In depth with Apple's Snow Leopard Server

In depth with Apple's Snow Leopard Server

We dig in to explain the new networking, performance and collaboration improvements

Better collaboration

Another set of features introduced in Leopard Server was a series of collaborative tools. Beyond the basic mail server and Jabber instant messaging service, Apple introduced a shared calendaring solution called iCal Server that was based on the open CalDAV standard and that supported other CalDAV clients beyond Apple's iCal. Other tools in Leopard Server included a wiki and blog server that allowed users to easily collaborate through a Web-based interface that can edit content, track changes and let users know when content impacting them is modified. It also makes tagging and searching for resources very simple.

All of these were great steps, but they still had a slightly less than polished look when Leopard Server first shipped. Many of these improved in stability and performance after the first couple of updates to Leopard Server.

In Snow Leopard Server, all of the collaborative tools have significantly matured and now live up to the promise that they offered in Leopard Server. Read on to learn more.

Revamped mail services

One of the big changes Apple made was to move its mail server to be based on the open-source Dovecot, which provides Unix/Linux mail servers with a broader range of features than Apple's previous mail software. New features include the ability to have more complex server-based filtering; this allows mail to be filtered into specific mailboxes by the server rather than a mail client, resulting in better client performance and sorting being applied regardless of the computer or device being used to access mail.

Another new feature is the use of vacation or out-of-office replies. Apple also improved the Webmail interface available to users; previous iterations relied on a very basic implementation of the common Squirrelmail tool.

Address Book Server

The biggest addition on the collaborative tools front is Address Book Server, to help share contacts and manage personal contacts using the relatively new CardDAV standard. This is a big improvement in many ways because previously the only option for shared contacts was through the use of LDAP. While LDAP was a viable solution if you needed to only retrieve contact information, it offered little in the way of editing contacts.

CardDAV is still somewhat of an emerging standard, with a limited number of clients that support it aside from Mac OS X's Address Book in Snow Leopard. Still, it is a step in the right direction and it shows that Apple is committed to developing collaborative tools that are based on open standards, as it did with iCal Server support.

Enhanced Calendar Server

Speaking of iCal Server, the shared calendaring got a number of updates in Snow Leopard Server. iCal Server in Leopard provided limited functionality for inviting multiple members to events. Also, it was difficult to access iCal Server from systems without CalDAV clients, including Apple's own iPhone.

iCal Server -- dubbed iCal Server 2 in Snow Leopard Server -- now has a better-performing and more streamlined user experience. Configuring clients to access the server is simpler. And features including invitations and viewing the availability of rooms, other resources and other users are both easier and more consistent.

Apple's also added support for the iPhone; this was a combination of both the iPhone OS 3 update released this summer, which introduced CalDAV support, as well as the server enhancements. Web-based access to calendars is also now possible with the revamped wiki server.

Another addition is the iCal Server Utility. This utility existed in a somewhat different form in Mac OS X Leopard as the Directory application. This application originally took the form of a central directory that all Leopard users could access. In that iteration, it offered the ability to look up users, contacts, locations and resources such as projectors, printers and even company cars. It also allowed users to create ad-hoc groups for collaboration.

As intriguing as Directory was, it was in no way cross-platform or accessible from the Web. Only Leopard users could access it; users of earlier Mac OS X versions as well as other platforms were out of luck. There was also a fair amount of work required when populating the data into Directory, which given a limited client base made it hard to fully justify the effort in most organizations.

Now, as iCal Server Utility, the tool is now aimed at server systems administrators and can be used only to populate resources and locations. Once these are populated using iCal Server Utility, users will be able to reserve rooms and other resources via iCal, any third-party CalDAV client or iCal Server's new Web interface. Users cannot add new rooms or resources through these tools, however; that task remains in the hands of systems administrators.

The somewhat scaled-back approach may seem like a step backwards from Directory's overarching vision. However, it is actually a positive step because for contacts, Apple has introduced Address Book Server, which is based on open standards and is supported by tools on additional platforms. This provides for much of the general use that Directory was intended to achieve and requires less effort.

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