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Any recommendations on how to set up a school network composed of around 10 iMacs running OS X Snow Leopard? What would be great is:

  • Have one machine act as a file server, allowing to have a central file repository for students
  • Student accounts are not local to the iMacs (ie, students can log on to different machines with same credentials)
  • File permissions are enforced based on the network account credentials
  • Offline backup (can Time Machine be used for that and how?)

Is OS X server absolutely needed for such a setup? Do you happen to have a nice pointer on how to set this up? Can this be done without a professional OS X admin? Are there any restrictions as to what OS X can run on? Could it run on a Mac Mini for example?

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migrated from Oct 20 '09 at 5:49

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So you want all the features that come as a matter of course for typical windows networks ;) – Joel Coel Sep 27 '11 at 15:43
up vote 6 down vote accepted

Short answer: yes can do this, you do need Apple's server software, but not necessarily the Xserve hardware.

Longer answer: Mac OS X server makes this type of configuration fairly painless to set up and run. Probably the biggest thing you have to worry about is your network -- if that's unstable or not configured properly (especially with regard to DNS), you may run into trouble "finding" the server. I can't point you to a simple how-to guide (though I'm sure they exist), but if you just install OS X Server, it pretty much leads you through the set-up process.

Network accounts get you most of what you're looking for, but in order to allow users to move between machines and get at all of their files, you need to keep all their files (including their home folders) on the server. This means the server has to have enough HD capacity to hold everything, and also fast enough to keep up with everyone. With only 10 or so users, a Mac Mini might be able to keep up, but it'd really depend on what the students are doing. For heavy use, an Xserve or Mac Pro makes a much better server.

There are also a couple of options for how to handle users files: with regular network accounts, everyone's files live on the server, and everyone accesses them over the network. With mobile accounts, users' files get copied to the client computer, and then synchronized with the copies on the server. If people use the same computer over and over again, mobile accounts can make sense; if people log into different computers every time, regular network accounts are generally better.

The main thing this doesn't get you is offline backup. You can use Time Machine on a server, but it's really more end-user oriented, and I'm not even sure if it's officially supported for backing up servers. It's also designed to back up to a single continuously-connected backup drive, which isn't really optimal for server use. You can improve things quite a bit with a little extra work, by doing something like buying 3 backup drives, rotating them offsite, and using the Time Machine preferences to switch which one's the current backup target. Beyond that, you're looking at third-party backup software; lots and lots of choices here, but I don't have enough current experience to make meaningful recommendations.

Edit: Apple just released a Mac Mini Server bundle with 4GB of RAM, 2 500GB HDs, and the server software for $999 (retail, I don't know the education pricing). I have some general reservations about running servers on laptop HDs (the only kind that fit in a mini), but if you're not going to load it too heavily it looks like just what you need.

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A common choice for backup is Retrospect. EMC recently released a new major version that appears to be mostly rewritten, and it's still immature (beta quality at best). If Time Machine or a simple solution like a nightly rsync doesn't cut it, it should be ready in not too long. – Sidnicious Oct 20 '09 at 3:30
So, OS X server would absolutely be needed to have same credentials on different machines, right? That can't be done without OS X server? – Zoran Oct 20 '09 at 5:10
OS X Server isn't absolutely needed, but without it you'd need to build everything yourself. Unless you're an expert at OpenLDAP, Kerberos, etc, and have a few days (/weeks) to kill getting it set up... go with OS X Server. Also, without OS X Server, you're limited to 10 file sharing connections from the "server", and sometimes a single client computer can use more than one connection... OS X Server is only $499 (list price, educational should be less), and well worth the investment for what you're talking about. – Gordon Davisson Oct 20 '09 at 17:15

Here's Apple's IT documents. It may be helpful.

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I'm not downvoting, but RTFM answers usually get them, and are frowned upon. – gWaldo Sep 27 '11 at 16:15

If you have a spare Mac to test, you could sign up for a free evaluation copy of Leopard Server (as long as your school is within the U.S.)

It may come with enough supporting documentation to help you determine your needs.

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Cool, very good to know. The Mac Mini server was released shortly after this question, I'm evaluating that now :) – Zoran Simic Dec 8 '09 at 1:39

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