Despite its extremely low price of $19.99, OS X Mountain Lion Server actually has a great array of features in five key categories: User and Device Management, Personal Information Services, Network File Sharing, Web Services, and Network Services.
User and Device Management
In order to manage users on your network, OS X Server has a number of built-in tools. Of course, there is a basic user manager to manage all of the accounts. You can also place your users into groups and assign privileges based on these groups. OS X Server also includes a utility called Profile Manager that allows you to configure Macs (10.7 or later) and iOS devices (iOS 4 or later) using almost any setting built into the machine (and more). For controlling older Macs, Open Directory and Workgroup Manager are also available.
Personal Information Services
For all personal information management (PIM) and collaboration services, OS X Server offers a variety of tools. For email, Mail Server is available for use over IMAP, POP3, and SMTP, the standard email protocols. For scheduling, OS X Server offers Calendar Server which uses the CalDAV protocol. For address book management, Apple offers Contacts Server that operates over the CardDAV protocol. Unfortunately, CalDAV and CardDAV are not supported well by non-Apple platforms, but this book will discuss possible solutions in a later chapter. Finally, OS X Server offers Messages Server for instant messaging purposes. This server will easily integrate with iChat and Messages, and it uses the Jabber instant messaging standard, allowing it to work with most chat clients.
File Sharing Services
OS X Server supports most standards for sharing files between computers on your network. The shared folders on your server can be accessed through a variety of protocols: Apple Filing Protocol (AFP), primarily used on Macs, Samba (SMB), primarily used for Windows clients, and WebDAV, primarily used by iOS devices. Additionally, you can set up a file share over the File Transfer Protocol, more commonly known as FTP. Traditionally, this service would be used to manage a web site hosted on the server.
OS X Server does have a built-in Apache web server, so you can host web pages and PHP web applications (like WordPress and MediaWiki). OS X’s web server also supports Python-based web applications. However, OS X Server is strangely lacking a MySQL database which many PHP applications depend on. Don’t worry; this book will cover how to add MySQL to OS X Server in a later chapter. Perhaps more interesting is the Wiki server built into OS X Server. The wikis are a great way to share files and collaborate on documents. It also has support for mobile devices, allowing your clients to work on the Wiki and access wiki files from a variety of devices.
OS X Server also includes a number of extra services for managing a network with your Mac server. First, OS X Server includes a DHCP (Dynamic Host Configuration Protocol) server. DHCP is the system that is used to assign IP (Internet Protocol) addresses to devices on the network. DHCP is often handled by a router, but OS X Server also has the functionality if you choose to let your server handle this. A DNS (Domain Name Server) system is also included with OS X Server, and this allows you to assign server resources to a domain name (like nwalker.org) to services within your network, so your clients won’t have to refer to your server(s) as 192.168.X.X. Additionally, OS X Server includes a VPN (Virtual Private Network) service, allowing your clients to connect to your network from anywhere, as long as they have an internet connection. In other words, clients can access network services without being on the same network using a VPN.
Being a Mac server, OS X Server obviously includes some services that can only be accessed by Mac clients. The first is called NetInstall. This allows you to take an copy of an operating system (Mac OS X in this case) and install it on a machine on the network. Therefore, you can create a customized copy of OS X and quickly install it on a number of computers. The second service is Software Update Server. This service allows you to host software updates for Apple software (including operating system updates) on your server, so you can download them once for all of your clients and save bandwidth. For networks with a large number of machines, this feature can make updating software less of a hassle. The third is Time Machine Server. This feature allows you to use your server to host backups from Time Machine, Apple’s backup solution that has been included with OS X since 10.5 Leopard. The final service is called Xsan. A SAN (Storage Area Network) is an extremely fast and extremely large set of hard drives often used for video production. Xsan is Apple implementation of this. However, Xsan is typically a very specialized service that requires expensive equipment, so it is beyond the reach of this book.
For just under twenty dollars, the amount of functionality in OS X Server can see overwhelming. Fortunately, OS X Server offers a simple interface for configuring most of these services, so if you keep reading, you shouldn’t have any trouble getting off to a good start with your Mac server.