Apple OS X Lion Server...The best server that doesn't work

OS X Lion Server is brilliant in concept and seems to work like a champ when it comes pre-installed on a Mac Mini. Unfortunately, the same can't always be said when it's installed on a Mac from the App Store. Bummer.

When Apple axed its XServe series of dedicated servers, I was none too happy that a highly usable, school-friendly server was probably going by the wayside. I should have known that Apple would come up with a cooler way to do servers, though. OS X Lion Server is simply an add-on for any Mac running Lion. Great idea -- I love the idea that any Mac running the latest version of OS X can be turned into a full-fledged server with everything from a wiki to network backup to iOS profile management. It helps me justify the price I pay for Mac hardware and makes what should be an incredibly user-friendly server available to schools at a rock bottom price. The problem is that, for me at least (and many other users), it simply doesn't work.

This isn't to say that I can't get it to work. I probably could with enough Googling, tinkering, playing, and, most importantly, time. But the whole idea, whether as a home user, a small business user, or school IT staff, is that I buy Lion Server from the Mac App Store, it installs itself, and then it runs. That's what Macs do. Apple tells us this all the time: "They just work." 99.9% of the time, that's completely true.

In this case, though, it just isn't happening. The server software (actually just a collection of apps now, bundled together for about $50 in the App Store) installed without a hitch, setup is wizard-driven and very simple for anyone with even a very modest background in networking, and the console is dead simple.

Pretty slick, right? Setting up sites, directory services, and just about everything else for which schools use on-premise servers is all contained in one simple console.

Installation and setup, though, were the last things that I found simple about OS X Server. First, certificate errors prevented me from accessing profile management tools from my iPad. Being able to manage my iPad (or hundreds of iPads) should have been as easy as logging into the server from Safari on the tablet and accepting a few conditions. I couldn't get to the web-based iOS profile administration console either, even from the server itself, because of the certificate problems.

A change to the secure certificate settings not only didn't solve the problems, but managed to ensure that, for some reason, all web-based services handled by Lion Server were completely inaccessible. This thread on Apple's discussion forums shows that 1) I'm not the only one with this problem and 2) the problem remains unresolved.

"So," I say to myself, "Self, let's just do what we'd do in Windows: Reinstall the software!" Except you can't. You can disable OS X Lion Server, but it can't be simply reinstalled. For some reason, the App Store knows that I'm running Lion Server, but it claims it wasn't purchased from the App Store (my bank account says otherwise) and can't be managed there.

It's too bad. A server like this has incredible potential in schools, especially as computers get repurposed and reused. I expect that these problems will be resolved in time, but for now, if you must have OS X Server in your school (or office, or living room), make sure it's preinstalled on a new Mac. It's not, I'm afraid, quite ready for prime time at the App Store.