Snow Leopard Server

September 2, 2009

Well, the Internets are ablaze with people’s thoughts regarding Snow Leopard, Apple’s desktop OS. Mostly in debate regarding whether it’s worthy of being a paid upgrade. Personally, I think it will, but it’s a chicken or the egg problem at present. End users will get value when apps start taking advantage of its underlying technologies like Grand Central Dispatch, OpenCL and QuickTime X. However, developers aren’t going to make their code dependent on those technologies until Snow Leopard reaches a certain level of penetration, so it’s up to the Apple hype machine to help things hit critical mass.

That’s not what I want to talk about though. Plenty of other places discuss it at length. If you want the super-techy breakdown, Ars Technica has their typically superb article up. What I want to discuss is a version of OS X not as many people play around with, OS X Server. Snow Leopard Server, like its predecessors, contains everything the desktop version does, and also has some of its own server oriented enhancements.

Some of the biggest improvements to Snow Leopard server happen before you ever get to the first login screen. The first is pricing. Traditionally, OS X Server has come in two licensing varieties. There was 10-Client Server for $499 and Unlimited Client Server for $999, the latter of which came standard on all Xserves. The client limit always seemed kind of random and pointless to me, since unlike Windows CALs, the only thing this affected was the number of concurrent AFP connections. Not exactly a big deal, and if the particular server in question wasn’t going to be providing file sharing services, the Unlimited Client version was entirely pointless. Apple, in their usual vein of wanting to keep things simple, has changed the pricing for Snow Leopard Server to just a single Unlimited Client version. What’s more surprising is that this version comes in at the $499 price point of the previous 10 client version. This easily shaves $500 of a lot of the pitches I get to make for installing a workgroup server in situations where an Xserve would be overkill.

Another welcome install related feature is Migration Assistant. Huh? Didn’t they invent that during Panther when the G5 first came out? Yes indeed, but the feature was never present on OS X Server. The logical assumption was that servers are much more complex beasts than a desktop system, and attempting to migrate one’s entire config automatically was asking for trouble. Naturally, I was skeptical when I saw this feature in Apple’s upgrading and migration documentation. At home, I was moving up from a Dual 867mhz Mirrored Door G4 to a brand new Mac Mini. I had every reason to expect this to go to hell in a handbasket, but imagine my surprise, then joy when each and every service I had installed came up, running, and configured just as they were. Even bitchy Kerberos was humming along happily in its new home. I was practically beside myself, this is going to save me a hell of a lot of time.

Apple continues its steady march toward a full-featured competitor to Microsoft Exchange by updating iCal Server and adding the last major piece, Address Book Server. Both of them use open source WebDAV-based systems to provide, respectively, network based calendaring and contacts. These are backed up by the new Push Notification service to deliver the “push” experience many customers are familiar with when using the iPhone with MobileMe or Exchange. While it’s nice to have these services included with the system, and they are easier to configure than the previous iteration of iCal Server, they are still nascent and not well supported outside the Mac and iPhone. Presently, Kerio MailServer is still a much more mature, easy to use and fully featured groupware solution for the Mac, but I am eager to see how far Apple takes these baked in services. I have not been able to test the Mobile Access service since I don’t have the infrastructure for it. It isn’t quite what I was expecting, and is basically a specialized HTTP proxy for iCal, Address Book and Mail. I was expecting it to be a MobileMe like web interface for those services as well as shared folders (like the web version of iDisk). Unfortunately, that was wishful thinking on my part.

It’s difficult for me to directly compare speed to Leopard, as the speed boosts in my home network are most likely due to the swap out of hardware. Snow Leopard Server does seem to run smoothly in the Mini with 4GB of RAM. My typical behavior of having it running torrents while simultaneously allowing me to play back video files over AFP is noticeably less trouble than it was previously. I’ll have a better grasp of the performance differences between the two once I start upgrading Xserves and Mac Pros from one OS to the other.

That about does it for my early thoughts on Snow Leopard Server. As with the desktop OS, it’s a lot of back end speed enhancements and little tweaks that will become more important as we move forward. The new pricing is very attractive though, and I am genuinely happy to have that Migration Assistant (and that it actually works).

I hate Time Capsules

April 7, 2009

With the introduction of Mac OS X 10.5 “Leopard”, Apple released their built-in backup software Time Machine. Time Machine just runs in the background, automatically copying your precious data to another drive. A great idea, now it’s easier than ever to get people to back up. But what about laptops?

Laptops are a huge part of the computer market today, especially for Apple. The problem is that they are, by nature, mobile and not likely to be chained to a desk with an external hard drive hanging off. That means people have to remember to plug that drive into their laptop from time to time, introducing a factor of human error and forgetfulness. There must be a better way right? Isn’t there a way to make backup as wireless as the rest of the laptop? Apple thought so, and released Time Capsule, an Airport Extreme base station with a hard drive built in. Leopard detects Time Capsules on the network and backs up to them over your wireless network with the one-click ease Apple is famous for. There’s just one teensy, weensy little problem:

HFS+ sucks

For those unaware, HFS+ is the file system used by Macs. That is, the organizational system by which the computer keeps track of where and how your data is stored on the actual disk. The problem is, it dates back a long time and as needs have grown, it has started to falter. Big drives with lots of files, especially that change all the time like on Time Machine, make a wreck of HFS+’s catalog. When that catalog gets messy, the drive starts running slow, or may develop problems accessing certain data. The traditional Mac fix for this has been Alsoft’s Disk Warrior, a miracle piece of software that takes your HFS+ catalog and rebuilds a nice clean one. Note, not fixes it, makes a new one. All nice and perfectly organized. Disk Warrior is almost critical on Time Machine drives just due to the sheer number of changes as data is added hourly, and old snapshots are removed. Eventually, all Time Machine drives are likely to need this done.

The issue on Time Capsule is that there’s no way to run Disk Warrior on it. Disk Warrior needs to unmount the drive and have direct access to it. How can you do that when it’s attached over a network? Well, you can’t. Not unless you gut the Time Capsule and attach its drive right to your computer. There’s another problem too. There are actually two HFS+ filesystems you need to worry about. The first is the one on the Time Capsule’s actual drive. The second is the one within the sparse disk image that your backup data is written into. Time Capsule (as well as network Time Machine backups to OS X Server) create a virtual drive as a sparse disk image to back up to, and since this is its own virtual volume, it has its own filesystem to worry about. If either filesystem has problems, your backup fails. Disk Warrior is able to rebuild the filesystem within disk images, and should be able to do it if you mount the Time Capsule’s drive as a shared folder. However, you still can’t rebuild the filesystem on the actual physical drive in the Time Capsule.

The worst part about it is that Apple sells this thing to lay users as a completely turn key system. Set it and forget it. That’s great until HFS+ eats its own tail, then what? Then you call your local Mac IT guy (me) to try and fix the damn thing. If it’s just the sparse image, there is hope. If it’s the filesystem on the drive, probably going to have to format it. It’s really frustrating to see people getting hit like this, from the random home users that call my office to the likes of Wil Wheaton. If your Time Capsule backup has stopped, and rebooting hasn’t solved it, I almost guarantee this is the problem. If your regular, local Time Machine backup has similarly stopped, this is probably the same issue, but at least that’s fixable.

Apple. For the love of god, get us a new filesystem that can actually handle your backup scheme. I am tired of dealing with this.

Update: In addition to the incident that prompted the writing of this post, just as I finished up somebody else walked in complaining that he can’t back up to his Time Capsule. Gee, I wonder what the problem is?

Screw Apple, just use MAMP

October 9, 2008

I needed to roll a quick test webserver today. The idea was to tinker with using to host a site containing info for our clients. All I’d need was the web service, MySQL and PHP. Cool, everything’s built into OS X Server.

I spent the better part of an hour trying to get Apple’s version working. I’d used the Web service before for basic sites or for other services that depend upon it. However, I could not get into the MySQL. I enabled the service, set a password, and turned it on. Could not figure out how to log in. Apparently there used to be a GUI tool in /Applications/Server but not anymore. Tried logging in through the Terminal, but it kept telling me the login was wrong.

So, irritated, I decided to investigate MAMP. One of our clients uses it, though I couldn’t figure out why they were using MAMP on an Xserve that already has all this stuff. After today, I have a pretty good idea. Instead of messing around with Server Admin, creating sites there, trying to get into MySQL, blah blah blah… you just drag MAMP into the Applications folder and run it.

Wait… wha?

It shouldn’t be this easy, but it is. MAMP is way more Mac-like than Apple’s own setup. You just drag the MAMP folder into /Applications and run the MAMP application. It automatically starts the servers and pops open a start page in Safari. There you find preconfigured web management tools for everything, most importantly in my case MySQL. To sweeten it even more, it’s more regularly updated than Apple’s built in builds so you always have current versions of Apache, MySQL, PHP 4 and PHP 5.

After quickly making a database, I did WordPress’s “legendary 5-minute install” and away it went. You could literally get a web server running WordPress in 15 minutes with this. Yeah, you can also install the software as independent packages, but why bother when MAMP is so easy? The only downfall I can see is that it seems the MAMP app has to run to start the services. This would mean that if the server reboots, the services may not start until someone logs in and either launches MAMP or has it launch automatically on login. Going to experiment with that and see how it works, but it’s not a big deal. Who ever reboots their Mac server anyway? 😉

MacBook Air: The bane of IT

September 11, 2008

I have in my posession right now a shiny new MacBook Air. Apple’s delightful little wafer is seen below sitting atop my regular MacBook which looks positively obese by comparison:

A client has purchased 3 of these for use in a particular project. The prototypes for the project were MacBook Pros, for which I have a disk image. The plan: push the image onto the Airs so they’d be all set to go. Problem: How the hell to push an image to a MacBook Air?

The limitation we run into is that the Air is lacking many things, and only has one lonely USB port with which to make up for them. Regardless of the fact that you could use a hub to get everything you need plugged up, that leaves us at a serious lack of bandwidth into the machine. I initially tried to copy the image onto one of our utility boot drives, boot the Air from it, and restore the image to its internal drive. Unfortunately, the Air seemed none too happy about running from that drive, and less happy about trying to restore an image. It was painfully slow, and restore attempts always failed. Subsequent attempts to boot from the drive yielded kernel panics, and investigation showed the Air had somehow wrecked the file system on the utility drives. I think it’s a bus powering issue with the portable utility drive. These drives work splendidly with Firewire though. Yeah, Apple, Firewire. That thing you created that’s so great, but you seem to be allowing to languish? I’ve since cloned one onto a 3.5″ drive with its own power supply, so we’ll see if that works any better.

The second thing I thought to try was a NetInstall. We ordered ethernet adapters with the Airs, so I decided to give it a go. I converted the image into a NetInstall and set it up on my server running OS X Server 10.5.4. All looks good, but when I try to boot the Air… kernel panic. Not sure what the hell’s up with that. I thought they’d fixed that graphics driver issue in NetInstall images. It’s too late at night for me to mess with it, so to hell with it until morning.

At this point, the only thing I want to try with the Air is throwing it at the wall to see if its thin profile allows it to embed itself like a shuriken.

I was playing around with the Japanese text input on the iPhone 2.0 software. QWERTY and kana input are both good. It’s actually easier to type Japanese punctuation on the phone than it is on desktop OS X (unless you have an actual Japanese keyboard, of course). I decided to try a katakana word, and the first one that came to mind was Gundam. Notice I didn’t put in the dakuten as I typed, but ガンダム came up alongside カンタム, which would be a direct conversion of what I typed. That means Gundam is wired into the iPhone’s Japanese dictionary.

Gundam on iPhone


WordPress on the iPhone

July 23, 2008

WordPress is now available on the iPhone. Does this mean I’ll update more? Maybe. It also probably heralds a huge upswing in gross typos on WordPress.

Is Apple screwing up?

October 3, 2007

It’s been a while since I talked about anything Apple related. Recently there’s been a lot of fervor among the press and Apple’s user base regarding a few iPhone issues. I’d just like to weigh in here, since I think there’s a lot of overreaction going on.

First, there was the iPhone price cut. Yeah… this one kinda sucked. You know what though, that’s just the way the technology game is played. It may have been a little fast by Apple standards, but it wasn’t that big a deal among cell phones in general. This happens all the time. Whether it happened when it did, or in January, or whenever, the price was still going to be cut. That’s the life of an early adopter, you pay more. We all knew what we were getting into. Apple more than showed its generosity by giving that $100 credit, something it didn’t have to do and no other company would have done. Anyone still complaining, get over it. Sour grapes.

The next is ringtones. This one I will not defend. This is bullcrap. I have to buy a song for 99¢, then pay another 99¢ for the right to play part of the song I already own as a ringtone? And I can’t just drop a file onto the phone like you can do with any other phone, including the RAZR I moved out of? I think not. I already used one of the workarounds that tricks iTunes into accepting generic AAC files as rings (I figure this safer than hacking the phone itself). The problem here is whose gates do we storm with torches and pitchforks? Is this Apple’s doing, or is this something pushed on them by the record industry. My gut tells me the latter, but I’d be damn surprised if Apple wasn’t making anything off the deal too. Seriously guys, don’t tell me it’s a better deal because it’s “only” $1.98. That’s like saying I shouldn’t complain about you kicking me in the balls just because someone else would kick harder.

The last thing is the iPhone 1.1.1 update. I’m actually more annoyed about the third party apps thing than the bricking. I see where Steve is coming from when he talks about stability on a phone. Thing is, if they just had an option in iTunes that said “Enable third party app support” that warns you when you turn it on, it’s free and clear. They don’t have to support it, but why try to stop people who want to do it? I can only think it’s to prevent you from using VOIP and instant messaging to circumvent AT&T’s services.

Now, for the people with bricked iPhones, I sympathize somewhat. But you know, unlocking the phone is a bit more serious hack than the jailbreaking that allows the third party apps. There are serious modifications done to the phone’s firmware, including the baseband modem that go beyond what a simple software restore will fix. If you perform such a major hack on a device, then go ahead and install a software update without waiting to hear what the effect will be… frankly, you have nobody but yourself to blame. I would doubt Apple did this deliberately. That would be just pure bad PR, and it has been. Obviously they made some changes to how things work, probably to disallow the third party apps, and now you have an incompatibility with the hacked firmware. While it sucks they did that, it has nothing to do with intentionally bricking unlocked phones. What we have is a vocal minority loudly complaining, and frankly anyone who was capable of performing that hack should have known better than to apply a vendor software update on top of it.

iPhone Bill

August 21, 2007

There has been some hubbub on the Internet lately about the way AT&T is billing iPhone customers. People are receiving ridiculously long bills that itemize each and every time the iPhone accesses the Internet.

Well, I recently got to personally confirm this by receiving a 46 page bill of my own. While it wasn’t huge enough to come in a box as some apparently did, it’s still a pretty ridiculous thing. It literally has a line for every time the iPhone checks my email, which happens every 15 minutes. What really gets me is that none of this itemization would ever be of any use. It’s an unlimited data plan. Why the hell do I care how much transfer I’m using if it’s unlimited? I’m not an environmental nut, but this has got to be one of the most gross wastes of paper I’ve ever heard of. Come on, AT&T, let’s use our heads a little bit.

Needless to say, I’ve gone to paperless billing. Otherwise I’d personally be responsible for destroying an entire forest over the life of the iPhone.

Tales from the lab

August 15, 2007

I haven’t talked about Apple stuff for a while, but don’t worry this isn’t just another redundant regurgitation of Apple news bites. Instead, I have a couple pictures of some recent crazy repairs that have come through our office. I’ll post these every so often whenever I’ve gathered a few. These sorts of pictures are always fun and enlightening.

The first one is an iBook G4 with a really messed up screen. What was really odd about this one is that the cloudy effect you see was moving. It was almost like the iBook had a ghost trapped in it.

Also along the lines of really screwed up screens, this is a neat looking broken MacBook screen. Apparently some sort of toy was dropped on it where you see the big black splotch at the bottom. Whatever it was also left a deep gouge in the screen, which you can see as the thin white mark in the black splotch. Plaid is back in style on busted laptops.

This is the power supply from an iMac G5. That fuzzy brown crap you see collected on the side where the vent in the case is… that’s from the user’s heavy smoking habit. This was just absolutely disgusting. The whole computer was stained yellow, and the insides had this crap all over. The power supply was simply the best illustration of it. I couldn’t even stand being near the machine due to the stench. Folks, if this is what collected in the computer, imagine what’s collecting in you when you smoke.

This isn’t a repair, but I felt like pointing it out anyway. This is the first 30″ Apple Cinema Display I’ve deployed. Not only that, it’s the first one I’ve actually seen in use outside the Apple Store. Very impressive. To get an idea of the resolution, open the installer for something that uses the standard OS X Installer, and compare how much of your screen it takes up. Crazy eh?

Fun with servers

August 8, 2007

Looks like I’m going to be charged with my first solo server deployment. This is a bit terrifying given that I still don’t have any formal server training. To help figure things out, I’ve pressed my old Titanium PowerBook back into service as a temporary test server. A server as a laptop may seem odd, but the TiBook served this purpose for almost a year as my server at home. It was only recently replaced with the acquisition of a similarly speced PowerMac G4 from eBay. The server I’ll be deploying is getting Open Directory with Kerberos and single sign on, mobile home directories, AFP & SMB, Software Update Server, and should be ready for possible future VPN access. In short, the works. I need to make sure I still remember how to make it all work.

Unfortunately, I forgot a particular detail. Seems OS X Server will not configure without an active Internet connection. Problem is, if I configure the test server on my network, I’ll have conflicting DHCP servers, which equals a huge mess. I need a router to isolate the test server. I think we have an old 1-port router hanging around the office I may have to requisition.