A look at the upcoming Panther Server OS

In the past few weeks, Apple Computer Inc. has made news with the announcement of several products, chief among them the Power Mac G5 and Panther (Mac OS X Version 10.3). What has not been so widely discussed is a preview of the next version of Mac OS X Server (also referred to as Panther Server). Here's a quick snapshot of some of the changes in the works from the current OS X Server release, based on information from Apple's Web site.

Open Directory and authentication

Open Directory as a whole is being given a series of major improvements, leading Apple to describe the update as Open Directory 2. One of the biggest changes coming to Open Directory is scalability. Mac OS X Server will now be able to replicate across multiple servers, enabling upward of 100,000 users to be listed in a single Open Directory database. In addition, a new administration tool will be added to Server Admin that will enable greater configuration and control of Open Directory (addressing something that has been one of my bigger complaints about OS X Server). Also included will be a Directory Inspector tool in the Workgroup Manager, which will allow an administrator to edit the directory data directly.

Beyond scalability and control, Apple will be improving Samba support. The improvements will allow OS X Server to participate in a Windows domain as well as support authentication across both platforms without the need for changes to the schema of either Open Directory or Active Directory. The next version of Mac OS X Server will also offer support for roaming profiles and user preferences, although it isn't clear how reliable they will be in Open Directory 2.

Ryan Faas

As much as I'd like to believe this support will easily extend beyond simple user authentication without schema changes, I'm skeptical this will be as easily configured as Apple is currently describing in the majority of installations.

Virtual private network (VPN) services will be making a solid showing for the first time in Panther Server, too. Both Point-to-Point Tunneling Protocol and Layer 2 Tunneling Protocol will be available, as will IPSec. This marks the first time Apple is stepping up to provide easily accessed and configured VPN capabilities. VPN services should function for both Mac and Windows clients without significant problems.

Admin tools

The admin tools in Panther Server will get something of a facelift (a trend that has continued with each OS X Server release). Server settings and server status will be rolled into a single Server Admin application that includes a much improved interface (more resembling the one-window, server-list view of server status). The new interface appears to be a large improvement over the server settings utility that is itself a throwback to earlier OS X Server administration tools.

Workgroup Manager will keep its current interface as a separate application, and Apple boasts of coming improvements to several of the client management functions -- in particular the managed preferences dealing with power management. Also included will be the ability to manage PowerBooks and iBooks that are regularly disconnected. This extends to support for creating a ghost copy of a user's home directory on the hard drive of the portable, which will be synched when the computer is reconnected to the network.

Improved deployment options

Apple is making improvements to NetBoot and NetInstall. The NetInstall changes describe improved support for customized installations, although just how advanced these improvements will be remains unclear. I still have doubts that NetInstall will ever replace disk image-based deployment options (see story). NetBoot will also get some general improvements, including the ability to boot Macs over HTTP.

More interesting are the remote configuration options for OS X Server. With the new automatic setup feature, administrators will be able to create server setup configuration files that can be stored on local, removable or network drives. These configuration files will be used to streamline the deployment of multiple servers and can serve as a backup.

Under-the-hood performance and other improvements

Apple has optimized much of the code in Panther Server for the new G5 architecture announced at its Worldwide Developers Conference (see story). Much of the network and I/O functionality has also been revamped for better performance and features such as asynchronous I/O, 16TB file systems and Jumbo Frames for large Ethernet packets. Improvements to IP fail-over and IP over FireWire offer further options for providing redundancy in multiserver installations, too. A new firewall interface, IPv6 support, and Domain Name System and multihoming improvements are also included, as are significant additions to Java support. Kerberos support will be improved significantly and virtually all services in Panther Server conform to Kerberos.

Finally, a much-improved mail server, being touted as "enterprise-worthy" and a new version of the QuickTime Streaming Server are coming.

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Copyright © 2003 IDG Communications, Inc.

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