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OS X Lion Server: Making servers accessible to all


One of the amazing things about the Lion announcement a few months ago was OS X Lion Server, which Apple said would be available for $49.99. That's the lowest cost for any version of Mac OS X Server by a wide margin, and a price point that might make some people think twice about whether they'd be better served (pun intended) with the Server version of 10.7.

Starting several weeks ago, I installed Lion Server on a test Mac while researching a chapter for my upcoming Lion book. What I found was a powerful, yet extremely easy-to-use server operating system that makes a server available to anyone who wants one.

Rather than an expensive (Snow Leopard Server was $499) and distinct version of the Mac operating system, which was the traditional OS X Server approach, Lion Server is an app that is purchased and downloaded from the Mac App Store. Once installed, users are gently guided through the steps that they'll need to set up a local server. Note that if you're planning on having your server be Internet-connected (i.e., using it as a mail or web server), you will also want to have a good working knowledge of DNS and also install the free Server Admin Tools 10.7. As you can see in the image below, Lion Server does a very good job of explaining the differences in network configuration to server novices.

To say that I was impressed with the ease of use of Lion Server is an understatement. In the past, even setting up a local server for use in a workgroup could be frustrating without experienced guidance. With the help of Lion Server's "Next Steps" capability (see below) and excellent built-in documentation, I was able to configure the server, set up test users and groups, and get services set up and running easily.

The Server App (below) is somewhat like Server Admin "Lite." It's a friendly-looking app that is logically laid out and has a lot of good help available. When services are up and running, a small green dot indicates at a glance that all is well with the world. The Server App can also be used to provide administration of certain functions of a network-attached AirPort Extreme or Time Capsule.

Probably the most exciting piece of the server software wasn't when I connected a Mac to it, but when I was using iOS devices to access calendars, address books, and shared folders. Using CalDAV, CardDAV, and WebDAV for these three services made connecting my iPhone and iPad to the server a piece of cake. Any iOS app that supports WebDAV can be made to work with shared folders on the server (below), which should make businesses that are deploying iPads and iPhones very happy.

Performance of Lion Server seems improved versus 10.6, although I haven't benchmarked it. I had my test server set up on a MacBook Air, and even with numerous services enabled it never seemed to slow down the Air or tax its processor.

As in previous versions of OS X Server, Web and Wiki server are nicely paired services that can be set up almost instantaneously to create a small business intranet. The Wiki tool is easy to use from Safari, and users can even set up a personal blog in seconds (below).

The Server Admin Tools will seem very familiar to existing Mac OS X Server administrators and don't really appear to have changed all that much. For setting up more advanced network services like DHCP, DNS, NAT, Open Directory, Xgrid, or Software Update Server, you'll want to have Server Admin Tools installed (unless you feel like configuring them from the OS X command line).

Who is Apple's target market for Lion Server? Well, it will definitely continue to get the organizations that use Mac OS X Server, and I think administrators will like the fact that they can leverage their existing experience. But Lion Server also puts more small businesses and homes into the potential market for server.

The "Next Steps" function in the Server app is so good about answering questions users will have during set up that it makes it very simple to set up a local server. For those more sophisticated setups, however, you'll want to have a certified Apple professional helping you out.

Even hobbyists who are curious about Lion Server can now afford to purchase and install the app. Apple has really opened the doors of the server room to anyone who wants to join in on the fun.

Several of the images used in this article are taken from the upcoming Apress book Taking Your OS X Lion to the Max.