Another possible future Apple product: an iServe

In the course of hanging out on the ZFS discussion list, I’ve developed a healthy paranoia for the safety of my data. Hard disk drives fail all too easily nowadays, and I know it’s a matter of time before another major data-loss event, especially since my family’s large media collections are being held on single external hard drives prized more for their attractive cases than for their reliability.

I found out a had a few hundred pounds left on my consulting account code at the university, and it’s ideal for buying computer kit. I ran it past my Executive Producer (read: ‘wife’), and she’s also ready for redundant network-attached storage, having also looked into it for her job. I spent several days trying to figure out if I could build a solution myself based on OpenSolaris and ZFS, but ended up thwarted by form factor: I could find no cases that were compact as well as capacious enough for (at least) four hard drives.

So, I looked around, and it sounded like the Infrant ReadyNAS NV Plus is the unit to beat. As a UK supplier has a special on disks bundled with the unit, I put in an order right away.

But I wonder, what do I really want? I want flexibility and ease of administration. I want verifiable redundancy. I want ZFS. I also want something that will work seamlessly with my home network. I want something that understands Apple’s protocols well. I want to be able to stop running iTunes at some point during the day, but still keep synching with my AppleTV. I want an integrated backup solution that works well with Apple’s upcoming Time Machine feature in Leopard. I want something only Apple could provide.

The net is strewn with “Apple needs to provide this form factor or they won’t get my custom” articles. I know that Apple’s strength is in providing a simple, comprehensible product range that potentially serves a vast proportion of the populace. Still I wonder if an “iServe” could be coming. Consider:

  • The AppleTV, iPhone, and the Airport Extreme (presumably running Darwin) are showing the way that Apple can expand their offerings while cashing in on the intellectual capital they’ve built up over the years of fine-tuning the full stack of Mac OS X. Add a little more sophistication with regards to storage to the Airport Extreme, and you have the basis of the device I’m envisaging.
  • Apple has been building expertise and goodwill in the storage arena for years with the XServe RAID. It gets a fair amount of respect for that product from certain quarters. It won’t be the first time Apple has tested a technology at the professional high end as a dress rehearsal for something in the consumer space.
  • Apple has been very open about its efforts to port ZFS to Mac OS X/Darwin, and many have noted how ideal Time Machine would be as a GUI for ZFS’s snapshot feature.
  • The backup qualities of Time Machine only go as far as the reliability of the backup media, and external hard drives have had a sinking reputation for years. Building a reliable RAID NAS on ZFS would be a solution to a problem that people don’t realise they have. You can now have faith in your backups, and serve all your home’s or small workgroup’s computers at once.
  • Time Machine, as far as I understand it, seems to be rather storage-hungry (with snapshots, saving a copy of every version of every file that has existed on your computer from the day you install Leopard), and with the vast majority of Macs shipping with a single hard drive, that’s a bit incongruous. Why should Apple sell you a software solution without providing the hardware or service to go along with it? This could be a sign for Apple to sell you something more.
  • With iTunes moving into an increasing role as a media hub application, it makes bigger and bigger demands of the machine it runs on. With an AppleTV in the house, the ideal (as I use it) really seems to be 24-7 operation of the host computer, with iTunes always running. My Mac mini G4 has always been a 24-hour computer, but other people would like to send their iMacs to sleep once in a while. Seeing as iTunes serves multiple roles (media jukebox, media organizer, store front end, and a synchronizing/streaming server) at once, there’s room for splitting off one of these functionalities into a lightweight server process that integrates with the iPod ecosystem more cleanly than the third-party daapd offered with RAID NAS products.
  • There are NAS and RAIDed NAS products on the market already, and although they’re gaining popularity, there are no dominant players. That’s an opportunity for Apple to capture mind share with a new product. It’s interesting that Netgear just bought Infrant, but Netgear still doesn’t seem to be able to capture the public’s imagination as Apple does.

RoughlyDrafted had a nice analysis of Apple’s current NAS storage capabilities when it compared the new Airport Extreme with Windows Home Server. I think the Airport-as-NAS is just the thin end of the wedge for Apple, so here’s what I propose:

  • A 4- or 5-disk RAIDZ-capable array of disks
  • AFP and SMB file sharing
  • Printer sharing
  • The server portions of iTunes
  • Low power consumption
  • Small form factor
  • Simple administration through something resembling the Airport Assistant
  • Possibly a gigabit ethernet interface (but certainly at least 100Mbit), for workgroups or direct connections
  • Possibly USB and Firewire for direct connections

…and that’s it. It could be a wireless (802.11 draft N) device, and could have router and wireless access point capabilities, but those would dilute the message on what this device is for: to serve and protect your files, reliably, quietly, and cheaply.

Everyone wonders when, with Apple. This is mere speculation: it may never happen. When could it happen, then? I would expect this sort of product to come in the wake of next year’s Macworld Expo in January 2008, at the very earliest. I see the iServe as dependent on Leopard shipping, to help build the demand for the feature through Time Machine. It wants a major announcement to give it the time in the spotlight for the general populace to understand what it’s for. That suggests Macworld Expo. As I’ve envisaged it, it’s quite a boring, back-room product (which, we have to note, resembles the new Airport Extreme in 2007, which didn’t even get a Macworld keynote mention), so an October release for the Christmas buying season would be inappropriate. I know that I could use this sort of product tomorrow, and would happily cancel my Infrant order to do so. That, I must acknowledge, is more wishful thinking than anything else in this article.

Any thoughts?

[I know I’m not the first to propose an iServe (though these couple links were found just after I finished the article). This is ultimately a revisiting of an idea that’s been around for a while, with an idea on how Apple could make its mark on an emerging market category, and a survey of current developments with the Apple of 2007.]