Mac OS X Server costs 5% of what it cost just three years ago. Whatever your needs and whatever the software’s shortcomings, this is hard to ignore. Leopard Server cost $999 for an unlimited-client license, Snow Leopard Server cost $499, and Lion Server costs $50.

For this reason alone, Lion Server will (and should) attract the attention of people who have never been in the market for server software before - home users, in particular - but it has to do so without alienating the business and education customers who currently rely on the software. These are Lion Server’s challenges: is there a real point in having it at home? And as a comparatively-dirt-cheap App Store download, is it lacking in features and power compared to previous versions?


I want to clarify a couple of things before I dive into the review proper: First, just like previous versions, Lion Server is very much just OS X with server functionality laid over top of it. In appearance, performance, system requirements, and operation, it is mostly identical to OS X client. I’ll point you to our massive review of Lion if you need to know more about any of that.

Second, know that I’m approaching this review from a different angle than the Lion client review - while most people interested in an OS X review have at least a passing familiarity with the software, this review will be the first exposure to OS X Server for many of you. For that reason, among the descriptions of Lion Server’s features and comparisons with past versions of the software, I’m going to be going a little more in-depth about how to actually configure the services. Hopefully the newbies among you can use these instructions as jumping-off points as you explore the software on your own.

Last, OS X Server can do a lot of things - some (like mail and DHCP) can be handled by many different products, but others (like Open Directory, NetBoot, or the OS X and iOS management features) are pretty unique to OS X Server. I’m going to try to at least touch upon every single service and tool in OS X Server, but I’ll generally focus more on the unique stuff for the purposes of this review.

Got all that? Good! Let’s jump in.

Installation
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  • ltcommanderdata - Tuesday, August 02, 2011 - link

    Given the shift in corporate policy from being Blackberry focused to adopting other smartphone platforms including iOS, I think most CTOs would take a look at OS X Server if only for the easier iOS device management features. I don't really see it replacing existing Windows servers though, particularly since Apple doesn't sell dedicated server class hardware anymore. Reply
  • quakerotis - Tuesday, August 02, 2011 - link

    This is simply not true. OS X Server has been for us a very good performer, both in stability and ease of use. B3an, you must be speaking anecdotally because I am not a fanboy. There are many server technologies to choose from. this is one of the better ones. Reply
  • diskrete - Tuesday, August 02, 2011 - link

    As an IT manager for a small company, I would definitely use Lion Server to manage Macs and iPhones.

    It in no way replaces existing Windows/Linux infrastructure. But recycling a Mac mini to use for managing Apple devices? Absolutely. It’s worth it just for the ability to create machine-based 802.1X profiles.

    IT today is not about standardizing on one platform, it’s about using the right tool for the job.
    Reply
  • sligett - Thursday, August 04, 2011 - link

    Unix isn't a server platform anyone in their right mind would use?

    There are thousands upon thousands of small and medium businesses as well as schools that are hostage to expensive windows "experts" that have put a Windows server in their business. The client can't do a thing with the server without the expensive help of the expert. You don't see that as a viable market?

    So many people speak out on the Internet as though "I can't use this" is equivalent to "no one can use this".
    Reply
  • erple2 - Thursday, August 04, 2011 - link

    To be fair, any infrastructure that's put in place by an "expert" tends to continue to have to be maintained by another expensive expert. Non-techies have problems with Macs just as much as non-techies have problems with Linux, or Windows machines.

    BTW, I've found that the mac "experts" that have put a mac server in their business are also very expensive to hire back for help.

    There are some very very nice manageability features that OSX Server buys you that aren't all that simple to implement by relative novices in other environments...
    Reply
  • cwatt - Monday, September 26, 2011 - link

    Ha ha, you are really ignorant! I am currently rolling this out to a big organization and this article is a really big help.. BTW ... those inferior products are actually extremely good quality and very easily managed and a lot more secure than other platforms... You should not let your opinion get in the way of your judgment, you should make the best decision based on the environment not because you are a fanboy or you randomly hate really good products! Reply
  • blueeyesm - Tuesday, August 02, 2011 - link

    I have to agree that managing iOS devices using OS X Server is probably their only ace in the hole. The rest of what this offering serves can be replicated/managed better under Linux. That being said, if Apple wanted to be really smart, they'd help their community devise methods in which to enhance a shopping experience, or other interacive experiences with an iOS or tablet device.

    That is, until cloud computing becomes the de facto standard and Apple ceases to offer a server or client to download, you just are expected to do everything via iTunes/iLife Cloud edition.
    Reply
  • badjohny - Tuesday, August 02, 2011 - link

    With its drop in price, and ability to install on any mac, I would love to see apple take OSX server and shape it into a WHS for mac. It looks like all or many of those things are available in OSX server, but the ease and convenience of using a WHS is unreal. Push the Home server aspect of OSX server and really make a use for it in a standard home. itunes server edition, Apple TV media server, IOS update manager, Shared home calendars, email, and family based websites come to mind. These are all things that It can currently do, but they all need some "apple magic" to make them very powerful and at the same time very easy for anyone to setup. Apple could easy include a option in the setup of a mac to have it search your network for a server. If it finds one have it ask if you want to enable the features. They could even leverage the icloud system and have it linked by your itunes account. They all the data could sync through the icloud service. enter your apple ID and your client is setup to use your server instantly.

    They could even make a personal iCloud options. Every picture/video you take have it saved over to the server also.

    I understand that OSX server is a niche item in big business. Apple should admit defeat in enterprise setups and push server to a more person level. Have it compete with windows SBS and WHS but make it have the apple easy of use. They have a real product here, but like most home server options it seems to be more of a niche item.
    Reply
  • Ratman6161 - Tuesday, August 02, 2011 - link

    Basically Apple does not make or sell server grade hardware. Sure, if you look on their online store you will find a version of the Mac Pro that calls itself a server and comes with OSX Server installed. But there are a variety of things about it that make it not enterprise ready and more suited to small business or home servers. If Apple really wanted to be in the enterprise market then what they would absolutely have to do is to allow it to run as a virtual machine on all the major virtualization platforms. For example where I work we are a VMWare shop and no server software is coming in our door that will not run on VMWare Esx server.

    Its my theory thought hat they have no intention or desire to compete in the enterprise server market. If they did, there would be no reason for a price drop as most businesses in that market place would not have blinked at the $499 price or even the $999 price - both are a drop in the bucket compared to all the other costs associated with a data center. No, the price drop to me definitely signals that its their intent to be in the small business and home server market.
    Reply
  • HMTK - Wednesday, August 03, 2011 - link

    You're right, Apple does not have anything that could even remotely be called server hardware.

    There have been rumors that Mac OS can run as a vm on vSphere 5 (if you're ok with the licensing). If true you could run it on real servers and real SANs and use nice features like high availability. The only show stopper is probably licensing but I would think that is VMware were taking the trouble of making OS X run on their hypervisor they would have a deal with Apple.

    AFAIC Max OS X Server would be interesting only for managing iOS devices.
    Reply

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