Does Apple Still Covet The Enterprise?

Not large enterprises, says Mac expert John Welch, but the SMB market is looking ripe for Cupertino's taking.
With the release of iWork '08, the new iMacs, new hardware RAID options for the Xserve and Mac Pros, updated Airport Extreme base stations, and bumps to the Mac Mini, the billion-dollar question, "Is Apple ready for the enterprise?" is again in play.

Here's my opinionated, and multilayered, take on the issue, from my perspective as an IT person, working within the SMB market.

Apple Has No Interest In Large Enterprises

Let's be honest, "the enterprise" as it pertains to computing is such an abused term that oftentimes it has whatever meaning its user wishes to give it. For the purposes of this article, I'll define it as any company or commercial organization with more than 1,000 computers, not including servers.

By that definition, a company in the SMB market becomes one with less than 1,000 computers, not including servers. I exclude servers, because unlike desktop computers, you can't make any kind of judgment about the overall size of a company based on server counts, as that is wildly variable based on need. I'm also not going to include .edu in that definition, as while the K-12 and higher education range includes organizations that superficially resemble both SMB and enterprise companies, they operate under a different set of needs and rules, and so don't really apply here.

With that in mind, I'll say again that Apple has no interest in large enterprises, but add to it a goal unto itself." In other words, if GE wanted to buy 50,000 iMacs tomorrow, Apple certainly wouldn't say no, and would bend over beyond backwards to make that order go smoothly. However, Apple isn't going to go out and do all the things that a similar company would have to do to make itself irresistible to a GE.

But not actively targeting large enterprises isn't the same as not wanting to get into businesses. It's more correct to say that Apple has a good understanding of its strengths and weaknesses, of the things it does well, and the things it's not good at. The upshot is, it now realizes that the enterprise is, for the most part, something that it's not good at.

That's not to say that Apple isn't able to fit into the enterprise. Things like Active Directory integration, SMB support, Kerberos, NTLMv2 support, and CAC support all are things that the enterprise likes. It's just that Apple isn't going to become an enterprise computing company, any more than it's going to start competing directly with the bottom feeders of the personal computer market. If Apple's stuff shows up in either of those markets, it's a bonus, but neither of those are major priorities for Apple, because neither of those are markets that Apple is designed to do well in.

So then, what is Apple interested in, besides its traditional areas of education, home, and arts? If you look at the company over the last few years, the answer is obvious: The SMB market.

Apple Has a Huge Interest In The SMB Market

When you get down into the SMB market, you see a set of wants and needs that fit Apple well. First, SMB companies typically have smaller IT departments. This means that they don't have an unlimited ability to deal with human-intensive solutions. There's not much room for fussing, fixing, or fidgeting. They need solutions that don't require months of training to properly understand. They need solutions that can go from box to operational in a short amount of time. That's not to say SMBs don't need the ability to implement things that were formerly thought of as "enterprise-only" technologies. When you move from 10 to 50 to 100 employees and up, you find yourself needing to use things like remote management, RAIDs, SANs, and Directory Services. You find that you need your mail to be more reliable than any one machine can manage, or that you need to deal with insane mail loads, even after the spam has been dealt with. You find that yelling over a cube, or leaving a sticky note on a monitor, is no longer an effective way to schedule meetings, rooms, and resources. You start needing centralized ways to deal with backups, installations, deployments, and the like. If you go public, you suddenly have to deal with Sarbanes-Oxley compliance requirements.

However, even at 200 or more people, that doesn't mean you suddenly have a big bucket of money to spend on IT. If you think about it, because your desktop interaction costs are now higher (more people = more support calls), you have to be especially careful about the technologies you bet the company on. You also want to avoid lock-in where possible, because that ends up costing you more if you need to move to a different solution.

You need to be able to implement enterpriselike features without the overhead of a typical enterprise. You need things you can set up with basic server and networking knowledge and days, not weeks or months, of training. Yet you want training and certification to be available to you if they become a need. You want the flexibility to implement commercial or free solutions without having it turn into a Procrustean choice, and you'd like to, when possible, delay the time between hardware upgrades, particularly on the desktop, for as long as possible.

Apple is -- and hardly by accident -- well suited to these requirements in both hardware and software.


In the SMB market, Apple has compelling answers at both the desktop and in the server room. On the desktop, they have the unique ability to, out of the box, run all the major desktop/user operating systems. This includes Windows, Mac OS X, or Linux, and two ways to do so, either via dual-boot (Boot Camp) or virtualization (Parallels Desktop for Mac and VMWare Fusion).

If you have an existing Windows Terminal Server setup, then Microsoft's Remote Desktop Connection Client for Mac gives you access to Windows and Windows applications remotely. (I can say that from a sysadmin point of view, Remote Desktop Client is the best tool I have to help me run my Windows servers from my MacBook.)

If you need to just run a couple of Windows applications, and don't want to deal with Windows, you have still another option in Crossover Mac from CodeWeavers. So for one price, you have access to almost all the software that you'd ever need, on Apple hardware. True, you have to pay for Windows and/or the software to run Windows, but being able to run almost everything on the same hardware is really compelling.

The hardware itself is solid. Apple doesn't have nearly as many options as other Wintel vendors, but for the SMB market, what they have is solid. The Mac Mini takes care of your needs if you want a separate CPU and monitor. If all-in-one units are OK, then there's the iMac. For bigger needs, there's the Mac Pro. With the optional RAID card for the Mac Pro, it also can function as a server, important for businesses that don't have the space or budget for a "proper" server room with racks, et al. Need a laptop? MacBook or the MacBook Pro. No, this line doesn't cover every situation, but for the SMB market, it hits the sweet spots. Another advantage of Apple's smaller product line is that it's easy to figure out which computer you need. Need a desktop, great -- three options, small, (Mini), medium, (iMac), and large, (Mac Pro). Need a laptop, great -- two options, small, (MacBook) and large, (MacBook Pro). Even the names are fairly directly descriptive. Well, except for the iMac, but that name is almost a cultural thing anymore. Either way, it's really easy to figure out what Mac you need for what job on the desktop.

Compare that to, say, Dell, which has five lines of notebooks, six lines of desktops with three of each sharing the same basic product name. Yes, Dell offers far more choice, but that includes far more complexity, because of overlap in the product lines, and no real clear differentiation between them. "Insperion", "XPS" and "Dimension" do not, at first glance, indicate anything that's even vaguely functional.

So ordering the right Dells for your company is rather more complex than ordering the right Apples. It's not hard, but it's perhaps a little more work that one should expect in what should be a simple process.

With Apple's line-up, even if you add in the Xserve, or Xserve RAID, you still have a relatively simple hardware matrix, but not one that skimps on feature set.

Yes, Apple has even less choice for dedicated servers than for desktop hardware, but that choice is hardly a sharp stick in the eye, and there are times when even dedicated IT staff dread spec'ing out a new server.

The Wintel market may offer more choice than Apple, but it long ago shot to heck the dual prongs of simplicity and ease of purchasing. That's an enterprise decision, the enterprise loves lots of choices, comparison charts, etc., even though what they choose will have marginal differences from what they don't choose, and be based on everything from price to what the front panel looks like.

It's not really that much nicer for the enterprise, but that segment at least has the money to spend on people for whom such negotiations and analysis are almost a full-time job. That's not to say the SMB market doesn't care about comparisons and choice, but being able to buy hardware and software without a degree in vendor negotiation is more important to them than to, say, GE.

Apple has, even within its limited breadth of hardware, something for almost anyone in the SMB market. They make figuring out what hardware to get simple. They have reasonably clear names for things that aren't as tedious as some other vendors. (Face it, "XServe RAID" isn't even as close to as unwieldy as "Ultra Mobile Personal Computer," but it's still able to give you a good hint as to what the product does.)

If you want to order from Apple yourself, you can. If you want an Apple rep who can help you get discounts on things, (and I highly recommend using an Apple rep where possible, they are a great help in getting decent discounts on even small orders), you can. If you're doing a fairly complex order, and want in-person visits, sales/consulting engineers, you can get those, too. Apple may not be going after the enterprise, but on the hardware side, they can take really good care of the SMB market.

But that's only hardware. It sits there useless without stuff to run on it and an operating system to manage the stuff. Looking at Mac OS X and Mac OS X Server, again, Apple manages to take a solid operating system that is functional and flexible, well-suited across the range of SMB needs, and makes it easy to deal with. If nothing else, buying Mac OS X is infinitely easier than buying Windows. Here's the entire Mac OS X SKU list:

  • Mac OS X
  • Mac OS X Server 10 - client license
  • Mac OS X Server Unlimited - client license
  • There you go, every possible OS option for Mac OS X. Three clearly named items. No complex matrix with wildly varying functionality between items. No options that are only available if you sign up for an enterprise software agreement of some sort. No options tied to some bizarre maintenance agreement.

    That's not to say you can't get volume license agreements, and varying levels of support from "up and running" to "here's your own personal Apple engineer at your beck and call 24/7." You can, if need be, get all of that and more. But if you just want to buy some boxed copies of the OS, you can do that, and you won't be missing out on any features.

    You won't need to spend time with version matrices, comparing lists of features to figure out what you need. Three options, clearly named, ready to be bought. I hate to keep pounding the "SMB likes simple" option, but it's important, especially when you're wanting to give a vendor money.

    Moving past the OS, Apple realizes that while there's money to be made in sticking your hand in the customer's pocket every chance you get, your customers end up hating you. So, if you want a Web server, it's in there. Ready to go. No need to get it separate, or deal with access licenses. Heck, if you have good IT staff, you don't even need to buy Server, you get Apache in both. Server throws in Apache 2 as well, but that's not hard to install and set up, especially on a Mac. Need DNS? It's in there. Need Directory Services? It's in there. Need an SQL database? In there.

    Almost every programming language known to man that isn't Windows-only, from PHP and Perl to C? It's in there, and the IDE is free. No "crippled" version for free, then you pay through the nose for the commercial version. If you want a decent GUI for all your server tasks, that's there, or you can do it all through the command line, and face it, Unix command lines just point and laugh at Windows.

    Yes, PowerShell's a nice start from Microsoft, but since it's all .Net-ish syntax it's another layer between the majority of command line users and Microsoft. Why? Who knows. Unix can support multiple shells with different command line structures; I'd like to think Microsoft can, too. Why make things harder than they have to be? That's one reason why I believe Microsoft's SMB market share is far more vulnerable than its enterprise share.

    Less Lock-In

    Another important point in the services provided by Apple's operating system, in both Mac OS X 10.4, and moving forward into Leopard, is that they don't lock you into Mac OS X the way, say, Windows services lock you into that platform. MySQL, Postfix, Cyrus, BIND, Samba, Kerberos, LDAP, Perl, Ruby; none of those are proprietary to Apple. All will pretty much run on anything.

    Why is this important? Let's look at e-mail, arguably one of the basic, critical functions of a network. A company gets big enough to where they want to host their own e-mail services. If you go with Exchange, even if you only use IMAP/POP/SMTP, there's still a lot of things that are locked into exchange, and getting things like mail out of Exchange into another server isn't exactly a zero-time operation. As well, you pretty much cannot run Exchange without Active Directory. (I'm sure there are ways to hack this, but they aren't common, easy, or supported.) So now, just to run an e-mail server, you have to have an internal Directory Server. Don't forget the CALs.

    Oh, Exchange's costs are too high, you want to move to another e-mail server? Get ready to do some nontrivial work on the back end, and if you were using Outlook and MAPI, a lot of client work, too. Isn't that fun? May as well stay with Exchange, and suck up the costs. But with a system that's built not only just to handle open standards, but implement them in an open manner, if you want to change servers, as long as your e-mail server DNS name is the same, you have a good chance that your clients won't know.

    Same thing for changing clients. If your e-mail/groupware is based on open standards, you have a much wider variety of client and server options, and the ability to switch vendors with less pain than going from a proprietary system. Having done a proprietary -> open -> open switch before, I can tell you the open to open was far less painful, and it allowed our users to keep using their client of choice.

    This applies to databases, scripting languages, blogs, and more. If your business processes are centered on products that are based on open standards, then your ability to change products as needed is simpler, and cheaper, than if you're going proprietary to open or worse, proprietary to different proprietary. Expensive lock-in is, over time, poison to an SMB company's ability to change and grow, and it's something Apple avoids nicely.


    What about software? Well, Apple is good to the SMB market here. Unlike Microsoft, Apple doesn't live by the motto, "if it exists, we must have our own version." It's only with Leopard that Apple will have a calendaring server. There's no Apple ERP solution, no Apple HRIS solution, no Apple enterprise backup solution, etc. While that's probably inconvenient, it fits with Apple's tendency, under Steve Jobs, to be careful about the markets it gets into. However, because Apple ships its machines with a plethora of open source resources, like databases, e-mail, Web servers, etc., it's much easier to get third-party products that will work on Mac OS X. So even though Apple doesn't ship a product in every niche, they do ship a ton of free plumbing that almost any niche can use.

    As far as what Apple ships, or sells, once you get outside of video and music production, what they have are solid applications that aren't the alpha and omega of a given niche, but definitely let you get work done with them.

    The obvious example here is iWork '08. You get a good word processor/page layout application, a solid spreadsheet, and a fantastic presentation application, and you get them for $80 for the suite. That's a good price if all you need is a couple of copies. If you start needing more, you can work licensing deals with Apple to help get you some discounts. iWork '08 isn't Microsoft Office, nor is it designed to be. But it does hit the sweet spot for many needs, and will carry you well for quite a while. If you need to move up, you've multiple options, in Microsoft Office for the Mac, Open/NeoOffice, Google Apps, or even Microsoft Office for Windows via a plethora of implementations. Again, we see the SMB philosophy that Apple seems to be living by: Start simple, but make growth easy. You don't have to start with a beast like Microsoft Office or Open Office, but when you're ready for it, you can move up.

    Databases work the same way. FileMaker, Apple's arm, isn't going to put Oracle or any other high-end risk-based data management system out of business. But if you need a database that's easier to learn than Oracle, and one that has a fair amount of growth in it, well, FileMaker not only fits that role, but unlike Microsoft Access, it's cross-platform. If you need more than FileMaker, or don't want to get locked into FileMaker, well, Apple ships both SQL Lite and MySQL with Mac OS X. Let the customer start simple, but don't keep them down when they're ready to stop.

    The End Result

    What's this all mean? While Microsoft seems to be configuring many of its products for the big enterprise niche, Apple is winding itself up to become a major force in the SMB market. Leopard will accelerate this trend.

    Unlike Microsoft, Apple's offerings are simpler to deal with at every stage, from research to purchasing to implementation. For a business market that has to be far more careful about nickels and dimes than the large-enterprise market, for which $50,000 is a rounding error, flexible simplicity is crucial.

    If you think about it, once you get outside the Final Cut Pro Studio/Logic and home markets, everything Apple is doing, everything looks to be targeted at the SMB market. An OS that can work on a single system, or in a directory of hundreds. A server that can go from file and print to running a directory service and managing hundreds of clients for the same OS cost. Tons of free software that its biggest competition charges you through the nose for. No client access costs, where its biggest competitor hits you for them at every turn, sometimes with multiple client access licenses per desktop. A simple, yet powerful hardware matrix that can run, well, everything. Use of open standards wherever possible so that you're not locked in to that platform.

    With Leopard, you add in groupware to the mix. Wikis. Dead simple podcasting. For growth, you have a way to go from a tower with a RAID card to one of the best bargains in standalone RAID storage to almost everything you need for SAN. The only SAN component Apple isn't selling are Fiber Channel switches. The SAN FS they chose to OEM, StorNext, supports Windows, Linux, Solaris, etc. The latest Xservers have learning object metadata interfaces, and (finally), options for internal hardware RAIDs.

    On and on and on. Apple has been building this amazing platform for the SMB market for years, bit by bit, and I think, with Leopard, and its options, you're going to see Apple start doing amazingly well in the SMB market.

    Apple may not be targeting the enterprise, but if they're going after the SMB market the way they appear to be, you know what? Apple won't need the enterprise. Now that's "Thinking Different."

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