Mac OS X 10.4 (Tiger) Server full review

As with its slightly younger siblings, Mac OS 10.4 Tiger has a server version in addition to the basic desktop release. Although one might imagine this means it’s only really suitable to run on high-powered server machines, such as the Xserve G5, this isn’t the case. You’ll certainly need beefy hardware if you plan to load the machine heavily, but you can run a perfectly adequate low-end server installation on, say, an old G4 that’s lying around.

At a glance, the product is very similar to the desktop version – the entire look and feel is the same, and you have the option of running it with the GUI or via the Unix command line. The difference is with the applications and system software that you get. In place of desktop niceties, such as movie editors, you’re given a collection of enterprise-style servers (domain name server, directory services, Web server, mail server, cross-platform file and print, and the like). You also get the benefits of Open Directory, an excellent enterprise directory services system that lets you integrate your IT into a single, centrally managed whole instead of a set of disparate, random equipment.

As you’d expect, installation is a breeze. You get both CD- and DVD-based installation discs in the box, so those with DVD drives don’t have to swap discs, and you just walk through a standard Apple wizard, accepting the licence and telling it where to put the software. One of my pet hates with Mac OS X Server is that the licence code on the CD label is always semi-legible (is that a 6 or an 8... is that an L or an I?), but once you eventually guess right, you simply leave it for a while to copy its files. Once it’s finished installing, you answer some basic questions (all the obvious stuff, such as setting the Administrator password) and you’re done.

In addition to the server components that shipped with 10.3 – all the standard stuff we’ve mentioned already – there’s a bunch of new functionality too. The four main additions to the list are an iChat server (based on the open-source Jabber package, for hosting IM-style services), a software update server (so you can set your server up to download Mac OS updates from Apple and distribute them to desktop Macs via your LAN), WebObjects (for hosting server-based applications without having to fight with low-level SOAP and WSDL specs, reviewed on page 52) and Xgrid (Apple’s foray into the currently fashionable concept of using all your computers as a single processing platform). Oh, and the Web server has been extended a bit to host blogs.

Although these additions are laudable, it’s the under-the-hood stuff that actually makes Tiger Server worthwhile. For instance, in addition to the traditional Unix permissions model, you can now define much more fine-grained access control lists (for both file system and application access) than before. Key applications have emerged from the dark ages, so in the DHCP server you can now include static Ethernet-to-IP address mappings, and the email server now lets you define relaying rules and quotas via the GUI.

This brings me neatly to the main irritant of Mac OS X Server. Additions such as relaying rules in the mail configuration aren’t actually new features in the mail software. After all, it’s the popular Postfix system that many of us have been using for years on Linux and Unix. The same applies to static address mappings in the DHCP server. No, what’s actually changed is that Apple’s GUI has finally enabled these features for those users that aren’t comfortable hacking about with text-based configuration files (not least because Apple has changed loads of standard Unix stuff, like startup scripts, to render them unrecognizable to Unix types).

There are also some little niggles with Tiger Server that make one want to grab an Apple software engineer, shake them and shout: “Did you actually *£&^$&% test this?” For example, starting up MySQL with the SystemStarter command results in a “No such file or directory” error relating to a config file. It doesn’t prevent it starting, but an out-of-the-box installation (plus, it must be said, a two-point minor version upgrade – I looked at 10.4.2) shouldn’t be throwing errors.

Mac OS X Tiger Server is, on the whole, an excellent operating system. If you’re a user of a previous version of Mac OS X Server, the upgrade is a no-brainer – you get more facilities and better support for the facilities you already had. If you have a Mac that you want to turn into a server, Tiger is definitely the way to go.

If you’re installing from scratch and you’re not limited by the choice of hardware, though, Mac OS X Server has always been a harder thing to try to sell – simply because of dumb issues like the DHCP and email configuration items mentioned earlier. At least 10.4 puts right the glaring omissions that have frustrated me in 10.3, so perhaps it’s just now starting to be the right choice for those who’ve not yet chosen a platform.

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