own PowerPC chips to Intel processors. Apple began shipping the first Intel-based Macs in 2006 and eventually dropped support for the PowerPC architecture with the release of OS X 10.6 “Snow Leopard” in 2009, effectively ending the transition away from PowerPC Macs. (PowerPC Macs continued to be functional, of course, but couldn’t upgrade to newer versions of OS X.)

A lot has changed since in the intervening decade and a half. Apple is a substantially stronger company with incredible resources to devote to hardware and software development, and the company's products are no longer foreign to most workplaces or IT professionals. That raises a big question: how will this transition impact your organization? Most importantly, how will it upset the typical purchase and refresh cycles that your IT teams and employees rely on?

Here’s a list of considerations to help you decide if and when to begin moving your users to the new hardware.

Do you want to take a chance on the first generation of a new hardware architecture?

Although it may seem overcautious given Apple’s reputation for high-quality products, this is a valid question. The new Macs aren’t a simple refresh of what Apple built last year, or even new models in an existing architecture. They are completely new machines built from the ground up and can no longer even be directly compared to PCs in terms of specs and performance. There are likely to be some teething problems with the hardware, the operating system, or the applications that run on it, and there may be very limited guidance on how to resolve them (if they even can be resolved initially).

This means taking a “wait and see” approach is highly advisable. That might mean waiting for the second generation of Apple silicon Macs to be released, which could be a year or more away, or at least giving your IT staff ample time to play with the new Macs, essentially beta testing them for problems in general as well as those specific to your environment. Depending on the outcome of their tests, you can determine whether to continue waiting and for how long.

Do your users need to run Windows apps?

One of the biggest business advantages of Apple’s shift to Intel chips 15 years ago was that Macs could natively run Windows apps, forestalling one of the age-old business complaints that Macs needed their own software or couldn’t access required collaboration tools. Essentially, the Mac became a PC. Some organizations even outfitted employees with MacBooks that were never intended to run OS X in daily operation.

Apple created Boot Camp to allow Macs to boot into either macOS or Windows. Virtualization tools quickly followed and eventually grew sophisticated enough that Mac users could run Windows apps without ever encountering a Windows desktop. The Mac became a good corporate citizen.

It’s unclear what happens now. Apple has said that the new Macs will not support Boot Camp and seems ready to consign it to the dust bin of history. While virtualization software vendors Parallels and VMware say they plan to support the Apple silicon Macs in the future (and Parallels says a new version of Parallels Desktop that can run on M1 Macs is in active development), the vendors haven’t offered details or a road map. Both companies hinted to me that announcements will be coming sometime next year.

It would be wise at this point to operate on the assumption that Apple silicon Macs will not have a Windows virtualization option for some time. When one comes to market, that strategy can be adjusted. This means that refreshing Intel Macs now, while the entire Mac product line still offers Intel-based options, is worth serious consideration. (More on that later on.) This doesn’t resolve the eventual outcome, but it does allow you to punt the issue downfield while the situation plays out.

What about using Microsoft Cloud PC or virtual desktops as a way to run Windows apps? Although Microsoft is touting its Cloud PC offering as new, it's a revamped version of virtual desktop solutions (sometimes referred to as DaaS, for desktop as a service). These have been available for decades from vendors like Citrix. The idea sounds simple enough: Using a thin client app, the Mac (or Windows PC or Chromebook or mobile device) connects to a Windows desktop running as a session or process on a server or in a cloud.

The most common scenario is for security, since nothing that a user does actually happens on the local hardware. All interactions with the operating system or applications occurs on that remote — and often heavily secured — service. Should the client device be lost, stolen or compromised, no data has been breached, because there was never any data on it to begin with.

This is, of course, a solution for running Windows or Windows apps on an M1 Mac, but it can be a hefty and expensive proposition. That these services can now run in a cloud, perhaps with specific features and price tags, certainly makes this option more accessible to most organizations. If you're considering going the virtual desktop route, you'll want to spend some time testing and making sure that the user experience is close to frictionless when it comes to switching between macOS and Windows and when sharing files, clipboards and other content between the two environments.

Would a shift to Apple silicon affect your enterprise apps or third-party business apps?

Setting Windows itself aside, there’s also the question of business software and enterprise apps running on Apple silicon. Apple is providing a built-in emulator called Rosetta 2 that enables most current apps to run seamlessly on the new M1 chip. During its announcement, Apple even noted that some Intel apps run better under emulation on its new ARM chips than on Intel systems. This means that there shouldn't be any major issues if you need to run current or previous applications on the new Macs.

As it did during the PowerPC to Intel transition, Apple is encouraging developers to create universal binaries — application packages that include native code for both Intel and Apple processors. This should enable a smooth transition.

Several large business software vendors have announced that they are adapting their products to run on Apple silicon. Microsoft, for instance, is not only optimizing its current Office apps for Rosetta 2, but also developing new universal versions of Office apps that will run natively on the new hardware.

One thing to keep in mind for internal applications is that Rosetta 2 is intended as a stopgap and not a permanent solution. Judging from past experience, Apple will almost certainly remove the emulator in a future generation of Macs or macOS. At some point you will need to update apps to versions that run as universal binaries or Apple native code, but this isn’t an immediate or urgent need. Apple is extremely unlikely to make any moves in this direction before it has transitioned its entire product line. But it is something to keep in mind.

The M1 also allows Macs to run iOS and iPadOS apps on the desktop. It has been rumored for some time that was part of Apple's endgame, in the same way that Chromebooks can run Android apps. This is particularly advantageous if you have a number of enterprise or custom apps that you've been using for a while on iPhones and iPads, as they now can be easily made available on the Mac as they are or with some tweaking.

What about buying new Intel Macs and delaying M1 Macs?

One easy solution might be to just bulk purchase a cycle's worth of Intel Macs today, even if the standard refresh cycle would have put those upgrades off for several months or longer. In fact, that might be the perfection option — if Apple is still selling the appropriate models. Apple's online store no longer lists earlier MacBook Air models as available. It does list several versions of the MacBook Pro, including Intel versions.

The MacBook Pro with Intel is likely still available because there are several configurations, and the model Apple announced last week replaces only one of them. Models with 16-inch screens, for example, aren't available with ARM processors. Similarly, there is a Mac mini model initially released two years ago that is still available. It is, however, a high-end configuration that comes in at $400 over the cost of the new M1 mini.

The iMac and Mac Pro are available only in Intel versions at this time. (They weren't part of last week's event.)

If you want to take this approach, I would suggest planning to do so sooner rather than later. Apple isn't likely to announce another round of ARM Macs for some time — until next year at least — but the company is likely to move through its line pretty quickly. I expect to see the entire product line, with the possible exception of the Mac Pro, upgraded by the end of 2021 and wouldn't be surprised if Apple completed it by the middle of the year.

Another option for some organizations is to pause all Mac purchases and upgrades for a period of time, then buy Apple silicon Macs when you’re ready to move to the new architecture. While it would mean supporting older equipment in the short term, a silver lining is that you may have some extra money in your budget that could be reallocated elsewhere. The money saved could simply be a one-time addition to your PC budget, or it could be repurposed to other projects, such as creating a test case for Chrome OS or purchasing iPad Pros or Airs and related accessories and investigating if they can function as complete laptop replacements in a variety of roles and/or configurations.

Will shadow IT force your hand?

Even if you have no plans to phase out Macs, and even if you are committed to the new platform but are not ready move to it yet, you may have some degree of shadow IT to address if users go out and buy new Apple silicon Macs on their own, as we’ve seen with smartphones and tablets over the past decade or so.

This is going to be a particular concern because of Covid-19. Employees that might hesitate to bring a personal laptop to the office, which would be quite visible, will hesitate a lot less if they’re never in the office and may not be for quite some time (if ever again). If your organization provides a stipend or reimbursement for personal technology costs or home office setup, you will almost certainly have some people that will use that money to buy a new Apple silicon Mac. Fighting the issue may not be worth the effort.

Executives are also likely to buy or demand one of the new Macs. If they have serious battery life (between 15 and 20 hours) as Apple claims, that alone ensures that there will be demand up and down the food chain.

Whether or not these purchases can be limited or delayed, you should prepare and communicate reasons to wait. Ideally, you’ll already have a strategy for dialog between IT and executives, line of business managers, and staff about new technology. That can serve as a way to manage the discussion about what you’re planning and any possible consequences.

As with new smartphones and major device OS upgrades, you may want to consider engaging experienced early adopters to help you beta test the early Mac models so that you can develop a center of excellence or pilot around them.

How does Apple silicon affect Mac management?

One piece of good news is that you most likely won’t need to worry about the impact of Apple silicon Macs on your deployment and management methods. Apple has long shifted Macs to use the same device management software as its mobile devices.

The same is true when it comes to deployment. The days of getting new or repurposed Macs and needing to use a monolithic system image to configure them are long gone. Apple has pushed package-based and zero-touch deployments for years now and, sometimes with a little help from enterprise mobility management and unified endpoint management tools, offers the ability to have new Macs shipped directly to employees, still in the shrink wrap. All users need to do is start the machine and connect it to the internet. IT services companies like Jamf make this incredibly simple to configure.

In short, as long as you’ve kept current when it comes to Mac management and deployment, you might experience some minor hiccups when moving to the new Macs, but nothing more.

How does Big Sur fit in?

The newest version of macOS, Big Sur, was released last week and will be the backbone of Apple’s transition process. It offers technologies including native compilers, editors, and debugging tools that Apple says will make it easy for developers to transition apps to run on Apple silicon, and it includes Rosetta 2 to keep Intel apps running smoothly.

Does this impact your Mac hardware strategy? Not greatly. It does mean that you should be ready for Big Sur on day one, but in today’s BYOD culture, that should be a given. It is advisable to upgrade your users’ current Macs to Big Sur as quickly as possible without cutting corners. That will help you prepare for the eventual introduction of Apple silicon Macs. Moving your users to Big Sur quickly might accelerate your organization’s typical macOS upgrade schedule, but it also shouldn’t create major problems in the long term or intermediate time frame.

Can you actually purchase the new Macs right away?

One more thing to keep in mind is that shipments of the first Apple silicon Macs may be constrained for some time. Between the hype and the holiday shopping quarter, it may not be easy for anyone to get their hands on the new Macs. This certainly is not IT’s fault, but it you would do well to keep abreast of any constraints and communicate them if pressured about introducing the new hardware.

How long can you reasonably wait to move to the new architecture?

This is a rather open question. A lot depends on your own organization as well as Apple’s plans. This shouldn’t be a years-long process. Apple has said it wants to complete the transition within two years — and its rollout of Intel Macs in 2006 gives every reason to believe that the company will hit that mark.

This doesn’t mean that you need to replace every Mac and Mac app within that time frame, but it does mean that you should be able to return to a more typical release and refresh agenda around that same timeline. Although the early Apple silicon Macs are going to raise the questions and issues discussed here, these concerns should resolve themselves as Apple transitions its products. It may take you a few refresh cycles to move all your Mac users to Apple silicon, but the major hurdles are really going to be with this first cycle (or with next year’s cycle, when even more M1-based Macs will arrive).

Copyright © 2020 IDG Communications, Inc.

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