Apple is expected to launch Mountain Lion next week. At the same time, the company will be launching Mountain Lion Server. The new edition of Apple’s server platform is revolutionary in a lot of ways, not the least of which is its $19.99 price tag.
Mountain Lion Server includes the basic server functionality that you’d expect from a product intended for the small to mid-size business (SMB) market. That means features like file sharing, network printing, client backups, website hosting, VPN, email services, centralized contacts for an organization, and shared calendaring. All of that is important and Mountain Lion Server seems destined to make those services easy to set up and manage.
In addition to those basic capabilities, however, Mountain Lion Server comes with some pretty incredible functionality for businesses or workgroups of any size or type. Here are ten of the big money features that are easy to overlook.
Profile Manager – Profile Manager is easily Mountain Lion Server’s killer app for small business (or when supporting Macs in a larger Windows-centric environment). Profile Manager offers inexpensive and lightweight mobile management capabilities for iOS devices. It also offers the ability to manage Macs using the same approach and interface.
Profile Manager lets administrators fully configure the Mac user experience – the items in the Dock, user account information, applications that a user is allowed to access, and pretty much anything else. Profile Manager also offers easy access to all of the mobile management features that Apple makes available in iOS. All of that can be configured and update on the Mac running Mountain Lion Server or from any web-capable device. Even when enterprise systems like Active Directory are used to manage user account, Mountain Lion Server can provide Mac and iOS device management.
Simply put, for many organizations, Profile Manager alone is easily worth the cost of Mountain Lion Server and the hardware to run it.
Collaboration and document/project management – Apple has been building collaborative tools into OS X Server for more than half a decade. The cardinal collaboration tool is Apple’s wiki and blog service. Although often overlooked, Apple’s wiki system offers much of the functionality that Microsoft provides with SharePoint. Administrators and users can create wiki sites for sharing company and project information as well as for project management and updates.
File sharing is the biggest feature that Apple’s wiki service enables. Files can be viewed and commented on right in the browser thanks to Apple’s QuickLook technology. The service provides basic document tracking and, most importantly, file versioning – a feature that ensures previous versions of files can be recovered if needed. A revision history feature shows the changes made to file and documents as well as to wiki content.
For iPad users, the wiki service offers some very powerful features. It has an iPad-optimized view for mobile use. It also includes WebDAV access, which means that users can jump straight from looking at a document to editing it using one of the iWork apps.
All-in-all this often overlooked feature hits a number of business technology needs: document and basic project management, company and departmental resource archives and guides, social interaction between members of a team or an entire company, and a way to capture and preserve institutional knowledge.
Self-servicing portal – Those first two feature come together in Apple’s self-service portal in Mountain Lion Server. The portal allows users to enroll their Macs or iOS devices with Profile Manager. The process is simple, straightforward, and allows users to apply managed profiles and security certificates quickly and easily. It also let’s users remotely lock and wipe a Mac or iOS device that was lost or stolen. All of this can be accomplished without a single call to IT.
Profile Manager’s service portal is an attractive feature on its own, but by combining it with Apple’s wiki service administrators can create a more complete self-service site that offers technology support documents, guides and instructional material, policies, and information about how to contact support professionals – either internal to the company or external providers or contractors. If a company has a web-based help desk system, it can also be integrated into the portal.
All of this combines to offer smaller organizations the ability to easily and inexpensively build a feature set that is usually only found in larger enterprises.
iPad/iWork integration – We’ve already touched on Mountain Lion Server’s iOS integration. Profile Manager and the self-servicing portal make iPhone or iPad configuration and management pretty simple and foolproof. As does the editing capabilities that link iOS devices to the wiki service. In addition, Apple implements WebDAV as a file sharing option in Mountain Lion Server. That file sharing capability integrates with Apple’s iWork apps to allow iPad users to browse, view, and edit documents from their iPad and all with the same file permissions that they would have on a Mac or PC.
Push notifications – Email, shared contacts, and shared calendars are all integrated with Apple’s push notification service in Mountain Lion Server. That means that Mac and iOS device users can be sent real-time notifications of new messages, changes to centralized contacts, and calendar events (including invitations and changes to events). The service runs through the same push notification system that Apple uses for iOS devices and Macs running Mountain Lion. A server can also be configured to alert an administrator, IT professionals, or other staff members in the event of certain problems.
RADIUS for small business – RADIUS is a Wi-Fi technology that simplifies and secures Wi-Fi access. Instead of a single password being used by everyone to access a Wi-Fi network, RADIUS allows each user to connect using their username and password. That eases the process, reduces the chance of unauthorized access, and it allows monitoring of Wi-Fi use. Mountain Lion Server includes a RADIUS service that is incredibly easy to set up. The one limitation is that it only supports managing Apple’s AirPort line of wireless routers. For small to medium offices, however, AirPort base stations and Time Capsule devices can be sufficient solutions.
Streamlined management – Apple has made an effort simplify and streamline service and user management in Mountain Lion Server. This did mean getting ride of some longtime tools, but the result is actually a more focused administration environment. That reduces the learning curve and makes all of the services in Mountain Lion Server accessible to a wider range of users. Overall, Apple seems to have done a good job of delivering a balance of simplicity and flexibility in Mountain Lion Server.
Next steps advice – Next steps isn’t a huge feature, but it’s a great feature for non-technical users or users that have never dealt with OS X Server. The various Next steps guides are part of the Server app, the primary management tool for Mountain Lion Server. They provide a guide through the processes needed to set up a server and configure each service. The Next steps feature was there in Lion Server, but it looks like Apple may have made the advice given to novice administrators a bit more streamlined and helpful – if only because the Server app is now the only admin tool.
Active Directory integration – As great as Mountain Lion and Mountain Lion Server may be, the simple truth is that they will be used in predominantly Windows environments a large portion of the time. In the business world that means both Mountain Lion Server and Mountain Lion Macs need to integrate with Active Directory (AD).
Mountain Lion offers a range of integration points. First and foremost is user authentication or the ability to login to a Mac using the same Active Directory credentials used to login to a PC. Following that is support for Windows domain security policies and technologies like Kerberos and single sign-on. Mountain Lion is also site-aware meaning that it will respect Active Directory site topologies when selecting which domain controller(s) to use. For Mac notebooks, Mountain Lion can cache network account data locally for use off the company network.
Mountain Lion Server can be joined to a domain as easily as a Mountain Lion Mac. When used in this fashion services can be made available to users via domain credentials and single sign-on. It can also function as a departmental server within an Active Directory environment in which it provides Apple-specific services and functionality to users while passing user authentication off to Active Directory. Finally, as mentioned above, Profile Manager offers lightweight Mac management when used in an Active Directory environment.
Enterprise features – Despite being focused on the small business market more than the enterprise, Mountain Lion Server still packs a range of enterprise capabilities. It can provide common network services (DHCP, DNS, VPN). It can also provide Ethernet Link Aggregation as well as VLAN management and capabilities if run on a Mac with appropriate hardware (essentially the Mac Pro or possibly Sonnet’s xMac mini Server). Like previous OS X Server releases, Mountain Lion Server can host an Open Directory domain (the Apple equivalent of an Active Directory domain) with support for directory service replication and site/location awareness. It also includes robust and easy to use mass deployment capabilities. Finally, Mountain Lion Server can provide SAN management using Apple’s Xsan.
Is Mountain Lion Server the best fit for every organization? No, but it is appropriate for a number of roles in small businesses, schools, and departments within larger organizations. For its price tag, Mountain Lion Server delivers a lot of features, power, and performance.