Apple’s push into the SME market is most welcome

The sector needs the vendor's assistance, says Tom Yager

Apple gave up on Xserve G5, its 1U rack server, more than a year ago and with it, its drive to gain share in the enterprise server market. Why? I speculate that Apple’s enterprise programme took so long to get off the ground that by the time success was within reach, the market had moved on.

Moved on to what? The Intel Inside campaign, which successfully tarred AMD and Mac PowerPC architectures as exotic and risky, deserves a share of the credit for scaring the market into staying in step with Intel’s road map.

Apple is backing away from its unsuccessful enterprise push and targeting SMEs instead. That makes a lot of sense. I still see the enterprise as poorly served by available platform options, and I had hoped that Apple would make inroads for that sector’s benefit. But Apple has chosen another community that really needs what Apple brings to the market. The objectives of the SME market give that category reach beyond its apparent borders.

Of course SMEs need set-and-forget servers. Xserve Xeon with OS X Server delivers more than its money’s worth in functionality when compared with Windows Server System, and there are no client licences. There are a lot of bicycle shops, private couriers, limousine companies and landscape contractors who need one box that gives them a presence on the web, reliable and spam-filtered email, compatibility with Java server software, and click-and-go access to pre-built, self-installing open source projects. Xserve Xeon manages beautifully from the road, with its best quality being that only basic computing skills — not server knowledge — are required. I kid you not, and Leopard takes Apple’s no-touch server story to a new level.

But outside the SME domain, externally hosted services are replacing intranets for companies with geographically diverse workforces and which use a mix of contracted, local and offshore workers. The push toward SaaS (software as a service) and other pay-as-you-go models does reduce the need for ICT geniuses, but hosted services are like cable TV: the channel you really want to watch is always in the next tier. And hosted services don’t just host your services. They host your data and see all the internet traffic generated in the course of your business.

It struck me in my first day of hands-on evaluation with Xserve Xeon that this server feels like an externally hosted service provider that just happens to be plugged in to your AC outlet and business DSL or cable jack. The x86 standard architecture — to which Apple adhered but carried way beyond the mundane and familiar, as you can read in my Enterprise Mac blog — makes Xserve Xeon disappear.

If you give Xserve Xeon a static IP address, it is the services portal for you, your co-workers, your contractors, and your customers, and whoever else needs client services that work just as well with Windows as with any other OS. Instead of ponying up the extra dough for a service provider’s backup facility, buy an extra Drive Module, slide it in and set up drag-and-drop or automated backup of your own.

This is a thread I’ll keep pulling as Xserve Xeon matures and OS X Tiger Server gives way to next year’s Leopard. But it looks as if Apple’s come up with a buy-once approach to a healthy array of self-managing, secure external services. If it helps, just look at Xserve Xeon as being like a big DSL router.

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