As an administrator of a networked workgroup orlab, you have a lot of responsibilities. One way to ease your workload is to start with the strongest possible foundation. Mac OS X Server 10.3 (800/692-7753, www.apple.com ), also called Panther Server, has impressive workgroup features and agile administrative applications. A ten-client version costs $499, and an unlimited-client version is $999.
It's easy to install and configure Panther Server, but if you want to get the most out of it, you'll benefit from advance planning and some hints I've picked up in my job as a senior technical consultant at Cornell University. I'll walk you through the process of planning your server hardware and network infrastructure, defining users, creating a master hard-drive image to replicate to individual workstations, and arranging for server-based backups or file synchronization.
Choose the Right Server Hardware
Before touching an installation disc or setting up that first user, consider the needs of your server, network, and users, and choose a Mac that will support those needs.
You can't run Panther Server on just any Mac. The minimum requirement is a system with a G3, G4, or G5 processor and built-in USB support. That's a wide range to choose from, but the size and activities of your workgroup or lab can help you narrow your options. (For a tabular breakdown of situations and solutions, see "Which Mac?")
Say you administer a small workgroup with members who exchange files only occasionally, keep most documents on individual hard drives, and don't need network booting (that is, booting several Macs from one server-based disk image instead of their internal hard drives). For you, a blue-and-white Power Mac G3, an iMac, or an early Power Mac G4 should do fine. If your small workgroup shares a graphics library, and if you manage the group's user preferences, you can still get by with a 450MHz G4.
Gigabit Ethernet comes in handy when your users move lots of files or very large files. For example, a video-editing class that stores its work on a file server would benefit from Gigabit Ethernet connecting each workstation. Gigabit Ethernet also speeds up network booting. It's available in the Xserve, current Power Mac G4 and G5 models, and 15-inch and 17-inch aluminum PowerBook G4s.
A fast hard drive is especially important if you have lots of users moving lots of files. An external FireWire drive isn't fast enough to use as a server volume; if you're shopping for a hard drive, look for a 7,200-rpm rather than a 5,400-rpm drive, with an internal connector suitable for your server (ATA or SCSI).
More-complex server needs require heavier iron -- don't skimp on a central resource that everyone relies on every minute of every day. The more tasks your server will perform, the better use it can make of fast processors or dual processors. A dual-G5 Xserve is desirable when your hardware will be a file server, an intranet Web server, a workgroup mail server, and perhaps even a NetBoot server. Add an Xserve RAID if your group has all these needs and works with lots of large files.
Pick your server's IP address before you begin setting up the server. Because changing Mac OS X Server's IP address isn't as simple as changing the network location of an ordinary workstation, you should set up your server on the network where it will ultimately operate, not on your desktop system or on a test network. You can change your server's IP address later, but it's a complicated task.
The More the Merrier
Panther Server helps you set up multiple servers with more-or-less matching configurations. After you install Panther Server, the Server Assistant application launches and leads you through the steps of setting up configuration details. It lets you save a configuration file that you can apply to multiple servers. In the final pane of the Server Assistant process, choose Save As; this gives you a chance to review all your settings. Then choose Configuration File and click on OK. (Don't choose Save In Encrypted Format; if you do, you won't be able to edit the file.)
There are more details in setting up multiple servers than this article can cover. For example, you can customize the XML structure of the configuration file for each server you're setting up, and you can automate the process from there. The command-line administration capabilities of Panther Server are much stronger than those of previous versions, so you can take care of most installation, administration, and management tasks without a monitor, keyboard, or mouse physically connected to the server. To help you through this maze, read Apple's Mac OS X Server Command-Line Administration manual on the Panther Server installation discs.