With all the fuss over Mac OS X 10.6 Snow Leopard, it’s easy to overlook Apple’s more industrial software powerhouse
Mac OS X 10.6 Snow Leopard Server.
For those of you who aren’t as familiar with OS X Server as you are with the desktop version (or client version, as it’s referred to by Server) running a Mac server isn’t the horrifically complex experience you’d imagine. OS X Server shares the same
Aqua interface placed upon the
Darwin 10 kernal; much of the key features, applications, and utilities are the same.
It is possible to run Mac OS X Server on a work machine, but the general idea is that you install it on a dedicated Mac on your network and use it for file sharing and to administer other Macs on a network. A separate disk containing Server Admin tools can be installed on a work machine and used to remotely manage the server.
Apple fashion installation is much, much easier than either a Linux or
Windows Server 2008 option, and most of the process is automated. That’s not to say it’s idiot-proof and you will need to invest effort in getting to know the nuances of OS X Server, but it’s a heck of a lot easier than other options.
There is a beginner-friendly tool called Server Preferences, which resembles the System Preferences pane and enables you to manage users and groups, enable or disable services, adjust a limited set of options, and view basic system information.
Beyond that are a set of advanced admin tools: Server Admin, Xgrid Admin and Workgroup Manager. The great thing about Server Preferences is that it gives you a beginner-friendly area to get started, and get your server up and running, while you then learn the in-depth expertise that the more advanced management tools offer.
The other impressive aspect of Mac OS X 10.6 Server is its scalability. Like OS X Apple sells just the one version and it runs just as happily on a
Mac mini as it does on a top-of-the-line Xserve; and both the
Mac Pro and
iMac are perfectly valid options. Of course, the machine you use depends on your needs but many home users opt to turn a Mac mini into a home server, just as many small businesses use an extra Mac Pro; Xserves are rack mounted and tend to be a more industrial option.
What you can do with it
Mac OS X Server enables several standard server functions: email support, web hosting, file sharing, and so on. It adds to that integration for collaborative work in Apple apps (notable iCal and Address Book). Then, on top of that, it adds a few special features that you won’t find in other server options – these tend to be of a creative bent.
There’s the sublime Wiki Server, for example, and the superb Podcast Producer. There’s also an iPhone Configuration Utility that makes it easy to deploy Apple’s mobile phone in a business environment.
Mac OS X Server can be deployed as a main business server, or it’s possible to attach a Mac running OS X Server to an existing network to provide the additional features found in Apple’s software.
What’s new pussycat?
Like the client version, it benefits from a complete 64-bit code rewrite and the kernal boots into 64-bit mode. The immediate benefits are probably more noticeable on the Server edition of Mac OS X, certainly to high-end users. Prior to Snow Leopard the maximum number of processes was limited to 2,500.
The new 64-bit kernal automatically scales the number of processes, vnodes (open file handles) and threads based upon the amount of memory in the system.
Apple’s support site states: “for each 8GB of installed memory, 2500 processes and 150,000 vnodes are available. The maximum number of threads is set to five times (5x) the number of maximum processes.”
But a distinct difference between the client and server editions of Snow Leopard is that Mac OS X 10.6 Snow Leopard Server eschews Snow Leopard’s “break from introducing new features” and includes a slew of substantial upgrades to the current server applications.
iCal Server was introduced in the previous version of Mac OS X, and it enables users of iCal to work collaboratively on calendars using the
CalDAV protocol. Joining iCal Server 2 is the all-new Address Book Server. This replaces the LDAP (Lightweight Directory Access Protocal) with
CardDAV, which joins CalDAV as a new proposed standard that uses WebDAV to share calendar information. It uses HTTP as a transport to share vCards via the WebDAV protocal.
On a more practical level it enables client Macs to collaborate on Address Book information with the same level of ease provided by iCal in previous incarnations of Server. Setup is remarkably straightforward (use Add Account and select CardDAV in Address Book and you’re away).
CardDAV is a pretty neat technology that overcomes many of the problems with LDAP, but it’s worth noting that this is very much an early technology. CardDAV is currently an
IETF (Internet Engineering Task Force) draft and although Oracle and Apple are proposing the draft (with Google and IBM participation) it’s far from an industry standard yet. It’s telling that there isn’t even a Wikipedia entry for CardDAV at the time of writing.
Both CalDAV – and especially CardDAV – will be difficult going if you’ve got Windows clients in your network. There’s a multi client open source calendar client called Mulberry that supports CalDAV, and
Zideone have a plug-in that can provide CalDAV, CardDAV and GroupDAV support to Outlook. But you’ll struggle to provide decent support to Windows clients on a network and we’d be wary of deploying Mac OS X 10.6 Server to a mixed client OS environment.
Another aspect of CardDAV worth mentioning is that support requires Address Book 5 from Snow Leopard – here in the Macworld office we have a number of PowerPC-based G5 Macs that won’t be able to run Snow Leopard, and therefore won’t be able to run Address Book 5 or support CardDAV. Backwards compatibility is something that may cause problems for Mac OS X 10.6 Snow Leopard admins.
One slight niggle is that it’s easy to share individual Calendars and Address Book contacts through delegation (enabling other users on a network to access your calendar), but it’s not so simple to set up group calendars where everybody has the same level of access.
You’ve got mail
Mail Server 2 is functionally similar to its previous incarnation, although Apple claims a new underlying engine is twice as fast as before. Like other services in OS X Server it offers push notification. Aside from that there is now built in holiday messaging support that automatically delivers replies (“I am away from my desk…” and so on) between set dates.
The mail server is surprisingly easy to set up and features fairly comprehensive spam, virus and junk mail filtering using a sliding scale and point system from 40 to 0, with 40 being liberal and 0 being a spam filtering nazi. Mac OS X Server uses the
You can also add a blacklist server such as
SpamHaus. We don’t actually use Mac OS X Server for our Mail system, instead our office system is set up with
Communigate Pro. We mention this because we haven’t tested Snow Leopard Mail Server in an industrial setting, but certainly from our review test it seems a great solution that’s far easier to set up and maintain than other systems.
Podcast capture and producer
One of Mac OS X 10.6 Snow Leopard Server’s unique features is an application called Podcast Producer 2, which actually consists of two applications: one called Podcast Composer runs on the server in conjunction with an application called Podcast Capture, which runs on clients.
The general idea is that you capture a podcast on the client Mac, most typically using a MacBook with a built-in iSight, and this is sent to the server for compression and distribution. The whole application is designed to make the production and distribution of podcasts as simple and trouble-free as possible.
There are four different types of podcast recording available: Video, Screen, Audio, and Dual. The Dual capture mode is pretty special, it records both the iSight image of yourself and the display of your Mac.
Podcast Composer is set up on the server side and handles the work bounced to it by clients running Podcast Capture. Setup is a seven step process that enables you to determine file formats, add pre- and post-roll video plus a watermark, publish the file, and notify users via services (such as iTunes).
It’s somewhat ironic that one of the most consumer friendly features of Mac OS X Server is one of the trickier areas to set up. Podcast Producer functionality isn’t enabled by default, and can’t be set up using the Server Preferences, rather you need to go to the more advanced Server Admin area and enable Podcast Producer in the Services area under Settings.
Once that hurdle is cleared client machines can run the Podcast Capture software to create podcasts that are the compressed and distributed via the server.
That said, we think the service is worth the effort to get working if creating and distributing podcasts is part of your life. The ease with which Podcast Producer 2 makes the creation and distribution of podcasts is astonishing, at least once you’re past the setup phase.
Another set of services that are available through OS X server are web services, as you’d imagine these are accessed through a Web browser. Web services include Wikis, Blogs and My Page (a custom page that tracks updates and blogs). New to OS X 10.6 is the ability use an online Calendar and Mail via Web apps (in a similar manner to MobileMe users).
Wiki Server 2 is possibly the most interesting of the web apps. This is an app that enables small teams to collaborate on Web pages that contain information, documentation, and the pages can contain attachments and even have media embedded into them. One of the key new features is the ability to do a virtual Quick Look of files attached to the Web pages.
The Web apps are surprisingly powerful and enable you to work collaboratively on Web pages (known as wikis) and these now have Web-based Quick Look technology.
This is a remarkable piece of technology, and as with many things Apple does it really blows away the kind of tech that Google is deploying to a wider market via Google Docs. Text entry is smooth and quick, and there are formatting and search options. You can even Spotlight search the Web services through a search field. As with the MobileMe apps we can see Apple deploying Web services to a wider market via the massive server farm its reputed to be building. And OS X server’s Web services (and MobileMe’s Web apps) are a good way to see what that future might look like.
Another new feature in server is that the Web interface is adapted for the iPhone enabling iPhone users to easily browse Wikis and blogs. It is also possible to use this in conjuntion with Apple’s iPhone Configuration Utility 2.1 to remotely configure iPhone setup options. These can then be emailed or placed on a wiki for users to install.
Value for money?
In terms of pricing, Mac OS X 10.6 Snow Leopard server has never been cheaper. Formally £310 for a 10-client version and £629 for an unlimited version, Apple has now taken the bold decision to have just one version that’s £399 for unlimited clients.
The price reduction is obviously good for businesses, although the removal of a 10-client version is somewhat awkward for home users and small businesses that now find themselves paying the same deal as a massive corporation.
£399 is still a fairly substantial spend if you’re a home user looking to put OS X server on an old Mac; speaking of which we’d like to see OS X 10.5 Server get the same updated functionality. It seems a shame that you can’t put the latest version of Mac OS X server on an old G5.
But to put the pricing in context,
Windows Server 2008 comes with a pricing structure that’s too complex to get into here. There are about six different versions sold into multiple different channels and you purchase bundles of client packs separately. Let’s say it starts at around £800 and you take it from there, often quite a long way up from there.
Having said that, you’ll find the real benefit from OS X 10.6 if all your clients are Macs running Snow Leopard; that’s not our experience of most work environments where older machines are put to use rather than thrown in the skip. And while we find CardDAV and CalDAV excellent technologies, the lack of native support in Windows would make us cautious of deploying Mac OS X 10.6 Server in a mixed Windows and Mac environment.
There’s far more to Mac OS X Server than we’ve managed to cover in this review. It’s probably the most comprehensive program Apple produces, and is capable of an amazing array of tasks. We’ve barely covered Xgrid functionality for distributed computing, Web hosting, and the ability to remotely install and manage Macs (from deploying Software Updates to Parental Controls). Mostly because these aren’t features we personally use Mac OS X Server for, but suffice to say there is an amazing feature set for a £400 program.