OS X Reports from the Field

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Since Apple's introduction of OS X Server last January, the operating system has rolled into Mac shops around the world. Apple says the OS targets several user populations: schools, software developers, Web site administrators, and corporate IT departments. OS X has much to offer each of these groups. Schools like the way NetBoot simplifies administration; software developers see WebObjects (the Web-application development environment bundled with OS X Server) as a cross-platform lifeboat; experienced Webmasters find OS X's Unix-like reliability and compatibility comforting; and corporate IT departments are glad to have an Apple product with server-class capabilities.

We interviewed users in each of these categories to find out what drew them to OS X and how they rate the platform in terms of speed, usability, and reliability. The bottom line: OS X is a workhorse that has proven its mettle as a reliable, productive server. It's an excellent showing for Apple's first server OS release. Using OS X can be difficult-incomplete documentation and unfinished user interfaces for such tasks as Web server configuration are common complaints--but all the users we talked to say they'll stick with OS X and are looking forward to release 2 and the consumer edition.

Schools have long been Mac magnets, largely due to the Mac's easy-on-students user interface. Alas, the Mac OS isn't so easy on network administrators, who face the task of maintaining hundreds of desktops. Los Angeles' La Puente school district looked to lower administrative workload when it installed eight OS X Servers to support some 250 student iMacs in its pilot NetBoot project. Michael Droe, Director of Networks and Computer Services for the district, wanted to provide consistent environments for each student and use OS X's MacManager to deliver a simpler interface for elementary school users. NetBoot ran well in the pilot project and found acceptance with users. "A NetBooted machine is just like any other Mac to users," according to Droe. "Most can't tell they're running from a server."

Droe's next step is to begin deploying redundant OS X Servers at each of the district's 43 sites, which currently interconnect over a 155Mbps ATM wide-area network. The network also distributes educational content over multicast MPEG; Droe hopes to migrate much of that content to streaming QuickTime.

OS X's best feature, according to Droe, is an easy installation process that lets him use non-Unix-literate technicians to deploy servers at each school. One thing he hopes to see soon, though, is server-class hardware--redundant power supplies, hot-swappable RAID, and multiple CPUs--like the Apple Network Server 700s he still uses for e-mail. (Fair warning: Droe participated in OS X's public debut and thus may have Apple's ear more than most OS X users).

Software developers have to think hard about porting their applications to OS X; it's so different from the traditional Mac OS that migration costs can run high. Geert Clemmensen--owner of Denmark-based Frontline Software, which sells FrontBase, a relational database for OS X--found the move to OS X profitable. FrontBase runs much faster and more reliably than it did under Mac OS, thanks to OS X's modern superstructure.

Frontline also develops vertical applications for law enforcement agencies and recently deployed an OS X database application using FrontBase, written in Apple's WebObjects. Frontline coded the application for the National Danish Police, an investigative agency similar to the FBI or Scotland Yard. "Our primary attraction to OS X Server is its WebObjects development environment, which, combined with its NextStep roots, makes OS X very productive for developers. Up to now, WebObjects ran only on NT and Unix, primarily due to the stability and speed of those platforms. OS X Server renews support for WebObjects on Apple hardware; it's fast and robust."

Reliability is a key requirement in any law enforcement application. Geert says OS X's reliability is on a par with Unix's and makes Apple hardware practical to use in mission-critical applications. Frontline's customers seem to share that opinion. "None of the customers buying FrontBase for OS X have reported problems with the OS to us." Geert has found glitches in the development environment, but he says Apple is working on them and that they don't affect the application's stability.

Geert's favorite aspect of OS X is the full-featured WebObjects development environment. He downplays the need for server-class hardware: "Many developers or system integrators fear deploying OS X Server without RAID disk subsystems or redundant power supplies and CPUs. However, Apple makes excellent hardware these days, and you may be surprised to see how well it functions in a production setup. Our NDP WebObjects application has run around the clock for five months without hardware- or OS-induced downtime."

A high-volume Web site Frontline is developing will go live on a single G3 OS X server with WebObjects. "We know we can scale to any size because porting a WebObjects solution to, for example, Sun hardware is almost a walk-over. WebObjects is a big deal; it's the key to scalability."

Macworld Lab's tests of OS X Server's Web-serving performance showed it to be adequate but not stellar (see the review in the July 1999 issue of Macworld). OS X's Web throughput lagged behind even the Mac OS running WebTen 2.11 and fell far short of a similarly priced NT Server. However, OS X's performance is fast enough for many users, and its ease of installation and administration make it an attractive alternative to Unix or NT.

Michael Ditmore is CEO of RangeFire Networks, a startup company that's providing broadband Internet access to Northern New Mexico. "An objective of our project is to help revitalize Northern New Mexico's economy, which is reeling from drastically reduced federal spending at government research labs like Los Alamos National Lab. Web visibility will bring NNM businesses many new markets, and that requires reliable, robust, and easy-to-administer Web servers."

RangeFire tested Windows NT and several Unix platforms, along with OS X Server, for both reliability and compatibility with a range of Web applications. "OS X runs most Unix Web scripting unchanged, making it attractive to our Unix-gearhead Webmasters. But it's easy to set up and maintain and keeps on ticking, which our field staff loves. No other server has that combination." Ditmore isn't worried about speed, because he expects OS X's Web performance to improve in the next release. "I believe Apple will tweak the OS and announce new hardware soon with features like redundant power supplies and RAID arrays. Apple showed it can build world-class servers with its Network Server 700, and they can do it again."

Asked what could be improved, Ditmore cited OS X's documentation. "The installation process is fantastic! But then how do you use OS X's advanced features? They don't tell you, at least not in one place." Apple should provide comprehensive, centralized online documentation for all OS X features to help end users take full advantage of the server.

Enterprise networks that rely on servers for centralized storage, workflow management, and corporate intranet Web serving have traditionally settled on Windows NT. But worldwide advertising agency McCann-Erickson took the OS X plunge when upgrading its NT/Mac-based in-house art and production network. Although most production houses use Macs for desktop publishing, McCann used NT servers for intranet Web hosting and file serving and Canto Software's Mac-based media asset management application, Cumulus, for workflow management.

New Technology Manager Warren Vegas chose OS X because Canto released an OS X Server version of Cumulus, promising a significant speed improvement and better reliability than a patchwork of NT and Mac servers. OS X lets them run Cumulus, AppleShare IP, and Apache Web hosting all on the same box.

"In Mac OS we could never catalog CDs using Cumulus during the day; that had to run at night, and it was slow. OS X's multithreading lets us do it any time, at lighting-fast speed, on the same box that's running our Web server. We can scroll through hundreds of images in seconds rather than minutes."

OS X's best feature, according to Vegas, is that it's a "real server. I don't have to make excuses to our IT department anymore. OS X runs as fast as, and more reliably than, any other server platform in the company. And it's a Mac."

McCann's Graphic Services Technology Specialist, Kevin Dolorico, had to climb a long learning curve to bring the OS online. While OS X is easy to install and configure, learning the OS and planning a migration strategy took weeks. "The UI looks like the Mac's, but it's not. You expect some things that aren't there." Hard-to-find documentation was a problem for McCann staffers, and something they hope Apple improves in the next release.

Dolorico's most pressing wish-list item is the ability to mount other network server volumes, such as NT and AppleShare IP, on the OS X Server desktop. He also pines for such user conveniences as Sherlock. "OS X's find capabilities are painful to use and limited," he complains.

Both Vegas and Dolorico say end users love the change because performance has improved fourfold, with no functional differences visible to users. "They just see the speed; we had zero training for the user population."

By all accounts, OS X is an eminently usable server platform, superior in some cases to running Mac OS as a server. Some functions, such as NetBoot, aren't available from any other OS. Others, like Web and application serving, are off to a slow start while vendors port to the platform, but users of those products that are running on OS X find the improved speed, reliability, and ease of administration to their liking. OS X has a few rough edges to which Apple must attend; disorganized documentation is a sore spot with many users, and the interface's long learning curve is an inconvenience. In the meantime, OS X's favorable field reports show that Apple has truly gained a foothold in the server marketplace.

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