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Served: the Mac OS X Lion Server review

Posted by steve on Jan 16, 2012 in internet, network, Reviews, Software Reviews

I’ve been running Mac OS X Server in various incarnations for about six years. I’m reluctant to be terribly specific, since I don’t remember with a good deal of precision when I first installed Apple’s server operating system on the old eMac that I’d repurposed for my daughter’s use, Debbie having finally upgraded to a PowerMac G5.

Most recently I’ve had Mac OS X 10.6 Snow Leopard Server (a clunkily-named piece of software, to be sure, but then Apple are not know for their elegance in nomenclature), running on a headless Mac mini, a system I wrote about a handful of years ago and which Apple clearly used as inspiration for their min server product.

I’ve been happy with this setup for quite some time. A batch of websites have been dished up from my server, reliably and consistently, for years, including this very blog, as well as New Life: New Zealand, my Moving to New Zealand blog. It was, for the most part, a set-and-forget system, needing only the most occasional of tweaks. But lately I’d noticed that the overall performance of my mini was becoming quite unacceptable. In addition to web- and mail-serving tasks, my mini also did light duties as a home media centre, and also hosted my iPhone, and so I use Screen Sharing to administer the thing, hidden as it is under a coffee table in the family room. Increasingly, this was becoming intolerable.

My lovely wife had recently returned from her annual visit to the US, and had brought home with her for me a new 2TB external hard disc; given that they retail over there for around half the price you can find them here in New Zealand, this was very much appreciated. Although I couldn’t be sure, I strongly suspected that the original internal hard disc of my mini, all 80GB of it, might have started to see the end of its useful life, and so I decided to install an operating system on the new external disc, and run my mini from there.

But which version to run? I had an installer disc for version 10.6, Snow Leopard Server, but I was sorely tempted by version 10.7, Lion Server. I particularly was tempted by the joys of wireless syncing that my iPhone, now running iOS 5, would now experience, and, well, why would I want to re-install an obsolescing system? Reading up on Lion Server gave me pause, though. Reviews such as this one concerned me, other sites had implied that multiple sites wouldn’t be possible, and I also got the impression that mail services would be hobbled.

In the end, I took a deep breath and installed. The software was surprisingly easy to install: once the standard client edition of Mac OS X Lion was up and running — and that was quite effortless, given that I already had made an installer DVD when I installed Lion on my laptop — a quick trip to the Mac App Store and a fifty-dollar spend later, and I had a new server. (Pricing, by the way, finally seems to be a bit clearer than it was before release.)

Lion Server's Server app

Server: Lion Server's part-replacement for Server Admin

All I could see, though, that was new for my $49.99 was a new application in the dock, Server. That, it would appear, was that, and it was, as far as I could tell, a rather severely hobbled version of the Server Admin application that used to power earlier editions of Mac OS X Server. Web services, for example, no longer had the flexible options that Snow Leopard Server used to make available; while multiple domains could quite easily be set up, there was a degree of inconvenience in the new simplification — instead of adding, say, domain.com and then configuring www.domain.com within that domain’s settings, each domain had to be set up separately to point to the same folder of web pages. Aliases and redirects can, of course, be set up — Apache still powers the web server, with Server only a graphical front-end — but now they need hand-to-hand combat between user and config files in the Terminal. While this still enables full access to everything you’d want to be able to do in Apache, it’s the very antithesis of Apple’s claim that Lion Server is The Server For Everyone, unless the only option Everyone wants is the choice of turning PHP on or off.

Not that turning PHP on is as helpful as it might be. PHP, for many people, me included, is useful only as long as it’s interacting with a MySQL database or two. The only reason I run PHP on my web server is to enable WordPress, my blogging and CMS platform of choice and one which is utterly dependent upon PHP being able to talk to MySQL. And maybe I’m being a bit too literal, a little rigid in my thinking, here, but I find that MySQL works so very much better when it’s actually installed. Which, oddly, it isn’t under Lion Server. MySQL was part of Mac OS X Server as recently as version 10.6.x, but it has now disappeared, with, typically, no explanation beyond the bare statement that ” Lion Server replaces MySQL with PostgreSQL.” There is speculation that the change is related to Apple’s dislike of GPL licences and Oracle’s acquisition of the product, and certainly it has resulted in plenty of unhappiness among users; at any rate, Apple’s documentation goes on to state that upgrades from Mac OS X Server 10.5.8 — that would be Leopard Server — and later will keep their functioning installations of MySQL, but, of course, this didn’t help me too much, given that I was performing a clean install.

A download of MySQL, which I then had to install, and configure, manually, was the workaround, but it did involve manual manipulation of a number of configuration files — again, not entirely what one might expect from The Server For Everyone, which now appeared to need renaming The Server For Everyone Who Only Wants to Configure PHP In Their Web Server And Not Run MySQL. Much time was spent searching the Web for help, and credit is definitely due to Tasman Hayes and Rob Allen. But I had my web server serving again, so onward.

Mail options in Mac OS X Lion Server

Lion Server's limited mail options

Next came mail, the other primary job of my server. The Server application was the obvious first place to look for settings, but options were quite limited. How, for example, could I specify the various different domains for which I wanted to provide service? Again, I could, if I felt like it, get my hands dirty tinkering with configuration files, but why should I? This functionality was provided in the Server Admin programme that was part of earlier iterations of Mac OS X Server — and there was my answer. Server Admin, however, was not part of the standard installation of Lion Server, but had to be downloaded separately from the Apple website. Once downloaded, it allowed me to set up mail service for the several domains I host, but, curiously, not webmail, despite that being one of the very few options actually offered by Server. (I eventually realized that, at least as I have my system set up, webmail is an intranet-only feature. Hmmm.)

Mail duly configured, I decided to tackle an issue I’d always struggled with in earlier versions of Mac OS X Server — virtual mail hosting. I host websites for both threelionstech.com and threelionsphoto.com (both seriously under re-construction at time of writing; you’re welcome to visit right now, but you might not be impressed), and also receive email sent to both domains. The problem I’ve had until now has been configuring my mail server so that mail to steve@threelionstech.com and steve@threelionsphoto.com can be picket up and dealt with by two separate IMAP accounts in my mail client. This can, I know, be done — I had it working, briefly, a couple of years ago. But the setting up of this feature is messy and not a little convoluted. My joy was unbounded, then, when I discovered that Server’s “Users” panel enables this feature effortlessly — simply set up a new account and specify the email address you want it to receive mail for, and you’re done. I was, at this point, almost (but not entirely — it still rankles) willing to forgive the hours of gaffing around that I’d had to deal with in setting up MySQL.

So now my server is happy again. If you’re reading this, then it’s still working. Much has changed, some things have been taken away, and the target market for Apple’s server software, especially since the demise of the XServe, is clearly home users. I’ll explore Wikis next — Apple are pushing them quite strongly, but since I run my own business I don’t know how much mileage I’ll get. I’ll tinker with calendar services. I’ll leave the “Next Steps” box (see the screenshot above) alone; it seems a little simplistic and facile. For now, my server is serving again.

Rating: ★★★★☆

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7

Size isn’t everything.

Posted by steve on Jan 22, 2009 in Hardware, Software

Most companies manage to go years — their entire existences even — without ever producing an utterly iconic product. Apple, however, have cranked them out with an almost indecent frequency; pretty much anything beginning with “i” has proven to be noteworthy, with the -Phone and -Pod being positively paradigm-shifting. 

And thus have Apple created a rod for their own corporate back. 

For most companies, it’s the absence of a market-defining product that represents business as usual. But for Apple, there’s a very real expectation that anything they create should be so utterly earth-shattering that even as-yet-undiscovered tribes in the highlands of Papua New Guinea will know about it within three, or at the very most four, days. 

Pity, then, the poor Mac mini, the red-headed stepchild of the Apple product range. When commentators gush over Apple’s creations, the mini sees very little love. Which is sad, really, because the mini’s a cracking little machine. I bought my mini a year or so ago; I put the rebate Apple sent me for buying two rather overpriced first-generation iPhones toward it, and set it to work in what would seem to me to be the obvious, but rather overlooked, role. 

The first thing I did with my new mini was install Mac OS X Server on it. Prior to that, my iMac had been doing double duty as my main “work” (I, at least, like to think of what I do as work; my lovely wife occasionally expresses doubts) computer and as my server; while OS X Server can be used as a regular desktop OS, I always had it in mind that a dedicated server would make more sense. Before the iMac, it was an old PowerBook on which my daughter played Club Penguin until she dropped it on the floor, forever crippling the T key and putting a significant dent in the side; and before that, an eMac of sainted memory. 

But, when, finally, last year I had a little discretionary tech cash, I invested in what Apple really ought to consider rebranding the iServe — the home-office answer to the XServe. It could be to the rack-mounted server behemoth what the iMac is to the Mac Pro — a bonsai server. 

My mini’s been running like a champ for well over a year now. It runs, as I’ve said, Leopard server, and it currently hosts eight or nine domains, dishing up websites and email with barely a second thought from me. Installation was a snap — it’s a Mac, after all, and, say what you will about Apple, at least they make the trains run on time. No, wait, that was Benito Mussolini. No, at least things work well together — there’s no denying that they’re among the great corporate control freaks of this world, but the payoff for us is that things work consistently. As long as your hardware meets the software’s basic requirements, you’re all set. 

And let’s not forget, the mini isn’t half as hobbled as folk like to paint it. Its big weakness, its lack of a decent graphics card, is absolutely no handicap to a server — my mini has no monitor (or keyboard, or mouse, or anything else, for that matter, except an ethernet cable to hook it into my office intranet) connected, and it’s not a machine I’ll be trying to run Doom on any time soon. It’s just the Anne Boleyn of my network, headlessly chugging away. 

My mini treats me just fine. I don’t use it as a work machine; instead, it doles out web pages (such as this one, or this one, or this one, or, indeed, the very page you’re reading right now), delivers emails, serves files and hosts FileMaker Pro databases around the InterWeb. It’s not perfect; I’m sure that one day, when my Internet Empire finally approaches SkyNet dimensions, it might be time to scale up to an actual, grown-up XServe, but I’m hoping that by then I’ll have a team of lackeys who’ll be making those decisions for me while I sip cocktails and enjoy the ministrations of teams of professional sycophants, and I’ll not have to become personally embroiled in such considerations. In the meantime, about the only thing I miss out on is the ability to monitor my server using the programme named, with all of Apple’s typical ingenuity and creativity, Server Monitor (you just know someone scored a corner office for coming up with that name. Not that I’m in any way resentful. Or bitter. No, not at all. Of course not. It just seems that way when I cry bitter tears of jealousy…). I don’t know what temperature my server’s cores are running at, but every time I open a new browser window, I see one of my hosted sites’ home pages, and I know that my trusted mini is serving still.

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Taking stock

Posted by admin on Jan 13, 2009 in Hardware, Personal, Software

Since this blog is quite heavily slanted toward technology, I thought I’d get the ball rolling by making up an inventory, taking stock so to speak, of the gadgets that I use to help me run my life. 
My laptop
A MacBook Pro , of course. I’ve had it for about nearly two years now, which means it’s a relic, verging on a fossil, by computer standards, but it serves me well. It’s in great shape, despite having been toted around the world in a backpack, most recently to Australia and New Zealand.

My desktop computer

An iMac. It’s another old computer, this time nearly three years old. But it’s a trooper. It’s one of the original Intel iMacs, and it’s my main work machine. I’ve replaced the hard disk, after the old one went south (and how grateful was I that my Time Capsule
was there to save my hide?), and I’ve connected about half a dozen external hard discs, adding a couple of terabytes of additional storage, as well as a second DVD burner and — and this is my favourite bit — a second monitor.

My phone

And, not entirely shockingly, it’s an iPhone. I don’t know I should even bother writing anything here — there’s been plenty of electrons spilt over the last year and a half about the iPhone, much of it by more incisive and wittier writers than I. 

But I like my iPhone. It’s as cool and groovy a gadget as any I’ve owned. And while that’s a pretty obvious remark, it represents a huger leap up from its predecessor (in this case, a Motorola RAZR (what a vile and loathsome name that is)) than was the case with any other piece of kit I think I’ve ever had.

My server

A surprisingly tiny fellow, my Mac Mini, sitting on my desk between a semi-active Airport base station and a Seagate hard disc, is a low-profile workhorse. It’s connected to my network by ethernet, and to the wall by a power strip, but otherwise it’s all alone. No keyboard, no mouse, not even a monitor. But this headless server is the hub of my online empire, the nerve centre if you will (or, quite frankly, even if you won’t) of nearly everything I do online. It hosts this site, as well as my photography site, the blog that plots my escape plans and a side project that I might even get off the ground one day.

My software

Not technically gadgetry per se, but the programmes, systems and applications I run provide so much functionality that they might as well be. My computers, of course, run Mac OS X Leopard, with my server, obviously, operating under the server edition — a quite remarkably flexible and powerful piece of ‘ware, if you ask me. 

That’s the bulk of what I use on a daily basis. With these few devices, and the bits and bobs that I have plugged in or connected to them, I keep myself connected and run a couple of modestly successful businesses. Doesn’t take much, does it?

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