Apple's Leopard is spotty

Leopard boosts workgroup apps, but is buggy, lacks flexibility, and yields no performance gains

Apple OS X Leopard Server offers minor platform improvements while sporting some new collaboration applications.

Apple’s newest server operating system release is likeable, but it’s not all that interesting.

Mac OS X Leopard Server 10.5 (we tested both 10.5 and 10.5.1) has a lot of the new and interesting eye candy Apple has become known for, but it is more about supporting incremental user productivity software advances than it is about large scale platform or functional advances.

Slideshow: Top 10 things we love and hate about Leopard Server

Newly added to this version are phased, wizard-like installation scripts that are designed to appeal to a less technical audience than say, one that typically installs a Linux back-end or Microsoft’s Small Business Server system. Leopard now points Mac OS X specifically towards smaller organizations and workgroups rather than the more open-ended prior releases.

How we tested Apple's Leopard server

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Apple has paid attention to hardware performance improvements. Leopard supports 64-bit server platforms in identical fashion with the G4-based and Intel-based platforms.

And Apple has announced that it won’t mind if you virtualize Leopard (although there were no production virtualization schemes currently available for Leopard Server at the time of testing) as long as the virtual machine is also running on an Apple hardware platform. This tie-in between hardware and operating system reminds us of computing relationships of the 1980s, where operating systems were tied to hardware platforms in a very strict way. Apple’s competitors have all evolved away from these types of direct hardware/software binding ties. Some argue these ties make Apple’s platforms more stable. That’s laudable, but you pay for it in terms of device, communications and storage flexibility.

Our initial testing of Leopard’s Apple 10.5 turned up a long list of bugs ranging from authentication difficulties to searching issues to Windows networks linking problems, but there is no sense in going too deeply into those because most if not all are cured with the recommended (free) update, which was rolled out mid-November.

We tested Leopard Server in a network with numerous Mac clients that ran Leopard and older Mac OS editions, as well as Windows 2003 Server, CentOS/Linux, Red Hat Linux, SUSE Linux, Windows XP and Vista clients (any of which might be in virtual machines) for connectivity issues. Leopard Server was installed on a dual G4 Xserve (also connected to an Xserve 2TB storage-area network), as well as a CoreDuo Xserve.

Net results and scorecard

Leopard server edition has a few basic platform changes from previous editions of OS 10.X server. Inside the box is the continuing legacy of Open Directory (based on LDAP), Mailstet, Apache Web services, MySQL, and Workgroup Manager — more or less the same as before.

Applications are this cat’s meow

Of the few new additions to Leopard, collaborative applications reign strongly. The built-in Podcast Producer lets users rapidly package multimedia content using audio, video and/or docs in-easy-to-understand configurations. We found it stunningly simple to use.

See a slideshows on what your should love and hate about the Leopard server.

So also is a new standards-based calendaring system (iCal, a competitor to Exchange/Outlook group APIs). Entourage, Microsoft’s ‘Outlook-alike’ in its Mac Office Suite, initially couldn’t connect to this new iCal API set, but we then found both Apple-released and freeware connectors for Entourage to the iCal APIs.

Like Microsoft’s Office group calendaring and time-management functions, the CalDAV standard that Apple bases the iCal application has rich resources in terms of moving and sharing calendars, appointment timing, resources (think conference room reservations) and other elements that have long been a ‘free’ and handy feature of Microsoft’s Outlook and Exchange Server e-mail system combination.

Apple also includes a new Wiki maker/server designed for collaborative information sharing. The wiki requires that Web services are running and users access the wiki on a browser page that also can branch to blogs, group calendars and e-mail. We attached and embedded PDF files, document files in several formats, as well as pictures and videos without much issue.

Time Machine, Apple’s backup/archiving management application that is arguably four years late to the game, is disabled on Apple clients unless Leopard Server is present — permitting only local storage devices. Apple confines the storage volumes where Time Machine client data can be stored to only HFS+ volumes, restricting internal or external drives based on other formats. When and only when Leopard Server is present and correctly configured (we found it takes little configuration), Apple clients can then use dedicated Time Machine storage volumes to make initial, then subsequent iterative backups to a network resource — but only to Leopard-based storage areas.

This scheme is better than almost none at all, which is the storage method previously used by Apple (unless a client user subscribed and backed up to Apple’s .Mac service, or used another commercial backup package). Savvy Leopard users can continue to use several freeware, shareware and commercial applications as alternatives to Time Machine if desired.

Our experience with Time Machine showed that only a small amount of initial network bandwidth is used as an initial ‘Time Machine’ backup of a client is made. It takes an hour to store 35GB per client machine.

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