OS X Conference: Pixar talks OS X migration

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Despite the company's deep connections to Apple, Pixar Animation Studios only completed moving its computer infrastructure to Mac OS X eight months ago. System administrators Bethany Jane Hanson and Gabriel Benveniste said that they deliberately waited until the vast majority of applications they use daily were OS X native. But once that happened, they and the rest of the administrators at Pixar tapped OS X's core Unix capabilities to develop a migration and maintenance scheme that they say has a lower cost of ownership than Mac OS 9.

Before they began thinking about moving to Mac OS X, Benveniste said that the administrators at Pixar first reviewed their existing computer infrastructure. He said that the company was using 375 desktop Macs running Mac OS 9 and around 100 PowerBooks also running Mac OS 9. Pixar also had 500 computers running Linux that were slated to move to Mac OS X. Finally, the company runs about 125 computers running Windows.

Rather than support both the Mac OS 9 and Mac OS X environments, a conscious decision was made at Pixar to solely use Mac OS X once the majority of the software used at the company was OS X native. Benveniste said that the company finished its Mac OS X migration about eight months ago and only a handful of Macs in the company are now running Classic, and then only for specific applications.

The average user at Pixar is a power user who Benveniste said does their own thing. Rather than constantly spend time issuing administrator passwords whenever one of these users wanted to do anything, Pixar's administration team decided to give all of their users admin level access.

"We thought that is was better to let them do what they want to do and just kind of keep them in line," Benveniste said.

Pixar also tapped their own education departments to provide training classes and Web site support for users who were not familiar with Mac OS X.

One of the primary goals during Pixar's migration was to automate as much as possible and to build on the existing Mac OS X and Unix maintenance infrastructure, instead of using 3rd party enterprise applications. Pixar's team did this by creating some of their own command line tools, and Apple scripts and also by tapping the large repository of Unix maintenance and administration scripts and software. Many of the scripts and applications that the administrators at Pixar used are available online.

To begin migrating, the first thing that administrators at Pixar did was create a custom Mac OS X image that they could use to install not only Mac OS X on all of their machines but also all the applications that every person at Pixar uses and Pixar's specific network and machine configurations.

Administrators then used an Apple Script they called Hostmaker that created and edited LDAP host records of the hardware particulars for every Mac at Pixar. Next, user data was copied from their Mac OS 9 machines by another script that Pixar admins wrote called rollout. Rollout took all of the user's data, such as items in the documents folder, the desktop and address book data, and stored it on a portable FireWire hard drive.

Once their data was on the FireWire drive, Mac OS X and all of the basic applications the user needed was then installed on the user's Mac from the Pixar Mac OS X image. Another script, called configurator, creates the user profile on Mac OS X. Rollout then puts the user's data from the FireWire hard drive in the right spots on the Mac now running Mac OS X, and a final script deletes installation files and empties the trash.

Once the migration was finished, the company's administrators then looked at using scripts and other Unix administration software to maintain their infrastructure. Hanson said that they developed a package management system called d2 that checks all of the applications on the Macs installed at Pixar every six hours and installs any available updates. Hanson said that Pixar also uses Cfengine, a script to modify Mac OS X system configurations, to keep all of the Macs at Pixar configured correctly. Cfengine checks all of the Macs at Pixar once every four hours and updates them when necessary. Finally, Hanson said that they wrote a program that will become open source that allows Pixar's system administrators to remotely run command lines on any number of Macs simultaneously.

Hanson said that her group at Pixar is also looking into using Apple's Net Install to speed later upgrades of the Mac OS itself at Pixar. They are also looking into a commercial application called Key Server that will manage all of the software licenses from a central location. Finally, administrators at Pixar are looking into methods to track the number of restarts and CPU loads on their computers to try and spot problems before they become failures.

The lesson that the administrators at Pixar learned during their migration to Mac OS X is that there are many options for automation within Mac OS X and that Mac OS X fits in well with a Unix Infrastructure. Benveniste said that without their tools, it would have taken several hours per Mac to upgrade to Mac OS X. With their tools, a Mac out of the box can be fully configured to work at Pixar in 15 minutes. The longest part of the installation for existing users was the Rollout portion, which Benveniste said depends on the user's files.

This story, "OS X Conference: Pixar talks OS X migration" was originally published by PCWorld.

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