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.
Hear It Roar

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 [email protected]