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I am really curious. Mac OS X as a server sounds like a very expensive solution that is not much better than the free one provided by free software.

I understand paying extra for a nice UI and an Apple logo on your desktop computer or laptop (I did it). But a Apple logo gathering dust in a dark room somewhere with no monitor attached, doesn't make much sense for me.

But then either Apple is producing the server at a cost, or some people know something that I don't and choose Apple servers. If that's your case, why are you doing it? Enlighten me.

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Very good question ! I've been wondering the same thing. –  Antoine Benkemoun Aug 4 '09 at 9:03
    
So have I. Apart from the file server (SMB vs AFP), I would really like to know about how it's groupware (email, calendar, contacts) solutions compare to Exchange and Linux/GNU solutions. –  Marie Fischer Aug 4 '09 at 21:39
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9 Answers

up vote 25 down vote accepted

Edit, as this post still gathers the occasional vote: All of the points below are now irrelevant. With no real Mac Server hardware and the Server software being just a cheap add-on to the client OS X with dramatically limited usability and functionality, newer OS X server versions (10.7+) can't be reasonably used beyond small workgroups, preferentially in Mac-only shops.


I was about to write an endless essay about the pro's and con's, but let's make it short instead.

  • MacOS Server offers major advantages if you use Mac clients in you network. It allows for an extremely easy creation of features comparable to Win group policies for Mac clients, much more easy then to do the same for Win clients on a Windows server.
  • Naturally, it also has full support for all the small Mac client specifics like resource forks, finder attributes and stuff like that which all have the potential to become a real PITA if you use a Win or Linux server instead. Telling your users you don't support these might be possible, but it also might break some applications.
  • In my experience, general administration is much more easy than on any Linux system and also than on Windows, at least for smallish groups. Scaling out is another thing, but this requires detailed knowledge on any platform. At least with simple requirements, the promise of not needing a pro admin is much more realistic for a Mac only shop than for any other platform.
  • Even if you plan to run a Win clients only or mixed Win/Mac environment with a Linux server and Samba in a 10 to 20 user environment without a pro admin, I would recommend using MacoS Server in many cases, as it shields all those implicit complexities behind an really easy to use GUI.
  • While this is not the subject of the question, even being more expensive than Windows clients for the initial purchase, Macs have a much lower TCO in many environments, if users would stop thinking in brands and reputations and instead start to learn what the real differences and pros/cons are, beyond the logo and the more or less fancy GUIs.

That said, MacOS Server has some drawbacks, of course.

  • First, while certainly possible, it is not really cut out to scale to the enterprise, and doing so will require intimate knowledge of the system.
  • Also, while Apple used many standard open source software packages to create the system, they often decided to do things a little bit differently than others, sometimes for no apparent reason. This might require working around some issues (not storing the password in the LDAP database being a prime example).
  • If you know your way around Linux, have more Win/Linux than Mac clients and can live with some restrictions on the Mac side, a Linux server might indeed be cheaper.
  • Integrating MacOS Server into a larger environment can sometimes be quite difficult.
  • Often, software/hardware packages are not certified for MacOS, leaving you without support if needed. I currently experience this while planning a SAN.

All in all, I can only recommend to really learn what the different architectures offer and what your requirements are and make a decision based on that. A boss who just wants to add a few Macs to the network for no other reason that to be hip and have a Mac, without thinking about the consequences is the same kind of idiot than the admin who shuns everything Apple because "Apple is for fanboys only", without knowing anything about the platform.

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We have one where I work, installed before I started there. It's used only as a file server for the graphic artists, who of course use Macs. While it's a magnificent machine it's also a complete waste of resources as there is no reason the files couldn't be stored on the main Windows file server (I've been overruled). I'm sure there are those who use a Mac server to advantage but I'm sorry to say we don't.

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My former employer bought one to support some Macs in infrastructure. In the end, it was a miserable failure, after a year of below-bar support, broken features and instability we scrapped the whole mix-in-some-macs project and sold all the Apple hardware we had.

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I work at a university and we use it to run Deploy Studio for imaging our Mac labs, as well as for netboot, which works hand in hand with Deploy Studio. It is also our Open Directory server so that the Macs can be bound to AD and OD. AD will do credential verification and issue Kerberos tickets, and OD controls those pesky Mac-only settings that Group Policy doesn't apply to.

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I have two Mac OS X file servers that have ~40TB capacity combined. I use these in the Golden Triangle approach in our Active Directory environment, and it's definitely my server of choice. With ZFS coming soon, it will be a no-brainer to use OS X server as the platform of choice.

I don't understand why people think OS X server is more expensive than Windows. You have to compare feature for feature what you're getting to get a fair matchup. Windows does one thing or the other out of the box and requires additional licensing for extra stuff; Mac OS does it all.

The primary reason I chose OS X over Linux is AFP, which is faster than SMB. Yeah, I can use netatalk on Linux, but it makes a mess on the file system.

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I don't want to spoil you enthusiasm, but ZFS ain't coming. Not with Snow Leopard, at least (theregister.co.uk/2009/06/10/snow_leopard_no_zfs). Also, what's the Golden Triangle Approach? –  SvW Aug 4 '09 at 13:44
    
I know it's scratched from Snow Leopard, but it's coming eventually. Golden Triangle: bombich.com/mactips/activedir.html, or google is your friend. :) –  churnd Aug 4 '09 at 14:49
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Than you are knowing more than me. As far as I am concerned, it's gone for good. BTW, this is one of the major problems I have with using Apple - you just don't have any idea what's going in the Infinite Loop, and their communications people appears to be trained by the Ministry of Truth. Not only did they scratch ZFS support, but they also managed to eliminate every hint they ever did plan this, without any explanation at all. Newspeak at it's best. –  SvW Aug 4 '09 at 15:59
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Better explanation of why they pulled it for now: infrageeks.com/groups/infrageeks/weblog/cb9f5/… –  churnd Aug 4 '09 at 17:04
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"The primary reason I chose OS X over Linux is AFP, which is faster than SMB. Yeah, I can use netatalk on Linux, but it makes a mess on the file system."

Not sure I fully agree with this statement.

AFP may be a faster protocol on OS X server that Samba(SMB) on OS X server but I doubt it's fast than SMB on a W2k3 server. I used OS X alot over the past few years and it was poorly supported by Apple and rather buggy. I hope they fixed the HFS+ journal bug that would render a RAID array useless if the journal file got corrupted.

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To add an answer about the groupware functionality asked in the comment by Marie:

This is still a very new development, and honestly something I really don't understand where Apple is heading with.

First, I have to admit that I don't yet really use MacOS iCal server, and also have very limited experience with any other groupware solution, both as user and admin. Nevertheless, my impression from toying around:

  • Mail is offered by Postfix/Cyrus on 10.5 (switching to Postfix/Dovecot on 10.6) with SquirrelMail as web interface. With the standard admin tools, all you can do is adding a mail account to a user and decide wether this is forwared to another address. Everything beyond is hand work, like aliases, sieve filtering, shared mailboxes and folder ACLs for IMAP.

  • There is only a very thin layer of integration between Mail.app and calendaring, basically limited to sending invitations. Squirrelmail stands completely on its own, without any integration into the system at all, also featuring a hopelessly outdated and clunky UI.

  • Calendaring is pretty basic as well. The system offers some standard features like invitation of other users on the server, free/busy checking for invitees and resources and the like. This is offered on two different levels, for users and for workgroups. Integration with the iCal desktop app is pretty tight for the user calendaring, but for groups, its difficult and completely unintuitive to add, and restricted to read only (and I am not sure if it is used at all in free/busy scheduling). Calendar sharing and delegation is possible, but has a somewhat broad permission scheme.

  • The web interface is quite nice to use (much better than Squirrelmail), offering basic calendaring, blogs and wikis, again on two separate levels for users and workgroups, with little integration between the two levels.

  • Contacts are handled exclusively by the desktop adressbook app, with no sharing at all between users. 10.6 will offer an adressbook server, but as far as I understand it, this is about syncing addressbooks between different computers, like iSync, not about sharing. Adressbook can read LDAP trees, but has no way of modifying entries in there.

All in all, groupware in OS X Server is a collection of loosely integrated pieces. It doesn't offer very much, but what is offers is mostly easy to use and administer, and might be just enough for what Apple appears to consider it's typical server customers: Small creative agencies and the like. If you want more, every major groupware suite (Exchange, Zimbra, OX etc) will put Apples solution to shame.

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I used it, at a client site. Why? Based on legacy. It was replaced as QUICKLY as possiable due to technical shortfalls in the OS. This was on a 1U OSX Server power architechture. 10.4-10.5 era (while I was subjected to it's horror).

What on earth possessed apple to supply a system with 3 drives, while at the same time haivng no support for a RAID5 in it's software RAID stack? I mean really, you say RAID, you say 3 drives, you think RAID5. But no. Do not try before accepting the usual apple "pay for features" attitude and purchasing a flimsy hardware device which is a supposed RAID controller. Oh ya, and as the earlier posts have documented, Apple cant figure out ZFS, that project's dead, just like OpenDarwin, just like any other externally facing Apple corporate initiative.

The UI has the usual issue with any X based applications, the inveritable desyncronization between daemon's config files and the UI's interpretation of what the settings are.

Apple's gone through all the trouble of de-standardizing as much as possiable as part of their market retention stratagy, luckially several replacement OS's work fine on their hardware (well, not really theirs any more), so it's a MASSIVE pain to manually fix any config settings or attempt even a modestly realistic deployment scenerio. And the SMB works like garbage, their smb.conf almost always configures oplocks that render shared files locked and frequently in need of an administrative finger to bounce the smbd.

It would be too easy to go on with significant shortfalls and other excessivly frustration points with their software. I beg any crapple whackintosh fan-boy put down the coolaid for a second and take an honest look at their platform (sorry but I spent a few too many hours managing what messes I've been handed as a result of apple's marketing department's over-active imagination).

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Other major advantages of using Mac OS X Server (at least for Snow Leopard Server) are the following:

  • Stable OpenCL Support - Some people require servers to carry out intensive calculations that can be speed up by offloading the processing to the graphics card. This kind of work is better spent on the server rather than clients as then people can continue to work whilst the server chugs through the data processing.
  • Xgrid - Mac OS X Server has great support for distributing work loads across an abitrary number of machines further increasing the processing power available for your workloads. If you require heavy dataset processing (think internet search engine style stuff) then you'll need to use a clustering solution. The ones available on Linux and other open source operating systems whilst good are pretty tough to get up and running correctly and the documentation is nowhere near as good as the documentation that Apple provides.
  • Mac OS X Server is actually extremely cheap. The unlimited client version is only £408. Compared with other commercial UNIX distributions such as AIX and HP-UX this is a drop in the ocean. It is also much much cheaper than Windows server and fits much better into a Linux / Unix environment than Windows server does.
  • Ease of administration - You don't need to employ people with as much experience as you do when employing Linux system administrators. This easily covers the cost difference because you can pay lower wages.

There are more but most of them have already been mentioned. Remember that hosting websites and being email servers is not the only thing servers do.

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