AquaConnect helps Macs, others share desktop apps

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Although this dialog is reminiscent of Mac OS X's Fast User Switching, AquaConnect notes that Fast User Switching is not the basis for this AquaConnect functionality. In fact, Fast User Switching is not even supported with AquaConnect. The AquaConnect dialog merely indicates that the server is aware of and alerting users to the fact that other users are connected.

These issues should be addressed in the forthcoming release of the software but for now are considerations that administrators should take into account when working with the product. Using file and folder permissions is one solution, as is the use of options such as managed preferences or parental controls for configuring the Mac OS X user environment.

Performance and end-user experience

Performance for AquaConnect is pretty impressive, even on the most modest of hardware. Testing it on hardware even as basic as a PowerPC G4 Mac Mini yielded a system that could support a handful of users with no major performance issues when connected via 802.11g wireless or 100Mbit/sec. Ethernet. Applications ranged from Web tools like Apple's Safari Web browser through Microsoft Office for Mac and Apple's iWork, all the way up to Photoshop. They all had passable performance even on this very limited hardware.

Obviously, the more bandwidth that's available, the better the performance of any terminal server. In relatively small environments with a limited amount of network traffic, 802.11g and 100Mbit/sec. Ethernet appear adequate. In fact, in environments like a small office or a classroom with fewer than 10 connected workstations, performance is actually better than one might expect with live screen updates of text and graphics. This is true even when working with moderate-size Photoshop documents with multiple layers and filters.

That said, most environments — particularly those with more than a handful of computers or devices — will probably require Gigabit Ethernet to ensure reasonable performance.

Obviously, enterprise deployments will opt for much more powerful hardware, and Apple's Xserve provides an excellent platform for AquaConnect. Although using Office — for example, on a low-end Power PC Mac Mini running AquaConnect — led to fair performance, CPU usage for simple Word tasks being run through a single AquaConnect session resulted in about 35% CPU usage. Running on an Intel Xserve, CPU usage for most Intel-native applications with a single user was well below 10%.

Scaling usage patterns for AquaConnect in an enterprise environment is likely to require a fair amount of testing to determine the exact number of user sessions each server can realistically accommodate, depending on the precise mix of applications involved. The suggested RAM allotments per user session, which appear to be extremely realistic for most environments, are probably the best guide.

One thing worth noting with regard to performance and memory requirements is that AquaConnect has made strides in enabling the reuse of code and resources being accessed by multiple users. This means that if two users have open sessions and are running a similar set of applications, the actual system resources required by the server are not going to be doubled. This is an excellent feature, though again, it can make finding the precise mix of applications and number of realistically supportable users a little challenging without a fair amount of testing.

Overall impressions

Overall, I have to admit that I am rather impressed with AquaConnect. It provides a stable and well-performing solution for providing terminal services from Mac OS X Server. It offers a surprising level of simplicity of setup and ease of use and manages to support a very broad base of clients. For an initial release of such a broad product, AquaConnect's engineers deserve a pat on the back.

This combination of attributes will make AquaConnect attractive to a number of organizations. It will be useful to those who are looking at options for cost-cutting or maintaining an existing Mac or dual-platform environment. It will be equally helpful to those who are just beginning to consider an investment in Mac OS X. In fact, Mac administrators considering AquaConnect will find themselves with many of the same opportunities and decisions that administrators considering Windows Terminal Services and Citrix have had for years.

On the other hand, it does show that AquaConnect is a relatively new product. From the lack of Leopard support, to the reliance on VNC, to the occasional interface elements where I've found myself saying something like "This isn't particularly intuitive, but...," it's clear that AquaConnect is still finding its footing in several respects. Probably the single biggest drawback to the product is potential access by non-admin users to features that one would prefer non-admin users not even see, including items like sleep, shut down and restart, even if a third-party product can be used to mitigate the issue.

To me, this doesn't readily rule the product out as a solution, but it does mean that implementing it should involve a good deal of planning and testing before use in a production environment. Many administrators, however, while impressed with AquaConnect as a whole, will probably find the best option to be to wait and see what the company does next rather to invest that effort at this time. If AquaConnect's forthcoming release demonstrates the same ingenuity of its initial offering, it will emerge as a serious option for most of those administrators.

Additional information on AquaConnect and registration for a free trial is available from the company's Web site. Slides from a MacEnterprise.org webcast, with additional technical details, are also available.

Ryan Faas is a freelance writer and technology consultant specializing in Mac and multiplatform network issues. In addition to writing for Computerworld, he is a frequent contributor to InformIT.com. Ryan was also the co-author of O'Reilly's Essential Mac OS X Panther Server Administration. You can find more information about Ryan, his consulting services and his recently published work at www.ryanfaas.com and can e-mail him at ryan@ryanfaas.com.

Copyright © 2008 IDG Communications, Inc.

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