I read fellow ZDNet blogger David Morgenstern's article. "Apple’s new frontier: servers for the rest of us?" with interest tonight. I had a meeting yesterday with one of our elementary school principals, whose technical support staff consists of a few teachers with a clue and me when I can get away from my own school for a few minutes. It's a small school with less than 200 students, a computer lab, and a computer or two in each classroom. The introduction of some new software has necessitated a file server and drastic infrastructure improvements (the 10BaseT hubs just aren't cutting it anymore).
The school is also largely Mac-based, which leads me back to Leopard Server. David's article quotes an Apple senior product line manager:
“The primary goal of Leopard server to radically change users’ perception of servers. We will make them very easy to set up, very easy to manage and very easy to monitor,” he said. [Leopard ] has changed the complete out-of-the-box setup experience to make it easy to set up on the network, whether it’s a stand-alone server, or a server that needs to integrate with the company’s network, or even if you’re an IT administrator. We’ve simplified that process.
My blog posts have generally been about as friendly to Apple in educational markets as they are to OLPC (read: not very). This is largely based on Apple's lack of low-end models; such models available at very low cost from most PC makers provide the needed functionality for most educational settings at very competitive prices. That bias relates to client machines, though, which can increasingly afford to be cheap, given the trend towards web-centric computing. Servers are going to be expensive, on the other hand, and the starting pricepoint of an Xserve is more in line with what one might expect to pay for a moderately powerful Wintel box.
With the advent of Leopard, is it possible that Xserve (and earlier Mac server models) could become a platform of choice for many educational markets? So many schools are in positions like the elementary I visited yesterday: minimal technical expertise, limited resources, etc. While a Linux server could be built for very reasonable costs, Leopard server just might bring such extraordinary ease of use to such functions as web serving, printing, file serving, and user managment/authentication, that the cost differential is easily justified. If the average computer-savvy teacher (the kind of person who usually gets drafted to handle computing in a school like this) can sit down to a typically Mac interface and begin administering the functions noted above without significant training and with very little time, then this is one setting when I'd have trouble advocating for the Linux solution.
According to David's post, Leopard Server will actually include 3 different interfaces, ranging from the most basic (which automates many functions and/or encapsulates them in wizards) to advanced for IT administrators. My arguments against Macs have almost always related to cost, not the OS X interface, with which very few people can find serious fault: cheap PCs work just fine for most educators, even if a more expensive Mac is [fill in typical Mac ease of use propaganda here]. However, as schools find themselves needing server hardware and applications, Macs start looking much more attractive. I don't think I'll be switching anytime soon; my current infrastructure satisfies my needs quite well. However, I can think of several schools that would really benefit from an easy to use, easy to set up file/print/web/authentication server. How about you?