Apple takes the Mac to the cloud

Though I’ve long thought that tomorrow's desktop will be cloud-based, even I didn't expect the next desktop-as-a-service would be macOS running on the AWS cloud.

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Apple / IDG

I've been talking about the future of the "desktop" on the cloud for years now. Starting around 2012, I predicted Chromebooks would become a big deal. Then I saw Windows moving from PCs to a cloud-based Desktop-as-a-Service (DaaS) model beginning in 2017. (I had the timing wrong, but was right in general.) What I didn't see coming were Macs to the cloud.

First, as for Chromebooks, IDC's latest PC numbers show Chromebooks made up 11% of total PC shipments last quarter. That's a 90% year-over-year growth in shipments. Windows PCs? They had a 15% growth rate as everyone who could started working from home.

Next, Microsoft finally said — as I’ve been predicting for years — that instead of just offering Windows as a business DaaS play, it would start selling Windows DaaS subscriptions to home users. Oh, and you won't need a Windows machine to run it on. You can do it on macOS, iOS, Android, and even, Chromebooks and Linux machines. For Chromebooks, you'll need Microsoft's Remote Desktop 8. For Linux, you'll require Microsoft Remote Desktop and Remote Desktop Protocol (RDP) clients such as Remmina, FreeRDP, and Vinagre.

But Macs? On a major public cloud? Surely not!

Surely yes!

This "Mac mini as a service" is available now on Amazon Web Services (AWS). There are other Macs on the cloud companies — Virtual Mac OS X, MacStadium, and MacinCloud come to mind — but they're niche companies. AWS is, well, the Godzilla of public cloud services and it’s offering this with Apple's full support.

These Amazon EC2 Mac instances work on top of the AWS Nitro System. That's a high-speed storage and networking system. They come with Intel Core i7 processors. (Don't expect to see Apple M1 chips until Q2 2021, and I won't be surprised if they're not really available until Q3.) There's a lot of demand for real-world M1-powered Macs. For now, they support macOS Mojave (10.14) and Catalina (10.15). But Big Sur (11.0) will appear soon.

These aren't for everyone. They're meant for developers creating apps for iPhone, iPad, Macs, Apple Watch, Apple TV, and Safari. With "more than 28 million developers.,"  according to Bob Borchers, Apple's vice president of Worldwide Product Marketing, that's still a lot of users.

These "bare metal" Macs aren't virtualized instances. Each mac1.metal virtual Mac comes with 12 virtual i7 CPU cores and 32GB of memory. These Macs fit snugly in 1U racks and with stats like that, I know many Mac power users will give cloud Macs a try.

After the initial setup of 24 hours for just under $26, you'll pay $1.083 per hour, billed by the second. Thus, for every three 8-hour working days, you'll be paying just under $26. The small Mac cloud providers charge much less, but if you're an AWS customer you're already used to paying for the assurance of working with the leading public cloud provider and its almost innumerable cloud services.

I really didn't see this coming. Sure, I saw the programming niche market for Macs, but I'd assumed it would always stay just that, a niche. When I think of Mac users, I think of people doing high-level photo, publishing, and video work. That requires not just powerful CPUs, but high-speed bandwidth and storage as well.

Apparently, AWS thinks it can deliver that now. 

At AWS re:Invent this month, AWS announced its new Outposts service. Outposts first brought AWS as managed servers to company data centers in 2019. Now, AWS is making even smaller Outpost servers that can be deployed to stores or offices.

AWS is also expanding its Local Zones. These are urban extensions of existing AWS regions that provide low-latency access to metro customers willing to pay extra. With Gigabit Internet between you and a Local Zone or an Outpost in your office, the "cloud" can deliver the speed Mac power users need.

So, Macs as a DaaS? Yes, it's here. And I think it will be big.

If, like me, you still prefer to have computing power on your desktop, you better join me in running Linux desktops. I predicted last year that by 2025, we'd be well on our way to most of us running our "desktops" on the cloud. I just didn't think that many Mac users would be there with Windows users. Now, I think most Windows users will be on the cloud by then, as will a good number of Mac users, too.

Funny, how the future works. In many ways, we're returning to the past when most of us used mainframe and mini-computing remote computing and only a handful of us had PCs at home. 

Copyright © 2020 IDG Communications, Inc.

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