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Apple's Captivating Tiger


By Bill Van Etten

May 12, 2005 | As high-performance computing becomes a critical and mainstream research tool, more “Biologists” are performing what have traditionally been UNIX systems administration duties. As a geneticist, I’ve learned to “tail a log file,” “grep a TCP dump,” and “HUP a daemon.”  But why must I learn and spend valuable research time performing cryptic actions like these to implement and manage an assembly of UNIX systems? In this point and click age, it should be easier to integrate and maintain the many necessary shared network services among computers.

The fifth major release of Apple’s server operating system, Mac OS X Server version 10.4 (Tiger) has many new features like 64-bit memory addressing, built-in VPN, Software Update and Jabber server, as well as very cool and useful new technologies like spotlight (whole disk and document searching tool) and automator (graphical data analysis pipelining tool).

However, it’s the claim that Tiger Server is “open source made easy” that I wish to investigate here. Just how “open” and “easy” it is?

Unlike Linux, the entire OS “is not” open source, but its underlying BSD UNIX (called Darwin) is an open source project that is available from and managed by Apple. Personally, I’m not as evangelical about the “open source” movement as some. I don’t have time to read or contribute to the source anyway. The part of “open” that is directly important to me is that the OS relies on and benefits from more than 100 public open source projects and implements standards-based, open network protocols.

Mac OS X is a “unifier not a divider.” It implements all of the open network, file system and directory services protocols that enable it to communicate with other UNIX systems, as well as current Windows and vestigial Mac OS 9 proprietary protocols. In fact, using the built-in NT migration tools that come with Tiger, your Mac OS X Server can take the place of your aging NT-based Primary Domain Controller.

Passing the Tess Test
Like its sibling Mac OS X desktop version, Mac OS X Server provides a UNIX desktop environment that is trivially easy to install and configure. To measure Tiger Server’s ease of use, I tested my eleven-year old daughter’s (Tess) ability to install and configure the OS on bare-metal. Granted, she’s a bright eleven-year-old with daily experience on a Mac OS X desktop machine, but she has had no prior experience using the server software. I gave her the installation DVD and provided network and power to a computer with an erased hard drive. The only instruction she was given was “Whenever in doubt, accept the defaults”.

She clicked the installer icon that rebooted the machine from the DVD, and after following the simple on-screen prompts, with a few button clicks the OS was installed on the local disk in 16 minutes. The machine rebooted from the freshly installed local disk, and after responding to a few more simple prompts, in 11 minutes she had configured the machine as a gateway with DHCP, DNS, a shared file system, shared directory services, and a load management system (Xgrid) served to the internal private network, as well as Apache web services and IMAP, POP and SMTP mail services to the external network, with Network Address Translation and a Firewall configured to permit all internal network traffic out, but only Secure Shell network traffic in.

Following this she created a user account and home directory for me. Did she know what she was doing? Very likely no, but the point is that she didn’t have to. I suspect the biologists out there tasked with the new UNIX Systems Administration responsibilities will appreciate this too.

Bill Van Etten is a consultant for The BioTeam. E-mail: bill@bioteam.net.

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