With Mac OS X Server, Apple has finally launched a network OS. Taking its place with Windows NT, Novell NetWare, and Linux, Mac OS X Server provides file and print sharing, a Web server, and multimedia content streaming services to Apple Macintosh-based networks. Mac OS X Server also introduces NetBoot and Macintosh Management Services, features designed to ease the administrative tasks involved with Macintosh networks and save IT administrators time.
The first Macintosh NOS is a robust server that will fulfil the networking needs of Macintosh Web design shops, companies supporting Macintosh clients, and Macintosh workgroups or labs. One warning: Mac OS X Server introduces a learning curve more severe than with any other Mac product.
Forget what you know about Macs - Mac OS X Server is no ordinary Macintosh running Finder. It is powered by a Mach 2.5-based microkernel, has a quasi-compliant Posix environment, and includes ports for all of the important daemons and utilities found on any Berkeley Science Distribution 4.4 system, including bind, sendmail, telnetd, and ftpd.
The Mach microkernel, much like IBM's OS/2 and Next Software's Next, provides the underpinnings for a stable and preemptive OS. In fact, Mac OS X Server is essentially a Unix box running a GUI that looks like Finder and acts like a combination of Finder and NextStep, which took a drill-down, object-oriented approach to navigation.
But settling into the idea that Mac OS X Server is another flavour of Unix takes time. This release adds complexity previously unheard of with Macs. If you plan to use Mac OS X Server to do anything more than simply share files and publish a basic Web page, you will need to learn the nitty-gritty of modifying text files and changing scripts. So if your IT staff has no Unix experience, expect them to spend a reasonable amount of time learning to configure and manage this system.
The operating system's GUI is a modified version of Finder, which uses a Next-like navigation system to present the file system to the user. But it is surprisingly easy to use.
Stunned and refreshed
I was also stunned to find that I could pull up a command prompt and use Unix commands "cd" and "ls" to guide me through my Macintosh. Finally, having lower-than-GUI access to the OS is refreshing.
Macintosh clients have always posed problems for network managers, but Mac OS X Server promises to take the headaches out of administrating a Macintosh network.
Most Macs have a fancy background installed on the desktop, a cutesy screen saver, too many experimental applications loaded, and enough desktop icons to make your head spin. So when a Mac is having problems, you are stuck with the great Macintosh conundrum: "Do I reload everything, or do I play musical extensions?"
But by using Max OS X Server's NetBoot and Macintosh Management Services features, you can successfully resolve these problems. Additionally, NetBoot and Macintosh Management Services will reduce the cost of owning Macintosh clients.
With NetBoot, each user gets a profile, a desktop, and storage space on the server. When a client is powered on, NetBoot downloads its OS from the Mac OS X Server and prompts the user to log in. The systems come up as fast as they would if they booted off their local hard drives (provided all of the clients are not powered on simultaneously). Apple recommends that you run either a 100Mbps network or a switched 10Mbps network with 100Mbps to the server for optimal performance.
With the NetBoot Desktop Admin tool you can distribute applications to each user. To make an application available to all NetBoot clients, you load the admin tool and instruct it to make a Private copy, reboot, and then install the application as you would normally. Lastly, run the admin tool twice more, rebooting after each iteration.
NetBoot turns application installation and upgrading into a relatively simple task instead of a time-consuming process that requires you to visit each machine.
Unfortunately, I ran into problems with some applications when it came to licensing. Photoshop, for example, allows you to run only one copy of the software with the same serial number when your systems are networked together. This, regardless of how many licences I had, kept me from using the application on more than one system at a time. Therefore, before installing all of your applications in NetBoot, ask your vendors if they will sell you network licences for their software.
Apple is currently working with several vendors to help them write applications that will work correctly with NetBoot.
Acting like a network computer
Also included with the Mac OS X Server are Macintosh Management Services. After a user logs in, the settings for that user's desktop, preferences, and applications are loaded. This lets users log in to any one of the Macs participating in Macintosh Management Services and retrieve their regular desktop settings and preferences. These services are available to both NetBoot and Mac OS 8.1 (and later) clients.
As a file server, Mac OS X Server is quick and stable with impressive features. I had no difficulties connecting my iMac clients to the server. The system supports Network File System, FTP, and HTTP access.
The biggest problem with the file-serving services is the lack of support for Server Message Block (SMB) clients. However, a port of Samba, which will let you serve files to PCs, is available from Macintosh support groups on the Web. Apple is working to include native support for SMB clients in a future release, which will help greatly in rounding out Mac OS X Server.
Also, because the OS is Posix-compliant, Apple was able to include Apache Web Server 1.3.4, which runs more than half of the Web sites on the Internet. This gives Mac OS X Server a stable, fast, and well-supported Web server.
Mac OS X Server is a good first-run version of a network operating system for Apple. But because it is a Version 1.0 product, it suffers in a few areas, such as being unable to natively serve PCs and lacking a set of rich GUI administration tools.
If you have a strictly Macintosh-based network or run workgroups or labs of Macintoshes, and you have some time to spend learning your way around the OS, the promising Mac OS X Server is right up your alley.
But if you need a solution for a heterogeneous network, continue looking or wait for the next release.
The Bottom Line
Mac OS X Server
Mac OS X Server provides Apple-based networks with a solid server environment that allows for file sharing and Web page serving and development. It includes NetBoot and Macintosh Management Services, which ease Macintosh network administration by centralising user profiles and application installation. These time- saving features reduce the administrative tasks of application and desktop maintenance.
Pros: Stable preemptive server environment; can run systems in NetBoot configuration, which lets applications and profiles be stored and administered centrally.
Cons: Licensing problems with NetBoot supporting common applications such as Photoshop; does not natively support Windows SMB clients.
Platforms: Apple Macintosh G3 Server.
Price: $795 RRP.