A common conversation starter among Macintosh server administrators is “The Mac would be a great server if only…” If only it had preemptive multitasking. If only it supported multiple network interfaces. If only it supported remote clients. Mac OS X Server is Apple’s answer to the “if onlys.” A completely different operating system from Mac OS 8.5, OS X Server not only addresses all of its predecessor’s shortcomings but also retains the flavor and familiarity of the graphical user interface we know and love.
Like the end-user version of OS X, due next year, OS X Server features a completely new (to the Mac) operating-system kernel that’s based on Mach 2.5 and BSD 4.4 Unix and offers preemptive multitasking, protected memory, process management, and standards-based scripting. The server edition, which is geared toward file, client, and Internet serving, includes Apple file sharing, an Apache Web server, WebObjects application-development tools, and a new feature called NetBoot for managing networks of client workstations. This last feature is clearly the most enticing aspect of OS X Server in that it should vastly simplify network administration while lowering deployment costs.
Installing OS X Server couldn’t be simpler: insert CD, boot computer, click on Install. A setup assistant asks you a few salient questions about your network and which OS X Server features you plan to use and then automatically configures the server for you. Once it’s installed, though, you’ll find that many advanced features use a command-line interface rather than the familiar Mac interface, making OS X Server a challenge to use. (If you spring for the $4,995 bundleOS X Server preinstalled on a Power Mac G3you don’t need to worry about installation and you get a handy System Image CD for restoring your system.)
The New Stuff
Considering OS X Server’s radically different innards, you’re probably wondering about the look-and-feel of its application-level services. It’s a mixed bag: from the client’s point of view, using OS X Server file sharing is largely indistinguishable from using AppleShare IP, while OS X Apache offers a completely different experience from AppleShare’s Web server. NetBoot is an entirely new animal, with no parallels in the current Mac universe.
Users access OS X Server’s Apple file services exactly as they have all previous Mac OS file servicesby mounting remote disk volumes and using them as if they were local. OS X Server uses a Web-based manager that AppleShare administrators will welcome: just point a Web browser to the Remote Administration URL and you can add users, change permissions, and control server performance from any authorized workstation (even from Windows-based systems). OS X Server is not AppleShare IP, however; it lacks printing, e-mail, DNS, Windows file-sharing, and firewall functions.
The Apache Web server bundled with OS X Server is a full port of the standard Apache distribution. This means you can run off-the-shelf Apache enhancements, download new Apache Group updates, run Secure Sockets Layer (SSL) encryption, and support multiple Web sites, although none of these additional features are easy to exploit. Apache isn’t Mac software, and Mac zealots will find a lot to complain about with Apache’s administration, especially compared with that of other Mac-savvy Web servers. Although Apple includes a setup assistant to help you perform basic Apache configuration chores, serious users must resort to old-fashioned text-file editing to configure advanced features such as SSL encryption. Fortunately, Tenon Intersystems is working on a graphical interface and SSL overlay for OS X Apache that will address these shortcomings.
NetBoot lets you remotely boot Macintosh G3 computers from an OS X server, using the server as the sole source of such resources as application programs, printer access, and disk storage. (This feature requires a firmware upgrade on older G3 Macs.) A special Macintosh Manager deputizes a specific client machine as an administrator, from which you then establish basic NetBoot parameters and the network topology. When you boot a client Mac from an OS X server, the client prompts you for a user ID and password and then establishes remote access to resourcespreferences, desktop organization, OS configuration, and server volumesfor that user. Thus, you can log onto any client Mac via Macintosh Manager and access your personal computing environment. NetBoot makes central-site administration easy, reduces the cost of client computers, and improves overall network security by giving administrators a single point of control.
How Well It Works
Macworld Lab compared OS X Server’s file-serving performance with that of AppleShare IP 6.1 and Microsoft Windows NT Server 4.0. We found that OS X Server makes a mediocre file server, capable of handling more users than AppleShare IP but generally taking twice as long to move files. Still, OS X Server was almost twice as fast as Windows NT Server (when running AppleShare on Windows NT; OS X doesn’t support Windows file sharing). You won’t want to run OS X Server if you need stellar file-serving performance, but if you’re using it as a NetBoot server, you’ll find the concurrent file serving a great convenience.
We tested OS X Server’s Web-server performance against that of Tenon’s WebTen 2.11, Windows NT Server 4.0 Internet Information Server (IIS), and Sun Solaris 2.6. OS X Server’s Apache is a decidedly slower Web server than WebTen running under Mac OS (see “As a Web Server, OS X Lags”). With ten or fewer users, the two performed comparably, but under heavier loads, WebTen served up to 40 percent more requests per second. OS X Server’s performance was similar to that of Solaris running Apache, but the large-scale, multiprocessor NT Server IIS far outstripped OS X (a smaller NT Server configuration comparable to the Mac tested wasn’t available at press time).
Macworld’s Buying Advice
With performance numbers well below those of traditional Mac OS servers, Mac OS X Server really isn’t a contender in transaction-intensive environments; stick with AppleShare IP and WebTen for file and Web serving, respectively. But as the herald of a new paradigm in Mac networking, OS X Server’s NetBoot feature promises to simplify network administration vastly while giving users new freedom from their physical desktops.