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Goings on at the Because We Cannery

Goodbye OS X Server, Hello Ubuntu.

So a little over a year ago, we bought OS X Server software. Expecting it to be easy to use, we were pretty jazzed. For it looked like we'd be able to do a lot with it. Calendar sharing, fancy wikis, etc. We're a tiny business, we don't have IT staff, and don't have tons of time to set stuff up. Apple talked about how OS X Server was a good solution for small businesses, and we bit. After all, the other Apple stuffs we've bought we're very happy with.

Sadly, about a month ago, I finally threw in the towel on the whole thing. Uninstalled it from the MacPro we had it running on, and now I'm trying to see if I can sell the software legally.

The first thing that drove us crazy about the OS X Server software is that it only has two speeds: "Stupid" and "IT Director". Either you get huge slider buttons to turn 'on' or 'off' something (with zero other configuration options) or you switch to 'Advanced' mode. You can't switch back. Which would have been fine if either mode worked well.

With Basic mode, it appeared that you'd set something up correctly. As in, "I slid this big button on that says I want to share Calendars". Then you'd try to actually share a Calendar, and have tons of problems, and there would be zero help. You wouldn't even have a heads-up as to what was happening or why, just that big button you could turn on or off. Turns out that sharing Calendars on OS X is somewhat iffy, works best if you also setup OS X to be the DNS server (or have a proper DNS server already running), and would still have problems when it came to, say, showing that Group Calendar on the Group's Wiki. Which was an advertised feature!

So then we figure, hey, we're pretty computer savvy, let's switch to Advanced Mode and have all the options. Maybe we can make this work like it's supposed to. But then Advanced mode requred extensive setup to do anything at all. For example, to just share calendars, you'd have to not only have a full DNS server properly running, you'd also have to have a proper Authentication scheme, and the default was Kerberos. Which is named after a multi-headed devil dog, which is a pretty apt description of our experience with trying to set this up.

Either way, things would just randomly fail. The DNS server would just stop working. Permissions problems with file shares would crop up.

Finally, every single time Apple sent out an update to, say, iTunes, the server would want to download that and update itself. Which would usually also want to update Quicktime, which would then want to reboot the whole machine. This happened monthly it seemed. Most of the time the updates broke something. Why iTunes was on the server, I'm not certain. I guess so I can be cool and groove out while I struggle with a server that doesn't work, so that I don't loose my cool, take the server down to cupertino and throw it through a window in frustration.

After multiple re-installations, many hours reading the support forums, even hiring a consultant guy to come in and see why the VPN wasn't working... Oh man. The VPN. It worked ONCE. ONCE I connected remotely. It never worked again after that. Even after several re-installs, from a completely clean formatted disk.

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Anyways, so, like I said last month we got a new (to us) server. It cost $150. It's a used Dual Opteron with a SATA Raid from weirdstuff.com, the computer junkyard of Silicon Valley. I put Ubuntu on there, pulled the big hard drives from the old MacPro server, and spent an afternoon setting it up. Sure, it's a little harder because I have to edit text files. But hey, once it's setup it stays that way. It doesn't break randomly. It even lets me do updates without problems. Imagine that.

With Netatalk, it even acts like an Xserve, it even lets us use it as a Time Machine backup drive. Crazy, huh?

Oh, and for Calendars, we instead bought BusySync. Which is awesome. Peer-to-peer iCal (and Google Cal) synching, effortless, always works.

So for $150 bucks, plus the $40 per copy of BusySync, we've got a much better experience than the $1000 OS X server software could give us. Sad!

If you're thinking of buying the OS X Server software, I'd wait until the Snow Leopard version comes out, and then I'd wait longer to see if it lives up to it's hype. I know we'll never buy it.

Now, of course, this could just be because I'm stupid, and couldn't setup OS X Server properly. I am not an IT professional, and all this is just my opinion and personal experience here. But if it is that I'm too stupid to setup OS X Server, then how was I able to setup Ubuntu to do the same job in less time, and have it work flawlessly?

Jeffrey McGrew