Is Apple abandoning the server market forever, or…?

Apple Xserve

Xserve, Apple’s rather elegant server hardware (seen here above), was introduced back in 2002. Less than a week ago, Apple announced that it will be discontinued after January 31, 2011. Apparently, Xserve wasn’t selling enough.

Apple isn’t killing its server OS, though. It will continue to deliver Mac OS X Server, but on Mac Pro and Mac Mini instead.

This means that Apple is backing out of the server hardware business, completely. Mac Pro, although powerful, is a workstation computer, with everything that means in terms of form factor and other hardware design decisions. Mac Mini, although small, can’t be considered a decent Xserve replacement either. Simply put, none of the two are servers.

How far will Apple take this? Some people are now fearing that Mac OS X Server might eventually be discontinued as well. And what will happen with Xsan, Apple’s networked storage solution? Is that also living dangerously now? Apple has already killed off its Xserve RAID hardware.

Will Apple ever return to server hardware?

Perhaps dealing with servers, and the service and support deals that many enterprise customers want, is just too much of a headache for Apple. Why return to the server market if it’s so much less profitable than the rest of Apple’s business.

But if Apple does return, it wouldn’t surprise us if they try to rewrite the rules a bit. Xserve was never a radically different product compared to other server hardware. Perhaps in a year or two Apple will surprise everyone with a completely new server product, much less traditional than Xserve.

A third option, virtualization

An interesting question now is if Apple is going to open up Mac OS X Server for virtualized environments on third-party hardware, something its current license forbids. Currently they seem to recommend users to run it on Mac Pro or Mac Mini, which is clearly less than ideal.

If Apple’s Mac OS X Server license allowed it, companies with for example VMware or Xen clusters could seamlessly add Mac OS X Server instances as needed, providing a simple way for them to keep running Mac servers without the need for Apple-specific server hardware.

After all, Apple still sells its Mac OS X Server for $499. They may want to capitalize on that income, and allowing enterprise customers to use it in their existing virtualized infrastructure might appease those who have been turned off by Xserve’s demise.

Is Apple up to something again?

Apple loves springing surprises on the world. The company has done so over an over again through the years. For now it looks like it’s abandoning the server side, but who knows?

Think about this: Apple has been busy building a huge data center in North Carolina. It’s not impossible that Apple has been able to learn from this experience what they could do in terms of new server hardware. This company is great at thinking outside the box, so imagine if, just like the iPhone revolutionized the smartphone, Apple would be able to create an equally revolutionary product for the server market. It’s a tough nut to crack, but it’s not like Apple doesn’t have the resources.

On the other hand, cutting the Xserve could simply be a case of Apple trimming away the fat. Apple loves a simplified product line, and perhaps Xserve just didn’t fit in too well with Apple’s increasingly consumer-friendly lineup of hardware.

P.S. If you want to dive into the history of Xserve and Apple’s changed focus during the last decade, have a look at this article over at Apple Insider.

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