Apple, long a ghost in the corporate-infrastructure mainstream, is beginning to cast a shadow as IT departments discover Mac platforms that are being transformed into realistic alternatives to Windows and Linux.
A number of factors are helping raise the eyebrows of those responsible for upgrading desktops and servers: for example, Apple's shift to the Intel architecture; the inclusion of infrastructure and interoperability hooks, such as directory services in the Mac OS X Server; dual-boot capabilities; clustering and storage technology; third-party virtualization software; and comparison shopping, which is being fostered by migration costs and hardware overhauls associated with Microsoft's Vista.
Despite these goodies, however, Apple isn't pushing into corporations with a defined desktop strategy. The company still does not have a formal division focused on developing software for the enterprise or supporting it. And it refused Network World's requests to discuss its plans for enterprise customers.
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"Because of the switch to Intel, success of the Mac OS X, the stability and elegance of the platform, the Mac is a very viable alternative, but it would require a dramatic shift in the company's resource allocation to go after the enterprise," says Van Baker, an analyst with Gartner.
IT shops that have dipped their toes in Apple's pool of desktop and server platforms say others should test the water.
"Intel Macs have really changed things. Beyond the obvious comparisons -- that Macs are now speed-parity with Wintel machines -- vendors have been able to develop more software for the platform, and where that is impossible, virtual machines are always an option," says Scott Melendez, manager of enterprise messaging for the city and county of San Francisco, who brought Macs into governmental offices in 2003 and says they are there to stay alongside Windows machines.
"There will always be a stigma by some old-time network managers -- that Macs are difficult to network -- from the AppleTalk days, or that they are difficult to support because it's not Windows. By the end of 2007, however, I think the landscape will have changed," Melendez says.
It's a heady prediction, because Mac's share of the desktop market has been hovering around 4 percent since 2000 and isn't expected to change through 2010, IDC says. IDC's numbers for Mac are worse in the server market, where the Mac OS X Server's share is well below 1 percent vs. other options.
Users are helping rock that boat, however.
"We use Mac Xserve and Xserve RAID as the heart of the backup strategy we have throughout the corporation," says Kevin Hansen, manager of IT for Quadion, which manufacturers rubber and plastic components. Xserve is Apple's Intel-based storage platform. "All our Windows 2000 and 2003 boxes back up to the Xserve," he says.
Hansen put the backup infrastructure in place two years ago and since has added an Xserve to back up all the company's CAD drawings. "It is great for that. It has lots of scalability and terabytes of disk space," he says.
Others are being drawn in for a peek as they evaluate Microsoft's Vista client operating system and what it will take to migrate.
"The changes in Vista are significant enough that we think we can absorb the change going to Macs just as easily as going to Vista," says Tom Gonzales, a senior network administrator for the Colorado State Employees Credit Union in Denver. He says the thought of going to Apple is not as scary as it once was. "If you had asked me two years ago to consider Macs, I would have laughed. But Boot Camp and Parallels , anything we can't do with our Macs we would be able to run a Windows environment under there," says Gonzales, who is currently in the Mac evaluation stage.
Boot Camp is coming this spring, in the next version of the Mac operating system code-named Leopard. It lets users install and run Windows XP on their Macs.