Inside OS X Server

When Apple announced the latest release of Mac OS X Server at its Worldwide Developers' Conference in May, the company delivered its OS X-based successor to AppleShare IP (ASIP) 6.3.3. But in its desire to capitalize on the Unix underpinnings of its new client OS, Apple may have put the cart before the horse. After all, there's more to a viable server package than a shrink-wrapped box of software.

Not surprisingly, OS X Server is based on OS X. In fact, the recent Mac OS X update (10.0.4) was applicable both to the OS X client as well as the Server. Earlier this week, Apple also released an OS X Server-specific update that includes security fixes for Samba, as well as reliability enhancements for Apple File Protocol connections, printer sharing, FTP, mail, and directory services.

Apple has also tuned the underlying OS itself for OS X Server, specifically in the areas of process management and networking, where more priority is given to server tasks and their needs than would be reasonable on a client-oriented OS. What's more, Apple has added OS-level server-specific features such as automatic restarting of services, or even the entire machine, in the event of a crash.

Unlike its classic Mac OS predecessor, Mac OS X Server styles itself a serious Internet server contender, rather than a mere workgroup package.

Functionally, OS X Server overlaps with AppleShare IP 6 in most areas. OS X's feature set offers the standard complement of Web and FTP services. Other features include file sharing for AppleShare clients over TCP/IP, for Windows clients via SMB, and for Unix clients via NFS; mail services; print services; and servers for DNS, DHCP, and SLP. NetBoot support is in the box as is Macintosh Manager 2, which lets educational network users manage client machines in a centralized manner. Finally, for those yearning for the Next-style network management tools of yore, OS X Server does, of course, provide directory services based on Next's NetInfo technology.

OS X Server includes the Apache Web server -- also part of OS X's client incarnation. But OS X Server adds some extra features, such as a cache to speed the delivery of static Web content, as well as PHP and MySQL for dynamic, database-driven sites. OS X Server also includes a so-called WebObjects 5 Deployment license that allows sites developed with Apple's flagship Web application environment to be hosted. For those with a yen for saturating available bandwidth, OS X Server also includes the QuickTime Streaming Server.

The list goes on, but you get the idea.

Network server acronyms aside, OS X Server delivers a vast amount of functionality that meets the needs of many different kinds of server-buying customers.

That said, servers have a pernicious tendency of becoming single points of failure, especially if they integrate so many functions into a single machine. To ward off a major mishap -- the sudden, unexpected, and inconvenient corruption or outright demise of a hard drive, for example -- seasoned network administrators routinely perform backups of their servers' contents.

Unfortunately, with OS X Server, this rudimentary safety measure is not presently an option. Apple's new OS lacks the underlying infrastructure to allow backups to external storage devices such as tape drives. While Dantz development has released a beta version of its Retrospect Client software for OS X Server, existing AppleShare IP users who also use their servers for backups can't simply upgrade the server software on their existing hardware.

Another weak spot in Apple's server story is the lack of server hardware. Those who've been longtime Mac OS server administrators have fond memories of the Apple Workgroup Servers. Apple's current product lineup contains no comparable system, though today's needs are also somewhat different.

These days, servers' physical size is measured in U -- 1.75 inches of height -- for mounting in standard 19-inch wide racks. For those renting space in a co-location facility, a 1U server is understandably less expensive than a 2U server. Apple provides no rack-mountable hardware of its own, though third-party kits allow blue-and-white G3 and graphite G4 minitowers to be turned into 6U rack-mountable systems. In order for Apple's server software to succeed, it needs to run on hardware with server features, be they as simple as height and width, or as technical as hot-swappable power supplies.

Finally, the drawback to any new server OS is that it's . . . well, new. While some may laud OS X for its Unix underpinnings, many don't realize that the kernel and most of what makes OS X what it is, is brand new code that hasn't been stress-tested. The reliability, security, and performance of this new server OS all have yet to be proven in the field.

It seems clear that Apple wanted to ship Mac OS X Server in time for this year's buying cycle in the education market. That's what prompted the May release of the latest iBook, after all. The result? By itself, OS X Server is a feature-rich package that covers all the necessary bases but still seems somewhat hobbled.

Mac OS X Server is a necessary building block for Apple's long-term strategy but, in its current state, raises more questions than anything else. If Apple is serious about the server market, it needs to give OS X Server all the necessary features, and it needs to offer better server hardware than its standard desktop systems today.

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