You need this review. Not for the simple, easily asserted things that spring to mind when someone says “file server operating system” – we’re well past the stage of files being presented and users sharing their content being a novelty or a matter of heavy engineering. The question you have to ask is: if you allow an Apple server into your enterprise server room, what’s it going to do for you? With OS X 10.5 Server, or Leopard – to give it its marketing name – you get away from the simple role of NAS server for a mixed LAN of Apples and PCs, and into more interesting and distinctly novel forms of system service.
Let’s get the basics out of the way first: it isn’t true that to run Leopard you have to buy an immense Xserve, replete with terabyte fibre-channel arrays of drives. The lowest spec for a Mac to run Leopard is an 867MHz PowerPC G4: this means you could be experimenting with this product on a five-year-old graphics workstation found for $500 on eBay. And it’s worth the effort.
Even if you never look at the more esoteric capabilities – even if you use the system as an easy NAS implementation – it’s still an object lesson in simple drop-in systems engineering. Want to have the users authenticated by referring to a Windows Domain controller? No problem. We know of three networks where users have no idea there’s an Apple server looking after their stuff. And combined with Apple’s tendency for ultra-high-spec drive systems, this is a good way of augmenting your terabytes of storage, while opening the door to a lot more.
And it’s the “lot more” where Leopard scores heavily, in that classically Apple take-a-sharp-left-turn kind of way.
On top of your file and print machine is a service platform for centrally administering a large farm of Apple workstations, including centralised software-patch management and diskless workstation support (yes, even allowing for the two different processor architectures on Planet Macintosh). Mac network aficionados can centralise the management of things such as iCal diaries, and the Apple webcam and IM service has an iChat server built into Leopard Server (if you have a use for that).
The real interest starts with web services. Aside from the usual site-hosting capability, which you have to enable by removing some placeholders buried in the system, Leopard Server comes with a pre-built set of friendly web-delivered tools for the classic smallish workgroup. A wiki, webmail (and the underlying mail services to use it) and user blog pages round out this novel list of hot topics. Perhaps the most unfamiliar to a hardened network manager is the wiki – a framework for allowing users to assemble and cross-link bodies of information for web publication without heavyweight learning curves or the cumbersome tedium of ‘staging’ servers. There are also Apple versions of the spread of services commonly found in Windows Small Business Server – a VPN manager and a firewall to assist with gateway services to the internet, for example.
As an administrator, however, to get the most out of these services, you’re at the mercy of Apple’s fearsome learning curve. No matter how cool the icons or slick the dialog boxes, you’re working with a heavyweight Unix system. And to give you some idea of what this means: all those friendly user-cool things such as wikis depend on a widely scattered and deeply embedded configuration on the boot volume of your new server. Apple doesn’t let you move these services off the boot drive, despite its strong suit being external RAID arrays (that you can’t boot from). And you can forget friendly wizards at this point, it’s all etc\rc this and \. that to move anything OS X expects to find within its first drive’s directory tree.
That said, there’s a final trick up Leopard Server’s sleeve (apart from the fact that a large copy on our test machine – a dual 2GHz G5 desk-side machine with a FireWire 800 drive booting Leopard Server – was noticeably quicker than under plain vanilla 10.4) and that’s the licensing. For a reasonable outlay ($1199), Apple will sell you an unlimited-user version of Leopard. So you could have all 10,000 of your corporate secretaries competing to blog their team-bonding meeting on a Mac mini hidden behind the CCTVs on the reception desk.
If you’re that kind of organisation, of course...
This Review appeared in the June, 2008 issue of PC & Tech Authority Magazine
Source: Copyright © PC Pro, Dennis Publishing