Sunday, October 3, 2021

Shiner ESB, an Apple Network Server prototype, and what it did at Netscape/MCom

The Apple Network Server was, with the possible exception of the Apple Workgroup Server 95, Apple's first true server. I have a particular soft spot for the ANS because it was also my first server: an ANS 500 ran Floodgap (even before Floodgap in 1998 as and from 2000 until 2012, and stockholm is still in my collection. While Apple had the Workgroup Server line, these were merely contemporary Mac designs with value-added software or hardware options, and as such ran Mac OS. (The AWS 95 ran A/UX, Apple's SVR2 Unix-System 7 hybrid, though it could also run Mac OS — being really a rebadged, hopped-up Quadra 950 — with its custom PDS SCSI card removed.)

The ANS, however, was a real honest to goodness server with hotswappable drive bays and fans, and (its most notable feature) an award-winning lockable translucent door so you could keep the unwashed masses out of your drives but still watch the blinkenlights. If you bought the bigger model, you even got dual power supplies and additional rear bays.

Also notable about the ANS was that they weren't supposed to run Mac OS, and were never sold with it, not least of which because the classic Mac OS wasn't really up to the task of being a server. Unfortunately, while A/UX supported larger needs on the 68K-based Workgroup Servers that could run it, A/UX 3 couldn't run on Power Macs even under emulation. The plan with A/UX 4 was to use a new PowerPC-native OSF/1-based kernel and possibly to also integrate portions of IBM's AIX operating system, but this plan (along with Taligent and other doomed projects) stalled out with everything else in Apple around that period. For a time Apple even considered using Novell NetWare on PowerPC; the port actually existed, codenamed Wormhole, but its tepid reception eventually led to the release of the weird Workgroup Server 9150 which just ran Mac OS. Eventually, to get to market Apple reached for what was then the only professional-level Un*x running on the new PowerPC architecture, which was AIX itself. Three Apple Network Server models were developed but only two (the "Low End" 500 and "High End" 700) were released; the 3U rack 300 "Deep Dish" remained solely a prototype, which I'd still love to acquire if its current owner ever gets tired of it. Oddly, even though they were only ever sold as AIX machines, they were initially demonstrated running a custom version of MacOS which was never released with them (I'd love to see this release myself), further confusing potential customers who already didn't want to buy Workgroup Servers. Introduced in 1996 at a retail cost starting north of US$10,000, which didn't even include the AIX license, they were very poor sellers and the line was canned by Gil Amelio around a year later.

I got my ANS 500 barely used for the cost of some consulting work after Apple stopped supporting it; you can see some scanned Polaroids of when it was in production way back in 1998. Later, I acquired an ANS 700 which I use as a spare and was briefly in service while I diagnosed a hardware issue with the 500. More recently, however, I managed to land a Shiner HE prototype dated 1995 from a scrapper in San Rafael, California. That is the unit depicted in these pictures.