In depth with Apple's Snow Leopard Server

We dig in to explain the new networking, performance and collaboration improvements

I've worked with various versions of Apple's Mac OS X Server for nearly a decade now. Each new release has brought major advances to the company's server software in terms of overall features, performance and ease of administration. The most recent iteration, version 10.6 - a.k.a. Snow Leopard Server - is no exception.

It offers a number of advances compared to Leopard Server (v. 10.5), which was released two years ago.

These changes include performance gains, improvements to several collaboration tools introduced in Leopard Server, enhanced simple administration for non-technical users and new features designed for mobile access and for supporting the iPhone.

And if those aren't reasons enough to be happy about the upgrade, the fact that Apple cut the price of its server OS in half, to $US499 -- and continues to make it available with no client access licenses -- makes it well-worth considering. It can serve nicely as either an upgrade from previous versions or as a replacement for other server platforms. In this article, I'll focus on the major additions and changes that Apple has made in version 10.6.

Clearing away administrative confusion

One of the features introduced in Leopard Server was a simplified administration tool called Server Preferences. Server Preferences was designed for workgroups or small businesses to manage some of the core services -- file sharing, e-mail accounts, Web hosting and other collaborative tools, and centralized backup using Apple's Time Machine -- available in Leopard Server.

This management happened from a simple utility that was designed along the same lines as Mac OS X's familiar System Preferences utility, but with Server Preferences, a user with only moderate technical skills could set up and easily manage a server without having to dig through the primary Mac OS X Server administrative tools.

Within Server Preferences in Leopard Server, Apple drew clear delineations between three different types of configuration:

* One for small businesses with no large infrastructure

* One where a server was installed for a specific department or project and where user accounts were imported from a larger directory system within the network (such as Microsoft's Active Directory or Apple's Open Directory)

* An advanced mode where experienced systems administrators had full access to Apple's GUI and command-line tools for managing each and every service available

However, there was no easy way to switch between the two simplified modes and the advanced mode. You could convert a server to advanced mode by launching one of the advanced admin tools, but once you did, you couldn't go back to the simpler Server Preferences.

This left a fair amount of confusion for IT departments setting up a departmental or workgroup server in a larger organization as well as for novice administrators wanting to implement additional services not supported by Server Preferences. The descriptions of the various modes were also a bit confusing to novice administrators.

Now, though, in Snow Leopard Server, the switching restriction has been removed, along with all language relating to the selection of one of the three modes that Leopard Server imposed.

Apple has retained Server Preferences, and it's largely unchanged from a user interface perspective. Snow Leopard Server has also retained the ability to import and augment records from a different directory system to support user access to services without requiring schema modifications on the larger existing directory system that is already in use within an organization.

The result: IT staff or consultants can now create more complex configurations for novice administrators while still supporting management in Server Preferences. For any small business or department of a larger business, this means they can have the best of both worlds -- either on their own if they have the know-how or with the occasional help of a systems administrator or consultant to do the more technical tasks.

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Ryan Faas

Computerworld (US)
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