Apple announced today that it would no longer be producing its XServe rack-mounted server products after January 31st, 2011. It provided detailed recommendations (PDF) for customers looking to either transition from XServes or deploy new OS X Server hardware. However, one has to wonder if this approach signals the beginning of the end for OS X Server itself as the company continues to ramp up its consumer/pro-sumer product portfolio.
So why do I care? Regular readers will know that I love my MacBook Pro, but I'm not entirely convinced of the Mac value proposition in education. The XServe, though, and the server OS that it ran (OS X Server) were somewhat unique in that they provided high-performance directory, communications, and collaboration software in an easy-to-use package that, as servers and their licensing tend to go (at least on the Windows side of the proverbial server room), were relatively inexpensive.
In fact, managing a network with the built-in tools on OS X Server is remarkably easy. Managing the Macs on the network is similarly straight-forward, with a typically Mac-ish user interface. Especially in K-12, where onsite tech expertise or direct support is often difficult to find and fund, OS X Server represents a platform that a relatively savvy teacher can use to keep a network and all of the deployed Mac clients running smoothly. File sharing, directory services, and user policies are all a few clicks away.
At the same time, that same savvy teacher could easily run wikis, websites, mail, and podcast capture/publishing for the school, again with built-in graphical tools.
While its true that both Windows and Linux offer powerful and robust solutions for schools, all of which can include graphical tools, OS X Server is particularly intuitive and the licensing (unlimited clients - period) certainly can't be matched by the variety of Windows CALs. Obviously Linux licensing is a piece of cake (free - period), client management and media interactivity just aren't as easy. Not by a long shot.
Apple has not said that it is abandoning OS X Server, only the rack-mounted hardware. Users can still purchase Snow Leopard Server pre-installed on Mac Pros (for high-performance needs) or Mac Minis (for small workgroups or specific tasks like file sharing or wiki hosting). However, shoehorning a server OS onto non-server hardware that needs to reside under a desk or on shelves in a datacenter hardly strikes me as a vote of confidence in Apple's server business.
Rather, it says that Apple is a consumer company whose products will probably make their way into schools and businesses because consumers love them. Perhaps those big datacenters that Apple is building out will end up hosting cloud-based versions of OS X Server or providing similar services from the cloud. However, OS X Server is one of the highest value tools for schools that Apple currently offers and its ease of use and client management helps offset cost concerns associated with those Mac clients that people love so much.
Here's hoping that the death of XServe doesn't mean the death of OS X Server. I'm not taking any bets, though. Unfortunately, over and over, Apple has demonstrated that it can crank out great, popular products that teachers and students (and countless other consumers) fawn over, but rarely provides the education-centric solutions on which it built its reputation. Hey, Steve! If you're listening, any chance you could make sure OS X Server lives on? And not just in Mac Minis? Thanks.