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Will vSphere Slice the Apple?

By Paul Rubens (Send Email)
Posted May 4, 2011


VMware's vSphere 5 virtualization platform is due to be released some time this summer with a number of interesting new features expected, including distributed resource scheduling for storage, host-based replication for Site Recovery Manager and network I/O control for virtual machines. But one possible new feature that's been mentioned recently is as intriguing as it is unlikely: the inclusion of Apple's OS X as a guest OS.

Historically, Apple has been very protective of its desktop and server OS. However, with its server hardware line discontinued and its server OS all but gone, Apple may be preparing to change its tune. Some pundits have gone so far as to predict Mac OS X support may be coming in vSphere 5.

VMware (NYSE: VMW) and Apple (NASDAQ: AAPL) are certainly not strangers: VMware Fusion, for example, allows users to run Windows software on their Apple hardware, and VMware Labs has released a vSphere client for Apple's iPad. Thus, we know VMware develops software designed to run on Apple hardware.

But support for OS X in vSphere 5? Now that's a strange one. It's strange because Apple isn't keen on virtualization, and it forbids the virtualization of the desktop version of OS X in its EULA. Since OS X Leopard, Apple has allowed the virtualization of OS X Server on an "Apple-labeled computer," as the company puts it. OS X server virtualization on non-Apple hardware, however, remains strictly verboten.

That's a problem for those who fancy running a load of OS X Server virtual machines in their data center because the only decent rack-mountable Apple-labeled server is Apple's Xserve, and that was discontinued at the beginning of this year. What's more, OS X Server is due to be discontinued -- kind of, anyway. When OS X Lion is released later this summer there will not be a separate server version. Instead, Apple says that "Lion Server is now part of Mac OS X Lion."

So a quick recap. You can virtualize only the server version of OS X, and only on Apple-labeled hardware. But Apple is abandoning the server version of OS X as a separate product, and it has already junked its Apple-labeled server hardware.

It's often said that Apple is a hardware company, not a software company, and that it produces software simply to sell its hardware. But since the company doesn't make any serious server hardware anymore and no one can sensibly be expected to take Apple's advice and use Mac Pros or Mac Minis, the only obvious reason why it would continue to make server software (as part of Lion) is to sell more desktop and laptop machines.

And this leaves Apple in something of a quandary: What the heck are customers supposed to run server software on?

So it's not beyond the bounds of reason that Apple might be considering relaxing its rule against running its server software on other hardware when Lion is released. This, coincidentally, is about the same time vSphere 5 is due. If that happens, it should come as something of a relief to the businesses that currently rely on aging Xserve machines, which can no longer be replaced.

But the information about vSphere that has leaked in to the Internet suggests it's OS X Snow Leopard, not Lion, that vSphere 5 will support as a guest. Very confusing.

Of course, it's also possible a version of vSphere that runs on Apple hardware will be made available, so that Snow Leopard could run on VMware's hypervisor without breaking the current EULA, but what Apple hardware would it run on? Or maybe VMware has decided to support OS X as a client without Apple's permission. That seems like unlikely behavior for a reputable company like VMware, however. And then there is always the possibility that the information about vSphere 5 is simply false.

Perhaps the most interesting question is this: Why would VMware bother with OS X at all? After all, it's not exactly a cutting-edge server operating system, and with Lion, it will be more of a desktop operating system with server features tacked on as an afterthought. It's fine for small businesses that need a single server and lack the skills necessary to administer a proper Linux-based server OS, but vSphere is more about using virtualization technology to optimize server usage through consolidation and pooling, high availability, automation, and public and private clouds.

So maybe it all boils down to the cloud. Perhaps Apple wants to see vast public clouds (or private clouds) of OS X resources, running on standard hardware and marshaled by vSphere 5. Apple's certainly interested in cloud computing these days, so when it comes to vSphere supporting OS X, there might just be a grain of truth.

Paul Rubens is a journalist based in Marlow on Thames, England. He has been programming, tinkering and generally sitting in front of computer screens since his first encounter with a DEC PDP-11 in 1979.

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