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September 11, 2003

Meet the iServe

Here‘s what would make my Tuesday perfect. I would like for Steve Jobs to take the stage at Apple Expo Paris, and take some time to discuss the new “Panther” release of OS X Server. “It has a built-in VPN server, improved SMB networking to better support Windows users, improvements from FreeBSD 4.8 and 5, QuickTime Streaming Server 5, better setup, management and monitoring tools,” Steve would say. “With our OpenDirectory 2 handling directory and authentication, it‘s the state-of-the art for simple, robust, scalable file serving.”

“But,” he continues, ”We think there are thousands more people out there who really need powerful file, printer and application services, and we started to think about either lowering the price or sweetening the deal for our customers. Then it hit us: What if with every $499 copy of our 10-user OS X Server, we threw in a server?”

Curtain rises, crowd gasps ... There, on a table, are a couple of small, sexy boxes, about the size of the ill-fated G4 Cube, but with the latest Apple styling. “Introducing the iServe,” Steve would say.

It‘s been a little more than 10 months since I first started thinking about, and discussing, the iServe. Other people have put forth their vision, notably SpamDude, and Santiago has even envisioned an iServe ad.

The general idea of the iServe is a home file and application server that could really become the digital hub of a household. It would start out by bringing e-mail, calendaring, and contact-sharing that are common in the business world to the home, small-business, and education market, but ideally, would move beyond that to take an active role in managing the technology of your home, including your telephone, television, and even HVAC and alarm system.

If this doesn‘t interest you at all, you can stop reading now, because I‘m going to go on at length about what would make me an early adopter, and how I would like to see an iServe designed and marketed.

Apple could launch an iServe as an OS X-only product, but as with the iTunes Music Store, it will be more successful if it supports more platforms, including Windows, OS 9, and Linux, as clients. As much as possible, the iServe should leverage open standards like vCal and LDAP, so that Apple doesn‘t have to create PC software that interoperates only with the iServe, and so that users can choose client software that fits their needs.


    Target markets for the iServe are:

  • Home users with multiple computers and broadband connections

  • Schools

  • Small workgroups: especially project teams

    Included software:

  • OS X Server 10-user

  • Weblog software

  • iCal server software

  • Mail server

Don‘t neglect the importance of small workgroups in marketing the iServe. Apple‘s LaserWriter sold into big companies so that creative teams could output high-resolution documents. Today‘s office is more often organized around ad hoc project teams, put together for specific projects. The iServe is just the right size for a typical project team of 3-10 people, and could keep their project-related calendar, data, and web site on one computer that‘s in their control.

If your whole company is only a dozen people, then the iServe would work for you, too. Won‘t that siphon off Xserve sales? I don‘t think so. The Xserve is clearly a product for the data center, and most workgroups don‘t have access to a data center. The iServe would generally ship with the 10-user version of OS X Server, with customers paying for the upgrade to Unlimited.


The thing that differentiates the iServe, as with all good Apple products, is the software, so let’s look at it first.

File and print services: It goes without saying that this product needs to be able to serve files and printers. You could make an argument for it to be the first Mac with a parallel port, to support the widest possible range of printers.

Web serving. This is, of course, a standard feature of OS X, which includes Apache out of the box. The iServe would also include software to serve a weblog and photo gallery, webalizer, and MRTG.

Other Apple products that would tie in with the iServe:

.Mac and Backup: .Mac is a product in search of an identity. It started out as a vanity e-mail address, but most people seem to use it today as a simple backup mechanism, and a place to get the occasional free program.

The iServe could go a long way toward providing real, indisputable value through .Mac. Apple should expand .Mac to include dynamic DNS service (like DynDNS and No-IP), and every iServe should ship with a 1-year membership, and a free domain registration. It should be Apple-easy to configure the server to serve web pages through a consumer-grade router, and to set up VPN tunnels between the iServe and machines on the public internet, as when you carry your PowerBook to work, to Starbucks, or on a trip. Don’t make users unnecessarily open their iServe up to attack to use them from outside the firewall. All software configuration should be through the web, although it would be okay to provide OS X tools that make it easier, so long as the box can be administered from any machine on its network.

From inside the firewall, the iServe is an extension of .Mac: users can back up their files to the server, and if they’re using OS X, it can happen automatically through Backup. The server administrator can then set particular directories, or classes of directory, to back up to .Mac, for additional peace of mind. In iSync, next to the .Mac icon, would be an icon for your iServe, and each user could choose to sync their data to one, both, or neither.

If you build a website that’s too popular to support from the iServe on your DSL or cable modem, the iServe includes software to transparently migrate to .Mac managed hosting, available starting at a few dollars a month (and hosted on Xserves for the insanely brand-loyal).

There are two issues with e-mail support on the iServe, both relating to spam. Since most ISPs don’t allow SMTP servers on their networks, the simplest and most open solution -- to have the iServe as the SMTP server for whatever domain it’s associated with -- probably won’t work. I suppose the best we can hope for is to set up the iServe to receive mail with your domain name and to use your ISP’s outbound server as the default outbound server. The second issue is e-mail filtering, and there’s another value-add for .Mac. If you’re a subscriber, Apple will distribute new filters whenever another yahoo updates the Sobig virus.

iCal/Address Book: When a user attached to an iServe creates a calendar or a contact, there should be an option to publish that item to the iServe, where other users could subscribe. On my home iServe, Christy could create a “Midvale PTA” calendar that I could see in iCal, and that other people could see through the web (or iCal if they‘ve got it). The iCal server software should also be smart enough to periodically update a calendar that lives on a PowerBook when it‘s logged in, and note on the published calendar when it was last updated.

This also means that Christy and I could update each other’s contact information, so I get new phone numbers from her family, and she gets new ones from mine. By default, these things are for inside-the-firewall only, but the system administrator can easily share groups of contacts or calendars across the net, as with PTA calendars and contacts, soccer schedules, etc.

And please, please, please, include iPhoto in this scheme, so that the iServe could automagically build a master archive of all the digital pictures on all our computers, or at least in all our copies of iPhoto.

iTunes/iTunes Music Store: I should be able to listen to music shared by other users on an iServe, and to share my music with them.

So much for the steak, what about the sizzle?

Television: Rumor is that Steve Jobs doesn’t like television, but he would be a strange techie indeed if he doesn’t like TiVo. One iServe option would grab video as scheduled by server users, then use QuickTime Streaming Server to stream the captured video over the network. This could be a big seller in education, as teachers could build and share collections of educational programs.

Telephone: The iServe would include a modem with voice capabilities, and software to manage your calls. When someone calls your number, they might have to enter a PIN to leave a message, or might enter a code to choose the recipient of the message. The iServe would then generate an e-mail or SMS message (or even phone you!) notifying the recipient of the new message, which they could retrieve through secure login over the internet. Small businesses could use the iServe to handle their voicemail needs.


On the low end, selling for family use, there’s very little here that would require as much horsepower as the current low-end (800 megahertz G3) iBook, but for reasons of economy, it might make sense to build the base iServe on that platform, without battery, LCD, or keyboard. Swap the 4200-rpm 2.5” drive for a cheaper and faster, full-size 3.5” drive, and switch out the Radeon 7500 video card for the cheapest thing that will work -- iServes aren’t meant to run with a display attached. I think Apple could hit the $499 price point here. You’re looking at an iBook motherboard with a cheaper video card, a 60-gig drive, 256 megs of memory, a CD-ROM and a plastic case. The only upgrade would be to gigabit Ethernet. Certainly there’s nothing there that should cost more than a low-end Dell or Gateway desktop.

Of course, Apple would rather you spent more, so there are a lot of add-on goodies. Almost everyone would spend $99 more to get AirPort Extreme, especially folks who were early AirPort adopters, but now have Extreme machines still using their graphite base stations. Most people would upgrade the hard drive and memory as well, and those are profitable upgrades for Apple. And of course you could upgrade to the unlimited OS X Server for less than the $500 difference in the retail packages.

Certainly, you could back up the whole server across the internet, but there are a number of optional backup drives available, including DVD-R and tape. If you really back your machine up, the tape is absolutely necessary. I recently backed up my PowerBook for the first time (since February), and it took 5 DVD-Rs and several hours.

If you want to one-up the neighbors, you’ll want the G4 iServe, starting at $999 (and yes, it comes with OS X Server Unlimited, so again, the hardware and software are the same price as the retail software). Equivalent to the 1 gHz eMac, with lower-end video, no display, AirPort Extreme included, 512 megabytes of memory and a 120-gigabyte drive.


From Mac OS Rumors (which doesn’t support permalinks, but posted 9/10/03):

Details are still sparse and unreliable, but one major feature that sources have been discussing is integration with Safari, and Apple's Web site. Apparently, a feature is being developed to allow users of "iOffice" to upload their work to a central sharing site, where others can use the documents as templates for their own projects. This could make the jobs of a great many desk-bound workers much easier, and although the legal details are still being worked out, apparently the system is already being used internally by some Apple employees.

Update: Another column about an iServe was here at AppleLust, where Pierre Igot uses the term to describe a more entertainment-centric box, that resembles an Apple version of the Media Center PCs many clone manufacturers are shipping.

Toshiba’s iServe-like platform: Toshiba says it “provides a platform for solution developers to reach a variety of vertical markets via software bundling and add-on optional devices that increase productivity.”

Toshiba Magnia

It’s the basis for New Millennium’s turnkey FileMaker Server product:

New Millennium FileMaker Server

Ikon actually sells a unit they call the iServe.

September 11, 2003 in iServe and home servers | Permalink


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» the iServe (redux) from inluminent
Frank has really expaned his iServe idea (from November)... I'd love to see what he's envisioned in my house. I... [Read More]

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» the iServe (redux) from atmaspheric | endeavors
Frank has really expaned his iServe idea (from November)... I'd love to see what he's envisioned in my house. I agree with him on the value to small work-groups, and as a guy working in a company that has many small work-groups and owns a few XServe's,... [Read More]

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OK, you sold me, even though I already have most of this in-hand. It's the value-adds that only Apple can do well (seemingly) that make sense and I can forgive the lengthy wait for this post-that-could-be-a-product-team's-marching-orders.

Posted by: paul at Sep 12, 2003 12:55:09 AM

And that iServe ad mockup is brilliant. I can see those on home bookshelves very easily . . . . basing it on a laptop is a great idea, since you get the compact form factor and the integral battery backup.

Posted by: paul at Sep 12, 2003 1:02:22 AM

I didn't play up the battery backup, because I think it might kick the price above $499. At $129 retail, a laptop battery is more expensive than a commodity hard drive, memory, or the motherboard.

I suspect you could build a more cost-effective UPS with a less energy-dense material, as in most APC-style UPSes. On the other hand, the built-in battery is cool, and that's important for Apple products.

Posted by: Frank at Sep 12, 2003 1:12:58 AM

It's been said from Cupertino several times that they think it's silly to have a dedicated server when all the computers you already have are so powerful and with so many resources to spare. (Or a variation over that).

I think it's more likely that OS X will get more features to connect and share in various ways.

- ask

Posted by: Ask Bjrn Hansen at Sep 12, 2003 10:24:50 PM

Certainly, the way Apple has developed and promoted Rendezvous encourages the kind of peer-to-peer operation you're discussing.

I've considered that, but I disagree. There are a few reasons for your server to be a dedicated box:

1) Administration. People are very territorial with their computers. The iServe would be straightforward to manage, but it would 'belong' to the group's propellerhead, whether that's an IT group, Dad, or a technically inclined group member.

2) My powerful computer comes to work with me, and Apple sells a lot of laptops. The point of the iServe is to serve your web pages, maintain your backups, manage household resources (phone and TV features), and coordinate resources on different computers that may or may not be present, or active. You can't do that effectively on a box that spends much of its life in a briefcase.

3) Call me old-fashioned, but I don't trust a backup that depends on a machine at which someone sits. You never know what can happen on somebody's workstation, no matter how powerful the box is. To be honest, I still don't trust any service to be up 7 x 24 on a computer with a regular user, even though I served this weblog off a Lombard PowerBook for 3-4 months.

4) Bigger closet syndrome. Occasionally, somebody in a project team, class, or family needs to do something that temporarily requires a lot of drive space. Often, more than they have on their computer. If it's me, no problem -- I have an excuse to buy a bigger drive for the PowerBook. But what if it's somebody else? It makes a lot more sense to put a big drive on the network, where anybody can use it temporarily, as when burning a DVD.

5) Centralizing pricey resources. Part of the reason for servers has always been to reduce the number of pricey hard drives a company has to buy. This is no longer a concern, but an iServe would let a group of users benefit from a SuperDrive, backup tape drive, and big hard drive that they may not have on their client Mac, PC, or Linux box.

Posted by: Frank at Sep 13, 2003 12:26:00 AM

And when I look at the existing form factors, I'm reminded [duh] that OS X server runs on x86 hardware, making it possible to trim costs even further.

Posted by: paul at Sep 13, 2003 3:03:21 PM

This unit would bring an end to the era where a server guy is required to get your website going. Colocation becomes copying the website onto it, shipping it to the colocation provider, and plugging it in. Through dynamic DNS and domain mapping, your box is online wherever it goes.

Posted by: Richard Soderberg at Sep 18, 2003 3:07:06 AM

I don't know that it would bring it to an end, but it would be analogous to the way Microsoft Word shipping with templates made it unnecessary to have an expert format your documents unless your were doing something really weird, or complex.

This is, of course, what Apple has built the company on, taking things that previously required expert knowledge, and putting them in the hands of "the rest of us."

Has anyone used ClarkConnect? It looks like it would be a good place to start for internet gateway service, as it includes VPN, content filtering, IPSec support for dynamic IPs, SpamAssassin, internal DNS, and web-based configuration.

Posted by: Frank at Sep 18, 2003 1:34:19 PM

There's a new server out, the Ispiri Mirra, priced at $399. It reminded me of your idea.

Posted by: Richard Soderberg at Sep 21, 2003 6:38:36 PM

I think it's a good idea, with some modifications:

1. Should also act as a media center. Tivo, music piped through your stereo, etc. This is something people are obviously willing to pay money for. And it fits: if you want to, say, serve your photo albums over the web, you should be able to show them on your TV at home as well. This would mean including DVD-ROM.

2. Rather than acting as an extension of .Mac, this should be ".Mac at home"--the iServe should have a WebDAV server and do all (well, most) the magic that .Mac does, but locally.

3. If you only access the iServe by remote, I don't think you need any video circuitry. But it would need a killer "local mode" for initial setup and admin. This gets into the human-factors end. You could administer it via a web-based control panel, rlogin, or something like Timbuktu. My own feeling is that it would need something a little like Timbuktu, but should not try to create a desktop-on-a-desktop--rather, it should give you an admin-oriented view of the other machine instead of a Finder view.

Posted by: Adam Rice at Sep 23, 2003 9:53:09 AM