Pouncing on Panther to Enter the Mac OS X Jungle

By ServerWatch Staff (Send Email)
Posted August 18, 2004


Mac OS X Server 10.3 ("Panther"): FreeBSD Unix-based, open source operating system for POWER-based Apple servers

In the IT world, Apple inspires passion or shrugs. For every admin who "thinks different," another thinks Windows or Linux. And while Apple enjoys a dedicated user cadre of designers, musicians, and educators, its efforts to break out of that niche have been met with mixed success.

We realize Mac aficionados will have already deployed Mac OS X Server 10.3 (AKA Panther) in the 10 months it's been in production and are eagerly awaiting the release of 10.4 (AKA Tiger). Those still on the fence about making the leap should note the functionality Panther Server offers for those needing Mac-Windows integration. For some Unix/Linux shops, a FreeBSD-5-based Unix implementation wrapped in a tight Apple Aqua GUI delivers the best of both worlds.

Mac OS X Server runs on select POWER-based Apple machines: eMacs, iMacs, and Power Mac G3s, G4s, and G5s, as well as newer rack-based Xserves. The operating system require the hardware have built-in USB ports, 4 GB of free disk space, and a minimum 128 MB of memory (256 MB is required for heavy use, however).

The product ships as a media kit with a Getting Started guide and four CDs: two installation disks and disks for Admin Tools and Xcode Tools, Apple's developer compiler, and build project management software. The 10-Client Edition costs $499; the unlimited client edition is $999. Volume pricing is also available, beginning at 10 servers, and 36-month upgrade agreements range from $499 to $999 per server.

Installation

Admins who loathe delving under the hood will appreciate Mac OS X Server's simple installation process. And while proprietary Apple hardware obviates $7 video cards, it also means never having to troll the net for drivers. Little typing is required, and the speedy Easy Install consists mainly of clicking "Continue."

Many admins will want to click "Customize" to remove excess packages, as Apple's installer defaults include options many North American organizations will not need: Language support for French through Japanese and printer drivers ranging from Canon to the Gimp. Disabling these saves 800 MB and copying time, and it is what should be the default. Other more essential options include the Stuffit Expander and BSD subsystem.

Though Mac OS X 10.3 Server is Apple's tightest release to date, users should eschew upgrade installs and start clean to avoid tempting the bug gods. Unfortunately, an installation of Mac OS X Server 10.3 over another of the same operating system requires reformatting. An "Archive and Install" feature, like the one available in the desktop version of Panther, would be a welcome improvement in v1.4, the crouching Tiger set to be released soon.

Advanced users have myriad install options. For diskless or keyboardless systems, the installer can be run from a network peer's optical drive. Apple's Network Image Utility's Network Install option drives push disk images to individual systems to allow remote installations. It also features post-installation scripting, multiple build images, and user response automation.

Post-installation configuration is largely self-explanatory. AppleTalk has been wisely downplayed in favor of TCP/IP, and even our fairly decrepit Power Mac G3 auto-detected the DHCP settings perfectly. When in doubt, choose the defaults, as you can always reconfigure later on using the Server Admin and Workgroup Manager tools.

Post-setup, configurations can be saved to automate future installations.

Administration

Mac OS X Server's ease of administration is best exemplified by its game-tight Software Update utility. Software Update automatically loads when you first boot your newly configured server. It sensibly chooses upgrade packages based on your hardware. Unlike Windows Update, Software Update allows updates to be installed in one fell swoop, eliminating the need to repeatedly reboot and reload the update program .

Apple modularly divides administration tasks between the Workgroup Manager, for permissioning user, group, file and directory user access, and the Server Admin utility, for configuring and enabling a wide array of services from file sharing to virtual private networks. This makes heterogeneous file and print sharing tasks a snap. Windows file sharing uses Samba 3, but, as abstracted through Apple's GUI, involves simply enabling the Apple File Service and the Windows Service in the Server Admin, then creating and granting a user permission to login from the Windows environment to access certain directories. For Linux file sharing, turn on NFS in the Server Admin and permission mount points.

Apple's GUI presentation of open source efforts like Samba, OpenLDAP, Kerberos, Postfix, and Apache, are sometimes billed as "open source made easy" and may be an exciting value proposition for disgruntled Windows admins. Yet, some Linux admins might think of Mac OS X as "open source made proprietary." Still others may see Apple's actions as parallel to bigger trends in the Unix/Linux development world and tout the development boost Apple has brought to this side of the fence.

For organizations interested in taking a bite, but not quite ready to cut their ties with Redmond, Apple offers three-tiered enterprise-class support that ranges in price from $5,995 for select support to $49,995 for alliance support.

Summary

We suspect most organization considering a Panther migration are weighing Mac OS X Server alongside Linux servers. One consultant with whom we spoke said he sees Apple's mix of proprietary and open as fortuitous. "If keeping the GUI proprietary fosters speed of development, I'm happy with that," he said, adding, "I think it's telling that some of the open-source desktops are copying the Apple 'look-and-feel,' which is superior to anything else out there."

So, even if it doesn't catch on with your enterprise at large, Mac OS X Server will definitely contribute to the rising swell of Windows-alternative servers, and the open source community can always plunder its best features.

Pros: Unix for dummies and designers; Simple, but highly configurable setup; Most interoperable Apple operating system to date; Slick GUI with solid support and a passionate developer community.
Cons: Apple's non-niche commitment comparably tentative; Operating system lacks magic bullets to sway non-Apple-camp; Proprietary GUI conflicts with open source roots; Runs only on POWER processors.

Reviewed by: Ben Freeman
Original Review Date: 8/18/2004
Original Review Version: 10.3.5

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