A new Mac Pro model is imminent. Apple's flagship computer, once renowned for its powerful performance capacity, hasn't been updated since June 2012 when the model's refreshed hardware specifications (surprisingly lacking 10K RPM SATA disks, USB 3.0 connectivity and Thunderbolt support) left many unimpressed. The direction in which Apple moves the Mac Pro platform will necessarily dictate how many Mac organizations approach data center deployments moving forward.
At a crossroads
Apple previously offered a line of Xserve rack-mountable equipment, for which sales were discontinued in early 2011. The Mac Pro, for which Apple recommends (within its Xserve transition guide) deploying using a shelf with two units per 12U when deploying in racks, isn't readily data center friendly. Some alternative mounting options, such as the CadLock kit, have arisen to help meet enterprise needs. But both methods are imperfect solutions.
If enterprise Mac organizations are to more aggressively deploy Mac servers in data centers, and better leverage the platform's performance capacity to power video editing, email operations, calendaring, file storage and other cloud-based services, Apple should include several improvements. The chassis should be made easier to rack mount. The new model should support faster SATA disks with greater storage capacities. USB 3.0 and Thunderbolt support should be added, too, in order to improve peripheral and storage array performance.
If Apple simply debuts a refreshed Mac Pro that includes only pedestrian improvements, such as modestly faster Intel CPUs, larger disks and maybe improved graphics, the firm's server strategy will be clear. Minus server-grade enhancements, Apple would essentially be admitting that its server commitment, for which support began slipping with the retirement of the Xserve platform, is waning and is centered on small businesses for which a Mac Mini with OS X Server fulfills most requirements. The Mac Pro's role as a truly capable, enterprise-class Xserve replacement would essentially be over.
Enterprise-class commitment in question
But if Apple announces a new Mac Pro possessing an easily rack-mounted chassis, faster Intel server-class chips, a wider variety of SATA and SSD drives and even hot-swappable disks, Apple will affirm intentions to power enterprise-class cloud-services hosted in proper data centers. While that's certainly a possibility, look for analysts to be surprised if such a machine is released.
The Mac Pro is largely viewed as a desktop workstation, and rightfully so. Its chassis, a typical if elegant tower, belies its intended use.
Apple's surprised many before, however. Certainly, it's possible a new enhanced Mac Pro server model will replace many of the data center-focused features and capacities lost when the Xserve was retired.
Organizations must wait and see
If your firm is waiting to upgrade data center Mac servers, all you can do is adopt a wait-and-see attitude. Adopting reliable and powerful cloud-based infrastructure requires potent data center equipment. The only viable OS X data center platform, right now, is the aging Mac Pro Server.
But with a critical refresh due any time, most organizations will be best served placing Mac server room and data center upgrades on hold until Apple clarifies its server strategy. The new Mac Pro will demonstrate the direction in which Apple is headed, and the upgraded Mac Pro chassis, disk and performance capacities will enable enterprise Mac organizations to finally make necessary decisions regarding replacing aging systems, deploying new services and planning properly for the future.
Erik Eckel owns and operates two technology companies. As a managing partner with Louisville Geek, he works daily as an IT consultant to assist small businesses in overcoming technology challenges and maximizing IT investments. He is also president of Eckel Media Corp., a communications company specializing in public relations and technical authoring projects.