Apple’s 2007 launch of Leopard Server was the beginning of a new business strategy for the company. Leopard Server included a number of new features – shared calendaring with iCal Server, Apple’s wiki-based collaborative tools, and streamlined Podcast creation and hosting through Podcast Producer were some of the highlights. The biggest new feature, however, was the introduction of a simplified setup assistant and Server Preferences – a utility designed to look and feel similar to System Preferences that enabled easy management of key server features for smaller organizations with limited technical knowledge or resources.
Fast forward nearly five years to today and you can see the focus that Apple introduced in Leopard Server has become the core of Mountain Lion Server. You can also see that many features that used to be OS X Server staples are gone (or at least are being handed their hats and coats). What remains is a very inexpensive but still relatively powerful server OS with a focus on easy setup and management as well as collaboration.
While Mountain Lion Server isn’t expected to launch for a few weeks, Apple has begun priming the pump for Mac systems administrators and business customers by posting upgrade/migration details to its site along with a 25-page overview of Mountain Lion Server and its features. That overview offers some major insights into Mountain Lion Server and the future of Mac management.
One of the first things you notice looking through this guide is that the transitional state of Lion Server, which had a hodgepodge of interfaces for its core tools, is over. Apple has put the primary services squarely into the Server app that replaced Server Preferences in Lion Server.
The Server App
The Server app now contains a broader range of features as functionality from Lion Server’s advanced administration tools has been relocated into it. The full list of services includes:
- File Sharing
- Open Directory
- Profile Manager
- Software Update
- Time Machine
As in Lion Server, the Server app includes a Next Steps feature that can help guide novice users through the process of configuring core Mountain Lion Server systems like DNS and Open Directory as well as specific services like File Sharing and Profile Manager. Also as with Lion Server, Mountain Lion Server provides integration with Apple’s push notification system. That allows features like push email delivery, remote Mac or iOS device lock/wipe, calendar and contacts updates, and administrator alerts from Mountain Lion Server itself.
File sharing remains adequate for most needs. Apple continues to support all the major protocols including AFP (Mac), SMB (Windows), and NFS (Unix) as well as FTP. Apple is still pushing WebDAV as a file sharing protocol. Although WebDAV shares can be accessed from almost any platform, Apple is continuing to present it as a file sharing solution for iPad users. It would be nice to see Apple expand WebDAV access on the iPad beyond the iWork apps, but that doesn’t seem to be in the cards at this point. As a result, many organizations will probably find using other cloud platforms delivers a better iOS file sharing option – Box’s OneCloud strategy and enterprise functionality being one prime example.
Profile Manager – The Killer Feature
As we’ve noted previously, Apple made a push in Lion to create a lightweight Mac management system using the same types of configuration profiles that it uses in iOS. Lion Server introduced Profile Manager, which is an effective iOS device management solution but is limited in its Mac management capabilities.
Apple has beefed up what configuration profiles can manage in Mountain Lion. Profile Manager can now manage the majority of the Mac user experience including the following:
- Configure System Preferences
- Disable external drives
- Enforce a security level through GateKeeper
- Join a Mac to a directory system like Microsoft’s Active Directory
- Place items in the Dock
- Customize the login window
- Set the use of mobile accounts on Mac notebooks
- Configure Software Update
- Setup printers
- Configure energy saver options like scheduled shut down
- Implement other restrictions via Parental Controls.
Profile Manager offers a lot of potential. In addition to Mac management, it can also implement the iOS mobile management options found in many commercial mobile management suites. It can also setup various types of user accounts on both Macs and iOS devices including Exchange accounts as well as corporate network options like Wi-Fi and remote VPN access.
One new feature in Mountain Lion Server is a new self-service portal that allows users to enroll or subscribe to various configuration profiles without IT intervention. That makes setup of Macs and iOS devices for a company network extremely quick and simple. Users can later use the same portal to lock or wipe a Mac, iPhone, or iPad that has been lost or stolen and to manage passwords and passcodes for their devices.
While useful in larger organizations, the real power of Profile Manager is in its ease of administration and in the fact that it only costs $19.99 to install Mountain Lion Server on a Mac running Mountain Lion. That’s a lot of bang for your buck and it’s a perfect option for almost any small businesses. Profile Manager is easily the Mountain Lion Server killer feature – the rest is a nice bonus.
Apple continues to incude its wiki service, which it launched in Leopard Server. The wiki service, which can also handle user and organization blogs, has a fair amount of social and collaborative potential. While it isn’t a full featured enterprise social network product, it is quite capable of providing an easy-to-manage space for employee interaction as well as hosting company resources like corporate policies, training materials, various project documents and files, and other content. The wiki service also integrates with other collaboration tools like shared calendaring.
Also on the collaboration front, Apple continues to include a Jabber-based messaging service. Previously known as iChat Server, it’s now dubbed Messages Server and it allows users to communicate using Messages on iOS devices or Mountain Lion Macs. The service offers automatic contact population based on a user’s account, optional audio chat, online presentations, and persistent chat rooms.
NetInstall is now included in the Server app. Apple hasn’t said much about changes to NetInstall, but the company does make it clear that NetInstall will function for deploying an entire OS (known as monolithic imaging) as well as software updates and new applications. That’s something of a relief for longtime OS X Server users although other deployment options are also available from third-parties and the open source community.
Along the same vein, Mountain Lion Server includes an updated version of Software Update Service, which allows businesses to mirror Apple’s update servers. That offers all around performance benefits, reduces load on a company’s Internet connection, and let’s an administrator decide which updates Macs can see and install. With the new daily security update checks in Mountain Lion, this is definitely a key feature.
Overall, some longtime Mac IT professionals probably won’t be thrilled by the consumerization of OS X Server. However, for the market Apple is targeting – small to mid-size businesses or workgroups within a larger organization – Mountain Lion Server looks to be an excellent and inexpensive solution.