Terminal servers are nothing new in the computing world, particularly for enterprise environments. Citrix and Windows Terminal Services have been around for well over a decade. While terminal servers may not be new, their host operating systems (those that are available to connect users to the server) have, by and large, been versions of Windows. Last fall, a new company called AquaConnect did something unheard of: It unveiled the first Mac terminal server the world had ever seen.
What Mac users can gain from a terminal server
Terminal servers offer systems administrators a unique opportunity: Users from a variety of platforms and devices can connect to a server to view and access a desktop environment complete with applications. Behind the scenes, it's actually a session running on the server while the client merely transmits the user's keyboard and mouse interactions to the server. In turn, the server transmits a live view of the desktop and applications back to the client.
Terminal servers thus allow clients (typically low-powered workstations or inexpensive thin clients) to access a variety of applications and tools, and the software doesn't need to be deployed anywhere other than on the server itself. They also allow users of low-powered machines to access software beyond the capabilities of those machines and can even be used -- as in the case of Citrix's Web interfaces or Mac client software -- to access other operating systems.
Terminal servers' ability to support low-powered machines as well as inexpensive thin-client devices means they're often viewed as a cost-cutting solution. However, their ease of deployment also makes them an attractive alternative to the challenges of deploying applications (and indeed fully configured operating systems) across a large number of workstations. Finally, they can provide secure access to resources by limiting the number of ports that need to be opened in a network's firewall for remote clients to connect and access a variety of services.
As I said earlier, none of the this information or technology is particularly new to many Windows administrators. But for Mac or multiplatform administrators, the idea of a Mac OS X terminal server is completely revolutionary. Until now, any terminal service involving Macs has been to connect to mostly Windows-based terminal servers. Citrix has offered a Mac client, which predates Mac OS X, since the '90s.
Connecting Macs to a Windows environment has had its place, particularly as a means of providing access to Windows software before Apple's transition to Intel processors. But nobody before AquaConnect has provided a way to deploy Mac applications via a terminal server or provided access to the Mac OS X environment from an alternate platform.
AquaConnect now brings those capabilities to Mac OS X Server. Administrators can install AquaConnect on a Mac OS X Server machine, load up all the applications that they want Mac or PC clients to access, and then make those available over the network.
This setup presents a whole host of new options for Mac network environments. In addition to allowing for easy software deployment, the ability to connect from virtually any computing platform provides a powerful option for making any number of current Mac OS X applications available to users with a limited investment. In other words, users need not update their Mac hardware or switch to the Mac platform from existing PCs to be able to access the new Mac applications.