Inside Leopard: Apple's Mac OS X Server 10.5 Reviewed - InformationWeek

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Software // Enterprise Applications

Inside Leopard: Apple's Mac OS X Server 10.5 Reviewed

We chased Leopard around our Real-World lab and came away pleased on most fronts. This new server OS is ready for work.

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.

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.

The Upshot

Apple positions its new Leopard server OS as a viable option for small and midsize enterprises. It sports a beefed-up mail server, offers integration with Active Directory and provides Web hosting. As expected, it's also a slick platform for serving multimedia content.

Excepting Mac-only shops or departments, Apple long ago ceded the server market to Windows and Linux. With Leopard it aims to reclaim some ground by offering a stable, easy-to-deploy server platform at an attractive price.

Apple makes a strong case for getting on the shortlist for new server deployments, even in mixed-client environments. It's as simple to set up as advertised—assuming a one-server deployment. More complex setups will likely force administrators to seek help from the Apple community. They won't find it in existing documentation.

Mac OS X Server 10.5

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.

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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.

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.

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