Will Apple Do the Unthinkable with Mac OS X Server?

“When you are through changing, you are through.”

—Bruce Barton

From time to time, someone suggests that Apple license Mac OS X (client) to PC makers for mass market customers. The idea is that Mac OS is so superior to Windows that customers would migrate to it droves. Regrettably, that would, of course, undermine the growing market for Macs, and as those SAI sand charts punctuate, Apple is a hardware company. However, licensing Mac OS X Server on non-Apple hardware in the enterprise makes sense now, and only now, and here’s why.


Licensing Mac OS X Server in a data center, behind closed doors, on industry standard servers is not a bad idea. It’s not accessible to regular employees who might pirate the OS. Moreover, a sufficiently rigorous licensing should be achievable on an enterprise basis. This would be almost identical to what Steve Jobs did at NeXT when he axed his hardware that wasn’t selling well and focused on NeXTStep as a software platform.

Apple would make some money from licensing, maybe do a better job of wiggling its way into some data centers, and it certainly would give Apple an extra degree of freedom related to the hardware in its own data centers. Outside Apple, in the competitive market, the Mac OS X Server licensing fees are stupendously good and undermine the competition’s OS on the same hardware. I suspect that a company that embraced this Mac OS X Server on modern server hardware would be one of the smaller ones, trying to go toe-to-toe with the big guys who have a vested interest in keeping their customers tied to expensive, legacy products. The upshot is that now that Apple has decided to kill its own Xserve, new thinking is possible. (It may have been the other way around.)

Motivation and Wild Guesses

Last Friday, Alex Grossman, an ex-Apple server executive and now the CEO of ActiveStorage, published a letter that lamented the demise of the Xserve, his baby at Apple, but also alluded to some exciting prospects for the future. Recall that when Mr. Grossman and a few of his team members at Apple left to form ActiveStorage, they developed a next generation RAID 5 system, based on the Xserve/RAID. That RAID product was cancelled by Apple in 2008, and under ActiveStorage, it morphed into the ActiveRAID. RAID 5 devices like that don’t run a conventional OS as we’ve come to know it, so there was no public fuss about licensing.

If, for the sake of a wild guess, ActiveStorage could, in a similar fashion, sell a next generation server, derived from Xserve, and marry it with their own ActiveRAID, it could become a perfect solution for, say, video professionals and broadcasters, a market in which they are well known. Lots of other customers, of course, would be interested. But this is just a wild guess. I have no special information.

More to the point, it would require a formal change to the licensing terms to run Mac OS X Server on non-Apple hardware. Such a change could lead to an arrangement between Apple and possibly several different manufacturers of modern, high performance servers, such as blade servers. Or something even more exciting down the road.

Legalities of Licensing

An attorney who follows Apple wrote me: “The legal support is also falling into place. In a recent decision, Vernor v. Autodesk, the U.S. 9th Cir. Ct. of Appeals held that licensing agreements that satisfy the provisions found in most modern software licenses are indeed licenses, not sales, and that the restrictions in those license on use, copying, modification, and distribution of the licensed software are valid and enforceable licenses that can’t be overturned by the First Sale and Essential Step defenses. That holding would give me enough confidence to advise Steve Jobs that my senior associates could, once he gives the order, draft an impregnable license that will restrict OS X Server to use only as a server and only on the hardware specified in the license. However, to be sure, Apple may wait for the 9th Cir.’s pending decision in Apple Inc. v. Psystar Corp. which now appear to be delayed will into the first quarter of next year…”

Industry Trends

Another force in the industry is the movement, by some, to cloud-based services that supplant expensive home grown data centers. It doesn’t matter what hardware these services use, so long as the services, reliability, and SLAs (Service Level Agreements) are satisfactory to the customer. Internet standards allow that kind of thinking. That, in effect, takes some of the steam out of Apple’s Xserve, a product known for ease of use by an in-house team.

Advancing Technology

Another thing to consider is that when the Xserve was first launched in 2002, technology was far behind what we have today. It weighs 30 pounds and uses components that are large by today’s standards. A rack of 9 Xserves to create a small cluster will heat up a good sized room. Today, one could conceivably take the guts of 64 iPhones, running at 1 GHz, set up a suitable backplane, and have a massively parallel supercomputer in something the size of a shoebox. Of course, I’m overlooking oodles of engineering details, but my point is that modern low power technologies and NAND flash designed for mobility in 2010 could be pressed into service in novel ways for high performance computing and the enterprise. In essence the volume and mass to computational power ratio of an Xserve doesn’t match modern standards in 2010. That could explain the popularity of the Mac mini running Mac OS X Server.

Competing with Software

The net effect of all this is that it was both time to kill the Xserve hardware, because sales were declining, and start to look into the more advanced technologies of the future — perhaps along with some partners. The marketplace will make its decision on Mac OS X Server vs. other server OSes based on ease of use, services, and fees. After all, that’s why Linux is so popular in the data center. Of course, if you want serious enterprise support, you’re still going to have to pay Red Hat for that, so Mac OS X Server ought to be able to compete. Apple has partnered with Unisys for that kind of support.

Let’s Do it

Given all of the above, I think licensing Mac OS X Server on non-Apple hardware makes good sense.