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Saturday, October 24, 2009, 02:00 pm PT (05:00 pm ET)

Inside Apple's new Mac mini Server


Two birds, one stone

One problem Apple faces in the server market pertains to scope and range. Is the company trying to be the vendor of a flexible, powerful foundation for building open source solutions which necessitates a certain degree of expertise to deploy and maintain, or does it want to offer a refined, point and click appliance that any Mac user can set up and operate?

Both options present plausible opportunities, but trying to deliver a single product that really fits both scenarios without hemming in power users or bowling over novices is certainly a tall order. And yet that's exactly what the company is trying to do. Rather than hit both targets with one shot however, Mac OS X Server presents two primary faces: Server Admin and Server Preferences.

Server Admin

The first, and oldest, is Server Admin. From this single app, administrators can configure, monitor and manage every major service running on the system, from web, print and file sharing to email and calendars to directory services to video production workflows in Podcast Producer and everything in between.

Server Admin isn't really difficult for new users to figure out, but it presents a lot of complex options that entry level users could find overwhelming. It also exposes plenty of potential to set things up wrong or create configurations that don't make sense or result in problems that would be difficult and expensive to troubleshoot.

For the bleeding edge of power users, Server Admin might only address the majority of what they want to accomplish; users who want to install additional server packages are on their own, and must operate these with the same command line or web-based tools that experienced admins on any other *nix-based server system would use. These users have to proceed with some understanding of how Server Admin works in order to prevent conflict between it and their own custom system configurations.

Server Admin's sweet spot also happens to be Mac OS X Server's primary market: education users and small and medium sized businesses that serve Macs. However, this is not really Apple's mainstream user base. Server Admin presents nowhere near the straightforward usability of iLife and iTunes. In order to set things up using Server Admin, users will need a good grounding in moderately advanced server and networking concepts.

server admin


Server Preferences

Starting with Leopard Server, Apple introduced a new, highly simplified server tool called Server Preferences. It's pattered after System Preferences on the Mac OS X desktop. It doesn't intend to support every service available, nor does to present more than a few basic options for each component.

During initial setup, users who opt for anything other than the advanced configuration are presented with the extremely basic Server Preferences. In very Mac-like fashion, everything is setup to "just work," although this occurs because all of the dangerous choices are simply unavailable.

Using Server Preferences is literally a matter of clicking large buttons, very similar to turning on Time Machine on desktop Macs. Turn a service on, and it's working, configured the way Apple thinks is best. If you want to customize things, you're probably out of luck because Apple has determined that anything you might adjust probably has repercussions you wouldn't anticipate and which would result in a complex and expensive troubleshooting problems that Apple Store Geniuses will only be able to answer with apologetically blank stares.

For users who just want a file server, email and instant messaging, shared calendars and contacts, an Intranet website with rich blogging and wiki features, along with Time Machine client backups and a VPN and basic firewall, Server Preferences does almost everything for you and works without really needing to crack a manual, the way most Mac users would expect of an Apple product.

server preferences


Open Directory: you may not know you need it yet

Apple appears to be banking on Server Preferences to serve as the primary interface for Mac mini server users. Behind its toy-like simplicity, it actually provides lots of very powerful features that many home and small business users don't yet know they need, starting with Open Directory. Apple has integrated a variety of very complex and security-sensitive services, including LDAP, Kerberos and a SASL Password Server, and churned out a deceptively simple directory services product that just works, particularly for small installations where additional integration with other corporate directories isn't needed.

What Open Directory does is manage user accounts and passwords on a network level. Rather than dealing with individual user accounts set up on each Mac in your home or business, Open Directory allows you to create one listing of users that every Mac on the network subsequently consults.

This all sounds very boring, but it unlocks all of the interesting features of Mac OS X Server. It allows you to log into any machine on your network using the same password, and then seamlessly access file servers and services without having to present credentials each time. It also allows you to sync all your files between, say, a desktop and workstation via the server, and to share calendars among users, and to publish internal and public blogs and wikis. And once its set up, you should be able to pretty much forget about it.

The end of innocence

Once users get wind of what other things Snow Leopard Server can do, there's zero work involved in upgrading to an advanced configuration using Server Admin; you just open up Server Admin and begin turning on additional services.

Once this happens however, the childlike innocence of Server Preferences vanishes and you must take on the role of a server administrator, which most definitely will require consulting a reference, and perhaps even paying a consultant.

This makes Apple's choice to bundle its unrestricted, full version of Mac OS X Server on the Mac mini interesting. Users who know they don't want to bite off a complex bunch of trouble will be able to set the product up and use it under the simple Server Preferences. But curious or advanced users will have full control to take on as much complexity as they can manage.

Opportunities in small servers

As noted earlier, Microsoft sells a stripped down appliance version of its server software as Windows Home Server; this does little more than support web and file sharing and some PC backup utilities. There's no collaboration or messaging tools, no directory services domain, and no smartphone integration or anything else. It hasn't exactly taken off like wildfire.

Apple doesn't have a lucrative server software business to protect, so it can throw the whole Snow Leopard Server hog at users and let them set up anything they want, constrained only by the limitations of the Mac mini hardware. There's no missing features, no usage limitations, no client access licensing, and no essential server software that has to be purchased separately.

This is Apple's boldest step yet to expand the visibility of Mac OS X Server into untouched greenfields of opportunity in the emerging small server market. It's also one where there isn't much other competition. This will make it interesting to see how much attention Apple can draw for its new Mac mini server.

AppleInsider will be looking at how well Snow Leopard Server works on the low end, light duty Mac mini in future reports that examine Apple's new value proposition for home and small business users.

Snow Leopard Server (Developer Reference)


Daniel Eran Dilger is the author of "Snow Leopard Server (Developer Reference)," a new book from Wiley available now for pre-order.