Apple's radical new Mac server strategy

Mac OS X Lion Server represents a shift toward supporting fleets of iPhones and iPads on business networks

The first app made for Lion to hit the App Store is a real eye-opener: Mac OS X Lion Server, costing $49, a tiny fraction of Snow Leopard Server's $499 price tag. With that, Mac OS X Server as we knew it is no more. To sweeten the deal, Apple is throwing in Xsan, the SAN software Apple used to sell for $999. With Mac OS X Lion Server, a Mac Pro with a Fibre Channel card becomes a scary-fast, bulletproof distributed storage server for Mac networks.

Sounds like a steal, but it's also a move that raises prickly questions. Critics will point to Lion Server's drop in price, the abolishment of node-locked licensing, and simplification of the administrative GUI as foreshadowing Apple's departure from the server market. The $49 price tag doesn't mitigate the risk of implementing a server platform that's in decline.

However, I seriously doubt that's an issue. Lion Server looks nothing like a last gasp. It appears instead to signal a shift in mission: Instead of trying to displace enterprise Windows, Linux, and big iron Unix servers, Lion Server focuses primarily on providing easily managed native network services to workgroups of iOS and Mac users. One server facility in particular illustrates Apple's new approach.

Lion Server's Profile Manager is key to enterprise deployments of iOS devices. For user-owned devices that connect to company infrastructure, Profile Manager can configure the device for company services, including services not hosted by Mac OS X or iCloud. Company-owned iPads and iPhones can be locked down with profiles that apply to arbitrarily defined groups of users or devices. In both cases, all the user has to do is visit a Web portal that Lion sets up and hosts automatically; no tethering to an IT configuration terminal is required. After the profile is loaded, updates can be pushed to a device over the air, along with emergency commands like remote wipe and password change.

That's just one of Lion Server's rich array of services. For $49, it equips your network with any combination of file, email, calendar, Web, chat, podcast, VPN, directory, and backup (Mac only) services. Apple's commitment to standards means that Lion Server remains a good candidate for general-purpose use. As I've alluded to here and will elaborate on in a forthcoming review, Lion Server takes a hard turn toward usability and places an emphasis on service to users with Apple hardware.

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