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OS X Lion Server

OS X Server has long been a low-cost, straightforward option for small businesses, and this update adds support for iPads and iPhones. Other components have also benefitted from new features and facelifts.
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By Roger Howorth on
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1 of 2 Roger Howorth/ZDNET

OS X Lion Server

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2 of 2 Roger Howorth/ZDNET

Launched in July, Lion is the latest version of Apple's OS X Server software. Designed to meet all the server requirements of small and medium-sized businesses, Lion Server includes significant updates to better support users of mobile devices. Server admin tools have also been improved to make it even simpler to setup and configure services.

Unfortunately, the list of mobile devices directly supported by Lion Server is limited to those running iOS 4, such as iPhone and iPad.

The new Server app replaces Server Admin, Workgroup Manager and Server Monitor in Snow Leopard Server

Highlights in the new suite include a new Server app, which replaces Server Admin, Workgroup Manager and Server Monitor in the previous version of OS X Server, called Snow Leopard. Also new is a file-sharing capability for iPads, which is based on Webdav and works with Keynote, Numbers and Pages.

Perhaps the biggest change is the new Profile Manager, which allows IT managers to configure and provision OS X Lion and iOS devices remotely. Using Profile Manager, administrators can configure user settings for things like email, calendars and iChat, and push those settings out to the devices. Profile Manager can also remotely wipe devices if they are lost or stolen.

In our tests we enabled Profile Manager using a simple slide switch in the new Server app, and then configured it in about a minute by pressing the Settings button to sort out a few simple parameters such as a password for the new directory account, selecting a suitable SSL certificate, and acquiring a Push Notification certificate from Apple so that Profile Manager could push notifications to client devices.

Profile Manager allows IT managers to configure and provision OS X Lion and iOS devices remotely

Once up and running, IT managers access Profile Manager via a web-based admin console. In our tests we added email settings to the profile of our test user. To push them to the user's iPhone, we first needed to enroll the iPhone into the system by logging into the Profile Manager web page from the iPhone, and then pressing a button to complete the process.

Of course, Profile Manager wouldn't be very useful without a way to automatically distribute updates to client devices, and Lion includes an updated version of Apple's Push Notification Server. Compared to the Snow Leopard version, which only supported Mac desktops, the new notification server also supports iOS 4 devices, so people using Apple mobile devices will find their Mail, Calendar and Address book data is always up to date as long as they have a data connection.

Another nice touch is the new webmail system. From a user's perspective, one of the most obvious shortcomings of Snow Leopard Server was the old-fashioned webmail user interface. It was very much a text-based system with limited functionality. Given the slick look of other OS X web apps, such as the web version of the iCal calendaring system and the Wiki, someone using the old webmail system could be forgiven for thinking they were connected to the wrong server.

We're pleased to report that Lion has finally done away with the old SquirrelMail system and replaced it with a modern and fully functional alternative. Based on the popular Roundcube open-source webmail project, it's one of the best-looking open-source webmail offerings we've seen.

Many other functions in Lion Server have been updated since the previous release. For example, the Wiki server has been updated with mail notifications to tell people when pages are added or updated. Similarly, iChat Server now provides shared persistent chat rooms and secure file transfers.

Comparing Lion Server to alternative server products such as Windows Small Business Server, Lion is much cheaper to buy and cheaper to run because it doesn't require any client access licenses. Compared to Linux, Lion's price tag is clearly more expensive than a free download, for example, of Ubuntu Server. But OS X comes with many pieces of server software preinstalled, and many can be managed via a single graphical utility. With OS X, activating services such as email or calendaring is as easy as clicking a mouse on a slider.

Lion also deserves praise for preconfiguring these pieces of software with sensible under-the-hood settings. For example, the Apache web server's ServerLimit and MaxClients parameters are configured with values that are related to the amount of resources available in your server. In contrast, many Linux distributions of Apache simply make a setting and presume it will be OK, which won't necessarily be the case for small servers handling lots of web traffic. Also, Lion's settings allow Apache performance to scale up properly if RAM is added to the system.

Lion Server can also reduce storage costs for customers running Xsan systems, because Lion includes licences for Xsan client and Xsan Admin tools. Prior to Lion, customers needed to buy boxed copies of the Xsan software for the various workstations and servers on their network.

Combined with the Thunderbolt-based Promise SanLink Fibre Channel-to-Thunderbolt interface, SAN storage options for Apple systems are becoming more interesting than ever.

On the downside, the Server app doesn't handle every piece of server software that you might want to run on your system. In our case, we wanted a DNS server and a firewall, and we needed to download and install Apple's free Server Admin tool to configure these services via a graphical tool. It seems a pity the new Server app can't handle all the server software that Apple supports with its other tools.

It also seems odd that Apple does not allow Lion Server to run on non-Mac hardware. This prevents it being used in many virtual server environments — and perhaps worse, prevents many cloud server providers from offering it as an option alongside Linux and Windows servers. It's hard to imagine this situation will go on forever, and we look forward to the day that Apple offers a price option that allows Lion Server to run in these environments. As things stand, Lion customers must be willing to host their server in their own premises or rent space in a traditional hosting provider, neither of which seem appropriate for all of Lion's target market.

In terms of hardware, Lion requires an Intel-based Mac with a Core 2 Duo, i3, i5, i7 or Xeon processor and 2GB of RAM. So it will run happily on a modern Mac Mini. If you're upgrading from a desktop version of OS X, Lion Server requires Lion desktop. Lion Server is available from Apple's App Store for £34.99 (inc. VAT; £29.16 ex. VAT). It's also available on a USB memory stick for £55 (inc. VAT; £45.83 ex. VAT).

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