Apple’s announced move to its own ARM-based processors to power upcoming Mac computers beginning in 2021 makes sense. The company can rationalize its environment across desktops, tablets and smartphones, and also potentially increase its margins by building its own chips (something that would not make sense if it did not have the massive volumes it has in smartphone processors).
But the move is not necessarily a fully compatible one for users of all applications – especially enterprise apps that may need a rewrite to operate effectively.
This means companies that deploy Macs in production environments need to decide what the new platform will mean for powering their workforce. While Apple believes few glitches will crop up as it moves macOS to new silicon – and no doubt will do all it can to make that a reality – there is a good possibility disruptions could still occur.
What should enterprises evaluate to limit any such disruptions?
What enterprise apps run on Mac and how?
Many high-performance apps are optimized at the OS level or potentially even below at the base hardware level. This is especially true of compute-intensive and graphics-intensive apps, but also ones that have large data bases they need to work with.
As Apple moves to a new chip, it must also rewrite its desktop OS for the new platform, something it’s begun with this year’s release of macOS Big Sur. This could potentially break any specialized or customized software running on the current version. While Apple will make an emulator available for compatibility purposes, emulators are generally not a good solution for high-performance needs as they tend to significantly slow down the processing within apps as they “translate” the software.
Companies must evaluate any apps they currently have to see how such a move could affect the operation and performance of such apps and what it will mean for operations.
Is emulation a viable approach? It depends
As already noted, emulation often results in significant performance issues. Further, emulation is not always perfect; past experiences have shown that some apps may not run correctly on emulators. If the apps aren’t particularly performance sensitive, they may function adequately, but enterprises should test any emulation software as soon as it is available to confirm full compatibility and performance. Further, enterprises should also evaluate plans from the software providers to see whether they expect to upgrade their applications to the newer platform (and when) and perhaps avoid the issue of emulation altogether.
What about peripherals?
Peripherals require optimized drivers to work with any new platform; this change will be no exception. In most cases for high-volume commodity peripherals, they simply work with the new systems. But in the case of specialized and/or custom peripherals, the drivers will most likely need to be re-written by the peripheral manufacturers. Companies should keep that in mind when making a decision on upgrading to the new Macs and – as with the apps, discuss with peripheral suppliers their plans for support of the new platform.
Time is on the enterprise’s side
Not all Intel Macs will go away in the short term. This does give enterprises who are concerned about compatibility, at least for the time being, an ability to remain on the current crop of Macs and even acquire newer Intel-based machines. Apple says it will be making future Macs with Intel processors, though it’s not yet clear what machines will be available with Intel chips (e.g., high end systems, current non-updated machines, entry-level hardware).
Companies that have concerns must address this directly with Apple. Still, there is at least a two-year availability window, according to Apple, for Intel-based hardware. And, of course, machines already in place may be used for their full lifecycle of two to four years
The bottom line
Few organizations will be affected right away since Apple processor-based computers and devices won’t be available for at least six to nine months. Even so, companies that rely on Macs need to be aware now of the potential disruptions the new machines could cause.
As with any migration to a new system architecture, companies should require that enterprise apps be optimized by the vendor for the new platform. Short of this, all enterprise apps have to be tested on the new hardware before wide deployment to users to verify performance and compatibility.
Finally, there is a real possibility that peripherals, especially customized peripherals, will need to be replaced as drivers may not become available, or at least not be available in a timely fashion. Enterprises that have an installed base of Mac machines should start now to build a strategy of how to integrate the new platforms, or potentially move to others (though I don’t expect that to happen in any large numbers).
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