I remember the first time I became aware of the word “server.” For some reason it sounded very mysterious, something that required arcane tools and deep learning with the elves in the mountains.
Eventually, I came to figure out that a “server” is simply a computer — any computer — that provides “services” to other computers. If you computer can share its files, it’s a file server. If you turn iTunes music sharing on, your computer becomes a music server. If you have a shared printer, your computer has become a print server.
Apple makes it super-easy to turn any Mac into a server by going to Apple menu > System Preferences > Sharing (or Spotlight “sharing”) and turning on any of the services you need. Your Mac will then show up in the “Shared” section of any Finder window. Boom, you got a server.
That said, when most people refer to a server, they’re talking about some machine that doesn’t do anything else, a box that’s tucked away, maybe in a rack or a closet, and always on, with a nice big battery backup, maybe a few hard drives, and fans like a wind tunnel. And most servers on the planet should be that robust; I need Google’s mail servers or my web server at GoDaddy never to go down, or at least, if they do need a reboot, that there’s a backup server waiting next to it in the data center to kick in as soon as its brother goes down.
A lot of businesses have one or more servers at the workplace. Sometimes they’re just file servers, a central repository for the documents that everyone needs access. Sometimes they’re also mail servers. Running your email through a Windows Exchange Server housed in your office was a popular option among Microsoft-certified professionals at a time when outsourced email hosts weren’t as flexible or affordable as they are now.
Again, to be clear: most organizations with fewer than 40 or 50 users would be wasting precious money to purchase Microsoft Small Business Server, when they can sign up with Google Apps either for free or for $50/user/year (40 users for $2,000/year, versus an easy $5,000 just to install and configure, not to mention maintain and troubleshoot, a Windows Server).
So let’s say you just need to share documents among more than 10 people, and you need them available all the time, and time without them costs money. Until this last Tuesday, the best value in a server-class machine was Apple’s Xserve.
Way powerful, way configurable, way manageable – The specs on each generation of Xserve have been increasingly impressive, and it starts at a $3,000 base price that has always included the $1,000 OS X Server (unlimited-client; Windows Server starts at 5 users, and costs $50 per user after that). Most Xserve buyers should expect to pay at least $5,000-6,000 for a properly configured unit with 3 hard drives, a redundant supply, external backups, and if one is smart, the AppleCare server support plan. I can usually have a new OS X Server set up, with a few connected workstations, in under 6 hours.
A Bit of History
Apple’s server software (a.k.a. server operating system, or “OS”) is Mac OS X Server, now in version 10.6 (a.k.a. Snow Leopard Server). For so many years, AppleShare server products (still promoted in Australia!) distinguished themselves in IT discourse only by being pretty crappy. It just didn’t have the moxy that system admins were used to getting from Microsoft Windows NT or its descendants. And when OS X Server came out — it was actually the first release of OS X — it was really more of a theory than an operating system. Even though it was built on the well-established UNIX platform, it was buggy and slow, and it had these really weird quirks that made it very frustrating. Certainly it was impossible for an IT administrator to recommend that a business rely on this system for their day-to-day operations.
Today, OS X Server has evolved into a robust, stable platform, one that’s easy to set up, easy to expand and scale, and like the basic OS X (we might call it “OS X client”), Server is impressively compatible with other platforms and standards. Since OS X Server and the Xserve came into their own, and given products such as Xsan and Final Cut Server, Apple is officially a viable player in the world of business and enterprise.
The Value of a Server
Is all of this worth several thousand dollars to your organization? It sure can be, once you realize the other things you can do with a server, which I’ll get to in a second. First, I have to say that this article is inspired by Apple’s announcement today of a Mac mini server. This $1,000 box is now potentially my favorite item in the entire product line, as I think it spells great things for businesses large and small. Considering that Apple has now slashed the price of the software itself to an unbeatable $500 for unlimited users, buying into a Microsoft server product now just seems unwise and wasteful.
So what can you do with a server? Check this out:
File Sharing, Network homes, and Backups: We can tie all of your Macs to your server so that the “home folder” for each user account is stored on the server. This means anybody can use any Mac in the house, and use their own desktop and files and email and settings. And if one computer dies, you put a new one in its place, log that person in, et voila! You’re back in business.
- Portable Home Directories: This includes laptops, which can sync their accounts to the server, backing themselves up whenever they’re in the office.
Software Updates: We can have the server download all your software updates, and the administrator can pick and choose which one should be rolled out. When someone logs in, even a non-admin user, they’ll have an opportunity to install the approved updates, and their Mac only has to go across the office network, not all the way back to Apple’s servers.
Preferences: You can choose apply settings for all users in one fell swoop: adding a printer, adding items to the Dock, or automatically mounting a share point [definition]; or perhaps restricting things along the order of parental controls, or preventing or allowing certain applications.
NetBoot & NetRestore: You can actually have your Macs start up from a disk image [definition] on the server. If you need to update all Macs, just update the image. A variation on this idea is to have the Macs install themselves from a central image.
Of all of these possibilities, certainly it is having a centralized place for data storage and backup, and for backing up your workstations, that makes in-house servers attractive, and possibly essential, for any organization of any size.
Keep your head in the cloud
I say possibly essential, because there are now services on the internet, such as Google Docs and DropBox, that have begun replacing server hardware for many people. I am all in favor of using these online applications, with the sole caution that we don’t rely on them to back up our data. It is crucial to keep an on-premises copy of every piece of data that means anything to you, just as keeping an offsite copy is de rigueur in any comprehensive backup scheme. I use a Firefox plug-in that downloads all my Google docs, and I backup that folder to an external hard drive.
But if you need fast, reliable storage that all your computers can see, to centralize your data and keep your Macs humming in unison, there’s nothing like a properly configured OS X Server.