Sunday, November 7, 2010

Goodbye to XServe

So Apple has decided to discontinue the XServe. Not a surprising move, I'm sure it doesn't sell particularly well and it has not been updated in quite a while. If you compare it to other server offerings it also lacks serious Lights Out Management and Out Of Band management.

The upsetting thing about Apple's move is not that it is discontinuing the product but that it has done it without giving a large number of enterprises any real alternative or any admission that enterprises need one.

Apple's suggestion is that instead of an XServe you can use either a Mac Mini or a Mac Pro, indeed they are now offering a Mac Pro/OS X Server bundle as they do for the Mac Mini.

In the small business market a Mac Mini makes an excellent server. If, however you want something beyond a few users and simple services then you can quickly find yourself needing more processing speed and much more I/O. Providing backup services for a dozen Macs can quickly swamp a Mini.

At this point, yes, a Mac Pro is a good choice. You can install a Fibre Channel card and hang off a RAID for storage and you have two Ethernet ports.

The problem sets in for organisations that go larger than this. Even a large High School or a small University can find itself handling a thousand Macintosh computers. These are the people that start thinking about two big problems that Apple have totally ignored now they have dumped the XServe. Rack space and reliability.

To put a Mac Pro into a server rack will take 12U space, you can fit two next to each other, but that's still 6U per box, compared to 1U for an XServe. Even the XServe is competing with blade systems that allow 16 high performance blades in a 10U blade enclosure.

Then we get to reliability. The XServe has three major advantages over the Mac Pro. The first is the option of dual power supplies, it might not seem like much but it allows you to factor out both a power train failure by attaching to two different power busses and also a failure of the supply itself. The second is that drives and power supplies are hot swappable and easily removed and replaced. Compare that to the many steps required to replace a power supply in a Mac Pro. The third is lights out management. Once again it might not seem important but if I can hit a virtual reset button from my desk when something locks up rather than rely on another member of staff to walk up to the server room, unlock it and hit the button on the front of the Mac Pro it can save vital hours. It also makes it so much easier to get minor changes past a Change Management Committee when it only involves one staff member to make the changes and roll back if a problem occurs.

Now none of these problems are insurmountable for Apple. There are several possible ways to fix the large hole now left for medium to large enterprises who want a well supported Mac infrastructure.

The easiest for Apple would be a simple change to the End User License Agreement for OS X Server and allow it to be virtualized on non-Apple hardware. Parallels already supports bare metal virtualization on Apple hardware, supplying a ROM image so that this could be done on other hardware is easy for Apple and I'm sure Parallels and VMWare would be happy to get it running on a wide variety of hardware.

The second possible way is to do what they did with RAID. They annointed the Promise VTrak E-Class RAID as the 'official' RAID replacing their own. Apple could organise a deal with someone that already makes a range of servers and grant them a license to sell then bundled with OS X Server. IBM, for example, would make an excellent partner.

The third is that some time quite soon they will announce a new product that does the job of the old XServe but better.

There is one final solution, one that doesn't come from Apple. Since all the services on Mac OS X Server are based on open source cores you can host all the services on a Linux box. You won't get all the pretty stuff and not all the GUI front end tools will work but it is possible. I have a feeling that there will be a definite shift forward in the ease of installation and ease of use for this option as the many large enterprise Mac sysadmins start shifting to this solution and sharing their work.

Watch this space. Over the next few months I'm going to start exploring all the options to see what I can achieve.

Wednesday, September 8, 2010

Oh e-books are just marvelous!! Not!!

So I've had my trusty iPad for a while now. I've written on it, played games, browsed the web and generally had a marvelous time.

I do, however, have one major gripe. E-books are still a long way from perfection.

To start, why can't Apple sell me e-books here in Australia? Stupid, ridiculous copyright laws that restrict sales from one area in another, that's why. When will these ridiculous wholesalers (and the just as stupid retailers - yes you, dumb independent bookshops) in the media industry realise they are just hurting themselves? If I can't buy a book, record or movie easily from a local store and the ones I buy from Amazon won't work here in Australia guess what I'll do? I'll just go and pirate it!

Yes folks, I have been known to download a movie, an album or a book off the internet without paying for it. Why? Because stupid DRM and stupid companies wont let me buy it from my local retailer. If I could buy it as easily as I can download it I would.

Then I get onto the quality of the books. I've purchased a number of books through the Amazon Kindle store for my iPad. Most have been good but a couple have been shocking. Most notably "The Dead of Night", the second book in John Marsden's "Tomorrow" series. This book had so many errors in it that I was seriously put off - if the writing had not been so good I would have given up. I suspect that the people who produced the Kindle edition had run a copy through OCR and had then asked an illiterate eight year old to do the copy editing. The errors were typical of OCR errors and the mjost cursory of spelling checking would have found at least half. For example 'spy' was spelt 'spv' at least twice.

So why should I pay close to the paperback cost to buy a Kindle edition with such poor quality control? Shame on you to both Amazon and the publisher. If I was John Marsden I'd be throwing things at various people about now.

It seems a shame that such a good device and publishing method should be marred by stupid flaws like this.

Wednesday, February 17, 2010

Windows 7 Phone - Colour Me Surprised

So at the World Mobile Congress just concluded Microsoft unveiled a new operating system for mobile phones.

Well , colour me surprised. They've actually done a good job and created something that doesn't suck. A number of smart moves. It remains to be seen if it is too little too late but it certainly came as a shock to me.

I was expecting a rehash of the tired old Windows OS jigged to support touch. Something like the lame tablets Ballmer showed us at CES. Lipstick on a pig.

Instead they have done some good things.

The first good thing is to make some hard decisions about supporting a quite specific hardware platform. To run the operating system MS are specifying even certain performance specifications as well as screen type, size and number of buttons. This is going to annoy the heck out of handset manufacturers but make it much easier for application developers - one place where Apple has had a big win over Google's fragmented Android platform.

The second good thing is that the interface is taken from an almost blank slate. It looks and plays a little like the Zune interface but only a little. There are some really nice things going on there. I think it has too much eye candy and not enough real information density for the small form factor but there is promise.

Of course there are some things I think are mistakes (the FM radio and overspecifying the camera as a minimum 5 megapixels, for example) and it remains to be seen what else plays out between now and anyone actually shipping a handset but this might actually provide some decent competition to the iPhone. If it does I await the reply from Apple with bated breathe, the competition will only do us all some good.

The one thing that gives me pause is the hope that somebody in Microsoft will realise the game changer that the iPad represents and realise shifting this OS up to a tablet is so much smarter than any of the dreck efforts at putting a touch interface on a desktop operating system that Steve Ballmer thinks will compete with it if his CES performance is anything to go by. I don't hold out too much hope. Microsoft has always seemed to wedded to the past and it's desktop OS.

Monday, February 15, 2010

Stop Your Whining

OK, that's enough. I'm sick and tired of all the arguments about the new iPad and I'm sick and tired of people arguing about the hardware and telling us that a Windows Tablet or Google Android machine wth a touch interface or a Netbook will be just as good and no one will want an iPad.

In the design world when looking at redesigning such things as web sites they talk about "use cases" or "user stories." So here's one for the iPad skeptics.

My mother died two years ago having spent only a few hours using a computer. They were too complicated for her and she never saw a huge need when she had a son ready to do her typing for her. This in a woman with an honours BA and three postgraduate qualitifications in psychotherapy and teaching. Over the years her two sons, one with a Phd in computer science and the other with many years experience as a programmer and support technician, tried hard. She did want to learn, she was envious that I could dash off an email to my brother and his three kids. She had to wait for me to bring over my laptop to see the latest pictures. She had a Mac but was never comfortable using it and it was breaking and the software was constantly out of date, supporting her was not an easy task. She was also constantly asking things like "can I use this software that Betty uses?" or "the thing is always telling me a new version is available" when she would download an update but not know how to apply it. She found it hard to know when she had a new email. She even had trouble getting used to a mouse.

Now imagine I go out and buy her an iPad. "How do I install this new software, Tony?" Just go to the App Store, Mum. "How do I know I've got the latest version?" Just go to the App Store, Mum. "How can I be sure the software runs on my iPad?" Just go to the App Store, Mum. "How do I find new software?" Go to the App Store, Mum. "How do I know I've got an email?" See the picture of the envelope, if it has a number on it, that's how many unread emails you have. "How do I keep all my writing safe?" Plug the iPad into the Mac, Mum. I'll come and do it for you once a week or so. "How do I keep these photos of the grandkids your brother sent in an email?" Just touch them Mum and it will ask if you want to save them.

My Mum would use her iPad at home, but take it to the office she shared with several psychotherapists, even if only to show the latest pictures of the grandkids. She would write a few emails, some teaching notes. She might play a game and perhaps extend herself to looking at a few websites.

Now do you think my Mum would be happy doing that on an iPhone? No way on that tiny screen. So there goes the argument that the iPad is just a big iPhone. Do you think she could handle keeping the software up to date on a Linux Netbook or Windows Tablet? No, that's one of the things that had her confused with a Mac. So they can go out the window, too. Could she be sure the software someone was telling her about would run? She'd need to know the brand and model of her device, the version of operating system, all sorts of of inconsequential details. Does she want to deal with viruses, file formats, crashes and programs that don't work together? Does she want to know that if she saves a photo in an email to the wrong place she can't display it in her sideshows?

No, doesn't sound like a good idea to me.

So all you naysayers, realise what Apple has done. Apple have given us an entire hardware, software and back end system that tries very hard to get out of your way and let you get on with it. It's not the hardware, not the App Store, not the easy to use multi-touch interface, it's not the tightly integrated Apple apps, not the ideal size and weight, not the hardware keyboard that's there when you want it and not dragging you down when you don't. It's all these things incredibly tightly integrated together into one package that Apple has spent several years developing and delivering.

How many people do you know that don't really care about computers, they just like what they can do? Yeah, I know dozens, too.

Stop your whining and go buy an iPad for your mother.