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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

Built-in NetRestore option for mass deployment

Apple has bundled the ability to do Apple Software Restore (ASR) deployments in System Image Utility. This is in addition to the existing NetBoot and NetInstall options. ASR deployments are typically preferable to NetBoot/NetInstall because they offer the option of using multicast system image deployment.

Multicast deployment allows a server to flood a network segment with a constant stream of data that all clients can access simultaneously -- as opposed to discrete one-to-one connections known as unicast. Multicast deployments can be significantly faster than unicast deployments through Apple's existing options.

Although this feature still requires you to rely on the ASR command-line tool for some operations, the NetRestore option allows you to easily boot a machine over the network -- removing the need for an alternate startup disk -- and proceed with the deployment.

Ability to force reset of managed clients

Apple's Managed Preferences environment allows administrators to use directory services to preset and configure almost any part of the Mac environment. This remains a powerful option, with a wide range of built-in choices for setting up and restricting the user environment based on individuals, group membership, which computer they are using or any combination of the three. As in the past two Apple Server OS releases, you can also add configurations for almost any third-party application as well.

One nice touch here is that Apple has added to the client version of Snow Leopard the ability to remotely refresh the settings of any given Mac. This allows you to ensure that if you make changes to a configuration, all Macs will immediately accept that change.

Easier client binding to directory servers

Apple has continued to simplify the process of joining Macs to a directory services system. Macs can now auto-detect available directory servers using Apple's Bonjour zero-configuration networking technology. This allows new Macs to automatically detect directory servers and present them to a user during the initial setup of a Snow Leopard Mac.

Better performance

Finally, overall performance has been enhanced in Snow Leopard Server, even when running on low-power Macs -- as you might find with a small business server. Much of this boost comes from the same technologies implemented in the client version of Snow Leopard. These include 64-bit functionality, the new Grand Central Dispatch for efficiently using multiple processors and cores, and the OpenCL technology that allows a Mac or server to use graphics processing hardware for more general computing tasks.

Overall thoughts

Snow Leopard Server is a tremendous value. It offers a range of features that aid collaboration and mobility for small businesses through enterprises. The improvements in collaborative tools will probably be adopted in education, one of Apple's core markets. The simple licensing structure and lowered price are enough to make the platform competitive.

For organizations that already run in part or entirely on Mac OS X Server, this is a definite upgrade. With so many new technologies and under-the-hood changes, though, you'll definitely want to spend some time testing and getting to know the new face of Mac OS X Server before making the jump. For organizations running on other platforms, Snow Leopard Server's lower cost and the maturity of so many technologies originally introduced in Leopard Server make it a product to seriously think about, particularly for smaller organizations needing a simple yet powerful option.

Ryan Faas is a freelance writer and technology consultant specializing in Mac and multiplatform network issues. His most recent book is The iPhone for Work, published by Apress. You can find more information at www.ryanfaas.com and can e-mail Ryan at ryan@ryanfaas.com.

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