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Apple and the enterprise: A complicated relationship

Ryan Faas | Aug. 21, 2013
It's been one step forward, two steps back over the past 15 years for Apple and enterprise customers.

Although NetInfo worked and remained in the mix of Apple's enterprise components for several years, it had some serious limitations. The biggest one: It was proprietary and didn't integrate with other platforms.

The other achilles heel for NetInfo in early OS X releases was that it didn't support directory server replication. That meant that either a single server had to support the enterprise identity functionality for an entire organization or multiple servers -- each with a unique directory of users, computers and configuration data -- had to be deployed. Even though it was possible for Macs to search for enterprise identity data across multiple servers, the process was far from the multi-master replication capabilities of Active Directory domain controllers.

The proprietary nature of NetInfo led Apple to sell a complete end-to-end solution to enterprise IT. Today, Apple is well known for its end-to-end approach to technology; in many ways, it's been a winning strategy because it allows Apple to maximize profits and create a controlled ecosystem. It's also the same strategy that allowed Apple to disrupt industries so effectively and deliver some of the most polished products on the market. iTunes, with its link to the iPod and iOS, is the greatest example of what Apple can achieve using it.

Apple didn't have a lot of luck selling that end-to-end system to enterprise IT. Part of that was because of the proprietary nature of Apple's solutions. But the company was also still pulling back from its near collapse in the mid-to-late 1990s. At the time, its market share was abysmally low and it was a complete outlier in virtually every business market.

Panther brings a new approach to enterprise
OS X Panther (and Panther Server) was one of the most important releases of OS X from an enterprise perspective. It rectified the limitations of NetInfo by introducing a broad-based solution for enterprise identity and directory services. It also added support for Active Directory. That represented a major shift in Apple's strategy, as the company quietly acknowledged it couldn't succeed in business without really offering support for existing enterprise systems.

Open Directory was technically a collection of directory and identity technologies that included NetInfo support, with a connection for legacy NetInfo server as well as for storing local accounts and records as well as an LDAP-based replacement for NetInfo's proprietary data store. In practice, Open Directory became synonymous with Apple's LDAP implementation; as that was integrated with Kerberos, it represented a replacement for NetInfo. In addition to being based on open standards, the Open Directory architecture included support for directory server replication. Even so, it remained a master/slave replication environment that was more like Windows NT's use of a primary server and one or more backup servers than Active Directory.


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