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Why IT won't like Mac OS X Lion Server

John Rizzo (InfoWorld) | July 25, 2011
The new Profile Manager is a nice addition, but in almost every other respect, Lion Server is a downgrade.

Mac OS X 10.7 Lion Server adds innovative features and a new low price tag, but cuts in services and the elimination of advanced GUI administration tools may force some enterprise departments to think twice about the role of Mac servers on their networks.

Some of the new features will please managers in business and education: The Profile Manager, a slick new Web-front-end tool for providing automatic push configuration and group policy management for Mac Lion and iOS clients, is miles ahead of Mac OS X Snow Leopard Server's old Managed Preferences features. Then there's built-in support for Microsoft's distributed file system (DFS) and Apple's Xsan file system, the latter for accessing storage-attached networking (SAN) over Fibre Channel.

But once the initial excitement subsides and you start looking more deeply inside Lion Server, it's impossible to avoid the conclusion that Lion Server is not built for those of us in IT.

The US$50 price tag -- down from US$500 -- is the first clue that Lion Server trying to be a server for the consumer. Apple's slogan is "servers made easy." To that end, a new administration tool, called Server, is more logical and easier to use than the old Server Preferences that it replaced. And Server can do more than Server Preferences could.

But the ironic part for IT administrators is that Lion Server actually requires a greater degree of technical knowledge than its predecessors. Many routine tasks that were formerly a mouse click away now can be accomplished only via the Unix shell command line. Worse yet, some routine tasks are no long possible at all.

Lion Server: A great big app that's tricky to install
For the enterprise, the first clue that something is amiss in Lion Server comes right at installation. Lion Server installs like a great big iPhone app. It's available only as a download from the Mac App Store and self-installs as soon as it's downloaded; all you can configure is the admin email address. Finally, it deletes the installer, though you can stop the install to make a copy before it's deleted. This app philosophy filters down through the software as well.

But Lion Server isn't Angry Birds. The installation process includes downloading the 4GB Lion OS client installer, plus hundreds of megabytes more of server components. Depending on the type of installation (such as upgrade or new), you may have to make a second trip to the App Store to get the server components. A problem for administrators is that there is no supported way to make your own bootable installation DVD. There is an unsupported hack to create one, but it can bring up other complications.

Worse, there's no clean install option from within the installer itself. To do any install, you need to boot the Mac with Mac OS X 10.6.8 Snow Leopard or Mac OS X 10.7 Lion from a volume (hard disk, partition, or USB flash drive) and run the installer from that boot drive. To do a clean install, you need two volumes: one to boot from, one to install onto.

Apple has streamlined the server configuration process from previous versions, with fewer screens asking questions and more done automatically. The installer is smarter as well. If you tell the setup assistant to create an Open Directory master, it will do that as well and DNS for the server's IP address if it doesn't find it on the network or the Internet.

That's pretty nice, particularly if you don't know what DNS is. Unfortunately, if you do know what DNS is, the Server application -- now the only management tool installed with Lion Server -- won't show you the DNS configuration is. It provides no way to edit settings for DNS, DHCP, Open Directory, and other network services.

The old administration tools that can access to these services -- Server Admin and Workgroup Manager -- are no longer part of Lion Server. Instead, they are available are a separate download -- but not from the Mac App Store, where you get Lion Server app. You have to go to Apple's support site. Nothing I could find in the installation screens, the help files, or Apple's main Server website even mentions them. To quote Douglas Adams, the tools were "on display in the bottom of a locked filing cabinet stuck in a disused lavatory with a sign on the door saying 'Beware of the leopard.'"


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