Apple's plan to replace Vista with OS X - on Wintel

You're Apple, Inc. You have a new kick-butt file system, ZFS, that blows away Microsoft's aging NTFS and complements see-and-gotta-have storage tools like Time Machine.
Written by Robin Harris, Contributor

You're Apple, Inc. You have a new kick-butt file system, ZFS, that blows away Microsoft's aging NTFS and complements see-and-gotta-have storage tools like Time Machine.

And maybe, you'd like to add the world's Windows users to your total available market. Enabling customers to replace the creaking mass of Windows compromise with something modern. Sure, Vista looks new, but the guts are old. The NTFS file system is based on 1980's technology from DEC, after all.

In either case you need a new file system. Changing file systems is error-prone and tedious: back up all your data, reformat the disk, install the new OS and then restore your data. Except now Apple has a better way.

A way that can change Windows file systems to Mac file systems.

According to a patent filed by smart Apple engineers Greg Marriott and David Shayer, Apple can do that. (I heard about the patent from Greg Keizer.)

The invention isn't hard to describe. The fun is in the possible uses.

What is a file system? A file system presents your files to your Explorer window or your Finder. It also keeps track of where the files are on disk - translating from the logical name "foo.bar" to the physical address of the data on the disk. Since you are always dealing with files, the file system needs to be very good: reliable, fast, secure and easy to manage.

ZFS is the first 21st century file system on a mainstream desktop operating system.

Apple's touchless file system converter: how it works The core insight of the invention is that the existing file system has all the data the new file system needs. You don't need to touch the files to change the file system.

The converter reads the existing file system to find out where all the files are on disk. Then it creates a new set of data structures, such as a catalog and file extents, for the new file system. After verifying the new structures, the converter replaces the first file system by rewriting the disk's partition map and and overwriting the volume headers of the first file system.

Reboot and you are on a new file system. Maybe even a whole new operating system.

Convert NTFS to ZFS. Convert media players to ZFS. Most of the patent is about how the invention might be used. Here's some:

  • Embed the converter in iTunes and convert the file systems of media players
  • Create dual file systems: leave the original file system in place, construct the replacement data structures, which the second file system then uses to access the files
  • Any-to-any conversion: "In general, any file system can be converted . . . ."

That's right. Apple invested in this because they needed to. But it is a general purpose tool.

The Storage Bits take All the pieces are now in place for the conversion of the Mac base to ZFS. Just don't expect Steve Jobs to ever mention it. It is a file system. It isn't sexy.

What is sexy is that combined with Time Machine, ZFS enables for the first time truly safe massive home storage. Time Machine provides the "set and forget" backup automation with a simple, intuitive restore function that leaves Mac and Windows users drooling. ZFS provides the best data integrity and, for free, high performance RAID. Yes, George, better than Intel's ICH8 chip. And it works much better with flash drives.

The future starts now Apple had Mac OS X running on Intel processors for five years before they announced the switch. With Apple's experience in managing big migrations - from 68000 to PowerPC to x86, and from OS 9 to Unix-based OS X - one has to wonder if Steve will finally choose to make the Mac OS available on Wintel systems.

Apple already has a sizable Windows software business. They install their Bonjour networking with every copy of iTunes, where it works way better than anything Redmond has. Now they are adding a browser, Safari. By inserting ZFS under NTFS data structures - and virtualizing Vista - they could start selling Mac OS X on Vista machines while preserving the customer's investment in Wintel software.

Windows becomes a wart on your foot instead of a cancer in your brain You buy Mac OS X and suddenly life is better: more stable, more efficient, more easily managed and with the best storage applications on the desktop. You could run your Windows apps in a Vista window, just as Parallels and VMware users do now. If you're tired of managing virus subscriptions and bug-ridden bloatware, the promise of a "new" computer for $129 would be compelling, especially if you didn't give up anything you'd already bought.

This software revenue would be additive for Apple. Apple designs great hardware so if you want Mac, you'd still buy a Mac.

Remember, Steve likes to play the long game. Just because Microsoft has always dominated the desktop doesn't mean they always will. The technology exists, the market is changing and Google has Microsoft's attention. When will Cupertino mug Redmond on the PC?

Update: Apple has finally confirmed that a "read-only" version of ZFS will be in 10.5.0. That is a different roll-out - or is that roll-in? - strategy than I'd expected. Given the obvious superiority of ZFS over HFS+ it is clear that Apple will roll it in. The only question is when.

From the way they've phrased this I'd say there is still some schedule risk due to technical issues. I still expect them to first enable full ZFS functionality in Mac OS X Server - I'm thinking 10.5.3 - with full support for single-user OS X several dot releases later, like 10.5.6. For the Mac user base it is more important to get it right than it is to get it quick. A phased approach - extended beta - is the only way to go.

Comments welcome, of course.

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