Mac IT Guy: OS X Lion Server

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With all the attention on the desktop version of Mac OS X Lion and its 250-plus new features, the news about Mac OS X Lion Server has been somewhat ignored. That’s a shame, because it looks like there’s going to some really good stuff in it.

Pricing and distribution

The first two bits of good stuff are the price and the way you get it. Lion Server will sell for $50; that’s on top of the price of Lion itself (which you have to buy, too), but the total will still be less than $100. That’s a huge discount from Mac Snow Leopard Server, which cost $499, making this great way for small companies to start using Mac OS X Server.

Ironically, that pricing is causing some consternation among larger companies who had paid for the Apple Maintenance Program. AMP gets you three years of free upgrades for $449 per license. When Mac OS X Server cost $499, that was a great deal. When it costs less then $100? Not so great. (It will be interesting to see how Apple deals with this.)

The second good bit is the new distribution model. The only real difference between Mac OS X Lion and Mac OS X Lion Server—other than the extra $50—is that the latter includes administrative tools. For example, if you wanted to directly connect a Mac to Xsan prior to Mac OS X Lion, you had to pay $999 per Mac. With Mac OS X Lion, the Xsan file system is built into the client. All you use Mac OS X Lion Server for is configuration and management of Xsan volumes and the SAN itself.

Xsan manager
Xsan management in Lion server

Obviously, in-place upgrades aren’t always the best solution, and there are still some unanswered questions about both price and distribution. But an 80 percent price cut? That’s not bad.

Device management at last

With Mac OS X Lion Server, Apple finally deals with an embarassing problem: There was no Apple-provided way to manage large numbers of iOS devices. Oh sure, it was doable from a Mac, but you had to pay for third-party software. It was as if Microsoft made you buy an IBM product to manage Exchange. Apple is fixing that in Mac OS X Lion Server, by including a new management tool: Profile Manager.

Based on what little information I’ve been able to find, Profile Manager is an Apple implementation of its Mobile Device Management APIs that will allow you to enroll and manage iOS devices without connecting them to iTunes or the iPhone Configuration Utility. Much as iOS 5 will make it easier to manage your own iOS devices, Profile Manager will radically simplify the management iOS devices for IT departments. Even better, from my experience working with Mobile Device Management products, I’d bet that a Mac mini will be a good choice as server for PM; the computing requirements should actually be quite small. Even better-er: You’ll get PM—along with the rest of Lion Server—for $49.

But wait, there’s more: Profile Manager isn’t just for iOS. It will also help you manage your Macs and your users. I have no idea whether Profile Manager will replace Apple’s MCX system for managing Macs and users. But, given how twitchy MCX can be and how well Mobile Device Management works, I certainly wouldn’t shed a tear if that were the case. If all my clients have to be on Lion to remove MCX from my toolset, I could live with that, too. Profile Manager alone would be a great reason to upgrade to Lion Server. And, again: $49.

There are a bunch of other improvements and new features coming in Mac OS X Lion Server. Among those I’m really looking forward to: File Sharing for iPads, via the WebDAV protocol (please let this work better than the Finder’s WebDAV implementation); integration of Mac OS X Lion Server’s e-mail and calendar servers into Apple’s Push Notification infrastructure (meaning Apple clients connected to Apple servers will get push notification of e-mail and calendar data); easier shared calendar setups in iCal Server; and an update to the Mail server’s Webmail.

The bottom line

There’s more to OS X Lion Server than just pricing and features. Apple is saying that a server OS does not have to cost thousands—or even hundreds—of dollars more than a client OS. It’s even saying that we might not even need a special, separate “server” OS. Maybe, instead, everyone buys the same OS; if you want it to work as a server, you spend a small amount of money for a few utilities that help you manage the features that are already there.

True, IT will no longer get its server OS on a DVD—but hey, nobody else will, either, and is that really all that important? As long as the features I need are there, I don’t need to get my knickers in a twist just because the distinction between server and client is blurrier than before.

John Welch is IT Director for The Zimmerman Agency, and a long-time Mac IT pundit.

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