The scene during Steve Jobs’s Macworld Expo keynote was impressive: a network of 49 iMacs, mounted in a grid of metal racks, each running a QuickTime movie from the same server. It was a dramatic demonstration of NetBoot, a feature in Apple’s new Mac OS X Server that allows multiple Macs to be booted and configured from a single machine.
NetBoot comes close to fulfilling the dream of a network computer: cheap PCs that share applications, data files, and other resources stored on a powerful server. You don’t even need a hard drive or any other local storage on your Mac. Instead, the Mac boots from a partition on the server, which you also use to store your documents and system preferences. On a fast network it should be nearly transparent: you might have to enter a password to access your files, but otherwise the Mac experience won’t be much different.
Thanks to NetBoot, Apple could theoretically offer steeply discounted iMacs, sans local storage, in bundles that include Mac OS X Server. Indeed, as part of his demonstration, Jobs showed an iMac, its hard drive removed, booting from the server.
However, citing economies of scale, Apple says a diskless iMac would not be much cheaper than a standard model, and the company has made it clear that it has no intention of offering such a machine. NetBoot’s main selling point, in Apple’s view, is the control and convenience it offers network administrators, not cost savings made possible by stripping down a popular consumer machine.
With NetBoot, you can perform a single installation of system software and applications and make them available to any Mac on the network. NetBoot also includes system-management tools that allow you to control access to applications and other files. For example, some users on the network might have rights to all applications, while others are restricted to using Microsoft Office. Because the files reside on a server, you can use them from any Mac on the network as long as you have the correct access privileges.
Going to School
The centralized control that NetBoot permits will have particular appeal for schools, which can use the software to run a classroom full of iMacs from one Mac OS X Server. Even if schools have to pay close to retail price for the iMac clients, the server itself won’t strain most budgets: Apple charges $995 for a software-only version or $4,999 for a version bundled with a 400MHz Power Mac G3.
NetBoot, of course, is just one part of Mac OS X Server, which evolved from Apple’s Rhapsody development efforts. At the server’s core is the same Mach microkernel that will provide the basis for Mac OS X, Apple’s next-generation operating system. The server also includes the BSD 4.4 version of Unix; the Apache 1.3.3 Web server; and WebObjects 4, a development tool for large-scale dynamic Web sites. The latter represents the Macintosh debut of the Web authoring software, which was previously available only for Unix and Windows NT workstations.