Enterprise Unix Roundup: Apple Says 'Switch,' From Tux

By Michael Hall (Send Email)
Posted May 12, 2005

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With Tiger out of its cage, Apple is hoping its use of Samba 3, a slick NT migration tool, and reputation for ease of use will woo the low-end market. With dmidecode, admins can identify hardware based on system BIOS, and keep the box closed.

Michael Hall

Amy Newman

The last time we compared Linux to OS X, it was a lazy day in July, our usual editor was away for the week, and it seemed like the thing to do.

Our intention at the time was not to compare the operating systems proper, but rather the developer cultures around them. At the time, we remember thinking "Well, OS X is a desktop thing; and Linux is more of a server thing, so the thing to do is just consider them in terms of something besides how competitive a donkey and a horse would be if they played shuffleboard."

An Apple developer wrote us to say "thanks," and a Linux fan said the whole thing was worthless.

So here we are again. This time, we've heard enough from Apple that we'll skip the metaphorical donkeys and horses and just get down to reconsidering a few of our prejudices.

What got us thinking down this path was Apple's OS X 10.4 (Tiger) server page, where mention was made of an NT migration tool. The tool automates the process of snuggling a new OS X Tiger server up to an aging NT PDC long enough to extract its user/group information and import it to Apple's Open Directory, at which point the Tiger server steps in and handles responsibilities for clients in place of the NT server.

When we spoke to Eric Zelenka, senior product line manager for Apple's server & storage product marketing efforts, the migration tool was at the top of our list of questions. The task of migrating from NT and into something besides Windows has been one largely handled by Linux: It's less expensive, just as reliable, and Linux is established as being good enough at it (thanks to Samba) that even conservative managers should have few issues handing the job to Linux.

Zelenka seemed to concur with us through most of our line of questioning.

"You've got these aging NT servers out there, but the barrier for moving from NT to Active Directory is huge." As a result, he continued, "Samba on Linux is one of the most popular open source applications out there."

Migration issues aside, Zelenka cited the expense of Microsoft licensing. "The whole reason people people deploy Linux with Samba," he said, "is to get around the CALs [client access licenses]."

"[Apple] can provide the promise of Linux without the complexity of Linux." — Eric Zelenka, senior product line manager for Apple's server & storage product marketing efforts

The Linux admiration fest ended pretty abruptly after that. The problem with Linux, Zelenka said, is "it's really crufty." He noted that some administrators complain about "kernel compiles and configuration files. They want to get on with their work."

Then Zelenka laid down the soundbite "[Apple] can provide the promise of Linux without the complexity of Linux."

So it's probably no surprise that, given Tiger's use of Samba 3, its purportedly slick NT migration tool, and Apple's generally good reputation for ease of use, the angle the company's working in the low-end sweepstakes is how much more admins will like maintaining its stuff than they will dealing with Linux.

Zelenka also pointed out a few things Tiger offers that Samba-on-Linux doesn't. New to Tiger, for example, is an access control security model similar to those found elsewhere (notably in SELinux), but with the ability to work more seamlessly with Windows XP clients, providing a permissions structure more transparent to Windows users than that offered by Samba alone, and with more overall flexibility. (For a more thorough discussion of this, visit the page on ACLs in Ars Technica's mammoth review.)

Tiger server is nailing down basic ease-of-administration issues in other areas as well.

Its integrated Jabber server provides SSL-based instant messaging over networks out of the box, drawing on the same user/group management structure everything else in the operating system is consulting: Open Directory. Open Directory, in turn, is pretty happy to work with quite a few other directory managers, allowing Tiger servers to settle into a network in several roles, depending on how far over to another operating system or directory the network leans.

Other ease-of-use tweaks include Xgrid, which provides point-and-click grid computing using Apple's Bonjour (formerly Rendezvous) for grid manager discovery over a zeroconf network. Spamassaassin, ClamAV, Postfix, and Cyrus IMAPD are similarly accessible.

We hear some penguin teeth grinding as we type this, so we're going to stop running down the feature list and point out a few things that always come up and constitute fair objections to any claim that Apple has a corner on "usable Unix."

We're also not sold on the notion that life with Linux is an endless cycle of kernel recompiles and repetitive stress injuries from the drudgery of excessive vi use.

Novell, for example, has a stellar reputation for management tools, and it's bringing all of that reputation to bear on its own SUSE Linux. We won't take anything away from Sun, either, which has garnered plenty of loyalty from its admirers.

We're also not sold on the notion that life with Linux is an endless cycle of kernel recompiles and repetitive stress injuries from the drudgery of excessive vi use. It takes about a page for a competent author to explain the basics of tossing up a Linux/Samba PDC. (We know because we've got one of those authors in the family.) Sure, Linux still has its user-hostile moments, but in its glue roles, those moments are happening less frequently.

We aren't trying to name any winners here. We are, however, hard-pressed to sit the two operating systems side-by-side and complain about Tiger's feature list. It has a few advantages on Linux beyond "it's easy" that will probably be solved soon enough by the expertise coalesced around Linux, but they aren't solved now. And Tiger has the same basic software payload as many enterprise Linux distributions when it comes to handling mail, DNS, Web, and file services. It's a BSD, after all. Albeit a BSD with a very shiny interface.

At $999 for unlimited clients, we can hear a few shouts of "THERE'S your difference!" We suggest taking a peek at the commercial Linux distributions. It's not as big a difference as you might think.

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