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Full Review of OSX Leopard Server

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If you don’t belong to the cult of Mac, you might ignore the release of Apple’s new OS X Server 10.5, codenamed Leopard. That would be a shame, particularly for small and midsize enterprises, including those with mixed Apple and Windows clients, or even all-Microsoft shops.

Server Admin
Stop snickering. Apple produces a pretty decent server operating system and server hardware. We chased Leopard around our Real-World lab and came away pleased on most fronts. This new server OS is ready for work. The e-mail platform connects to Active Directory and bundles AV and anti-spam software without pesky client access licenses. A spiffed-up calendar application can serve as a group scheduler. VPN services can host 500 users per Intel Xserve. In a first for Apple, IP failover provides high availability, and TimeMachine enables easily deployed server-based client backup. Leopard Server can even mimic an NT domain controller.

Everyone knows Mac is great for creating multimedia. Leopard maintains that reputation, and also makes it easier to distribute content online, including audio, video and photos.

On the downside, Leopard sometimes keeps things too simple. For instance, the calendar service and Web hosting are easy to set up and configure for one-server shops, but may require serious tweaking to function in more complex environments. When hiccups occur during setup or management, experienced administrators may find the built-in help and product documentation lacking. Apple also stumbles with a RADIUS deployment that’s only checked out for Apple Airport.

Get To Work

Apple says it wants to make Leopard a viable option for SMEs and workgroups in larger organizations. To that end, the Leopard dev team significantly overhauled OS X’s mail server, named Mail (wonder how long it took to think up that one). Leopard improves the client interface and offers ClamAV, SpamAssassin and SSL/TLS to boost security on the server end. Setup and configuration are fairly straightforward when integrated with Apple’s native Open Directory and LDAP, and Apple’s directory services can mimic an NT domain controller via Samba 3 for Windows clients, and/or connect to an existing Windows Active Directory.

Mac OS X Server Preferences Screenshot

OS X’s long-in-the-tooth calendar app, iCal, has graduated from single-user productivity tool to group scheduler and is now CalDAV-, iTIP- and iMIP-compliant. iCal supports robust scheduling options for users, groups and other resources listed and tagged in your corporate directory. Anyone familiar with Google Calendar will feel right at home with iCal. While the Exchange team probably isn’t getting nervous, these upgrades represent a huge leap for Apple in the corporate marketplace and are a solid platform for future development.

Also of note, Mail and iCal Server are free in 10.5, with none of the client-access licenses that Exchange requires. Is anyone outside of Cupertino going to run an enterprise messaging system on iCal and Mail? Probably not. Should a SME look to Leopard as a messaging platform on top of an Apple client base, a mixed Mac/Windows environment or, dare we say it, for a Windows shop? Yes. The price is right, and installation and management are simple.

Apple knows most folks (and IT shops) buy Macs in part for media creation and editing. The iLife suite bundled with every Mac client offers robust photo, video, audio, Web and DVD editing and publishing tools. Leopard has a number of complementary server-side applications to leverage iLife output in the enterprise. Past versions of OS X server bundled Mac-tuned Apache Web servers and other open-source ports for fairly straightforward Web and application hosting. Leopard does a much better job of simplifying the setup and administration of Web services.

And just as iLife simplifies media production on the client end, Leopard’s integrated Web services, Wiki Server, Quicktime Streaming Server, iChat/Jabber server and Podcast Producer simplify distribution of content. Podcast Producer absorbs feeds from client Macs, processes audio and video, and serves content in a variety of formats. This is neat stuff for a number of reasons: It streamlines content creation, centralizes media repositories, and simplifies the user experience. Podcast Producer is Xgrid-enabled, allowing the Leopard server to bring idle networked Macs into a distributed-computing grid to share the processing load. It’s render-farm technology brought to the masses.

We built and tore down a number of Web servers, collaborative wikis, and department file shares. We load tested a quad-core Xeon Xserve with twenty real simultaneous Mac and Windows clients against a “departmental” wiki-share and Mail server and barely impacted CPU utilization. We tied Leopard to an existing Open Directory/OpenLDAP with 500 users. We auth’ed a Leopard server to Kerberos. Everything worked just as expected from a network integration perspective.

Leopard’s initial setup from DVD or network image offers basic choices: Do you want this server to be a basic, workgroup or advanced server? What services do you want to host? Startup helpers load all required services based on your choices at installation, while the streamlined Server Preferences app simplifies management of key services once you’re up and running. Basic and workgroup configurations offer a streamlined server management application that is almost maddeningly simple for experienced administrators—on/off toggles with minimal configuration options.

The look and feel of the user interface mirrors Leopard client, with more animations, a revised dock, and a number of minor tweaks designed to simplify the look and feel of OS X. Overall this works, especially the automatic clean-up tools that organize the desktop and pop-up animations for dock folder contents. We like the evolutionary changes, and we were surprised at how much we grew to enjoy cover-flow browsing of network resources.

Server Preference Icon
Apple offers both a system preloaded with the new OS, or the standalone software. Apple’s current Xserves (the company’s name for its server appliances) are a surprisingly good deal: Two dual-core 64-bit Woodcrest Xeons in a base configuration are bundled with an unlimited client 64-bit server OS for under $3,000. It’s all wrapped in a pretty 1U case to boot. Apple has come a long way from pushing over-priced dual G4 Xserves at educational clients.

If preloading isn’t to your liking, Apple says its new server OS will run on any Intel or PowerPC G5 server or desktop Mac, and on any G4 Mac clocked at 867MHz or faster. A gig of RAM and 20GB of drive space are your other ticket to the party. Based on our experience, stick with dual-G5 or multi-core Intel Macs with 2GB RAM or better. Lower spec machines will run file or basic network services under Leopard, but will cripple the full feature set.

And let’s get one thing clear: Leopard server needs a Mac hardware platform to run; you should not try to run OS X on an extra Dell box. All efforts of the OSX86 project aside, you will end up frustrated and dissatisfied with the results.

The installation DVD contains 32- and 64-bit code for Intel and PowerPC Mac platforms. In fact, every in-place build of Leopard is 32/64 and Intel/PPC. To test Apple’s claims, we built a server on a dual G5 server using an external Firewire drive as our boot partition. We then successfully booted and ran Leopard from the Firewire drive on a six-year-old dual G4 Xserve and a 13″ Macbook (32-bit platforms) and Xeon and G5 Xserves for 64-bit goodness. All platforms had wildly different hardware configurations, yet the OS ran without a single issue on each box, all server functionality intact.

Anyone out there willing to try that with Windows 2003?

Seeing Spots

One major knock against the new OS is that the built-in RADIUS service is vetted to support only Apple Airport base stations, though it is based on the open-source FreeRadius. You may get other APs to connect, but this is a significant gaffe if Apple is really serious about positioning Leopard for more than just Apple shops. Owners of PowerPC-based servers hoping to ramp up their podcasting will also be disappointed. It seems Podcast Producer is not universal; the server app is Intel-only due to Apple’s decision to go with the hardware acceleration in the Quartz-Extreme video chipset offered on all Intel Macs.

And despite the dead-simple installation, not everything was smooth sailing. Though iCal was a breeze to set up when we built a single-server “workgroup” configuration on a dual G5 Xserve with 2GB of RAM, we ran into hurdles elsewhere. For instance, we tried to configure iCal on a quad Xeon box configured as a member server in a Mac OS X 10.4 (Tiger) Open Directory environment. We couldn’t get iCal running without forcing a trusted bind back to our directory master.

We found this solution trolling the Apple support boards. We also found an alternate solution: a command-line edit of /etc/caldavd.plist that we didn’t have time to test in prep for this review. Two points to take away: We needed to go to the command line on a Mac, and our solution came from the user community. Linux users will appreciate the irony.

Finally, we lost access to one of our test platforms when we “demoted” it from a stand-alone directory master to being a member server. We were able to log in via network-based user accounts, but we were unable to administer the box. We ended up paving the installation. Apple rightly pointed out that most users would not be faced with our situation, and that Apple’s response would most likely be to rebuild, which we did.

On the whole, this is a substantial upgrade to Apple’s server offering, and we recommend shops running 10.4 to investigate. We also think non-Apple SMEs should take look, whether as a mail server, for collaboration or to facilitate the creation and distribution of multimedia content. OS X 10.5 Leopard is $499 for 10 clients, and $999 unlimited.

Joe Hernick is a contributing technical editor with InformationWeek and Network Computing. Write to him at jhernick@nwc.com.

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Written by montanaflynn

February 21, 2008 at 5:45 pm

7 Responses

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