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Small Biz Mac, Small Biz Mac focuses on using Mac as the foundation of a small business--the operating platform, the market, and more. This blog will discuss both the challenges of operating a business on Mac hardware and software, and the impact of the broader Mac market on business.

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Kevin Walzer and Lori Jareo, publishers, software developers, Mac/iPhone users, and small business owners.



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Fri, 13 Dec 2013

Power Users Guide to OS X Server, Mavericks Edition

Ars Technica, which is famous for its exhaustive reviews of new releases of OS X, has brought the same level of scrutiny to Mavericks Server.

After providing a detailed discussion of each aspect of Mavericks Server, the review concludes by noting the recent transition of OS X Server from an "enterprise"-level product to one optimized for small and home businesses:

Is OS X Server for you? If your household or small business uses mostly Macs, iPhones, and iPads and even one of the services here piqued your interest, then yes. The barriers to entry (both financial and technical) are lower than they've ever been, and you didn't have to pay for Mavericks anyway. If you have a lot of Windows and Linux systems in the mix, OS X Server is not without its uses, but you should probably start your search elsewhere.

That's a fair assessment. Our experience with Mavericks Server has been very solid--it has definitely moved past the issues that we encountered with the Lion version of the server app--but we fit the small business profile Apple is targeting here. We never made much use of the advanced features of the older server setup, so now that Mavericks Server is operating smoothly, we don't miss the more expensive setup.

In any event, the Ars Technica review is a great resource in looking at Mavericks Server; check it out.

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Thu, 31 Oct 2013

Mavericks Server: A winner

Last week Apple released its latest version of OS X, 10.9 Mavericks, for free, via the Mac App Store. We waited a couple of days to let the crush of downloads dissipate, and then smoothly upgraded all of our machines, as well as our server, a 2011-era iMac. The server package, encapsulated in a single application called Server.app, requires a separate download from the Mac App Store, and retails for $19.95. (We were able to download the server app for free through a promotion for iOS developers.)

Since the focus of this blog is on using Mac OS X Server in a small-business environment, we'll focus here on the upgrade experience for Mavericks Server, initial impressions of its performance, and resources for further information.

OS X Server used to be an entirely separate, highly expensive version of Apple's operating system, ranging in price from $500-$1,000 dollars depending on the scale of its deployment. Starting with OS X 10.7 Lion, Apple dramatically reduced the price of the server OS and converted it from an entire Os installation to a standalone app containing the server components (web hosting, e-mail, file services, DNS, and more). This is a path that Apple has taken with other major products in recent years, such as Final Cut Pro and, this year, iWork; Apple introduces a new version that is a significant rewrite, and often simplification, of the older version. Changes of this scale often result in the new version being extremely rough around the edges, and frankly inferior to the previous version in terms of features and usability. Such was the case with Lion Server; our experience with it was largely negative in terms of usability and stability, especially with regard to websites and e-mail.

Apple's track record with subsequent versions of its updated apps, however, has been more encouraging: with a new, often cleaner foundation in place, popular features get added back in. And that is the case with Mavericks Server. Lion Server left out many, many features, requiring either legacy tools from the old OS X Server platform or older-school hand hacking of configuration files. Configuration of websites was especially dumbed down. By contrast, Mavericks Server provides a much better, more complete interface for configuring websites, with no hacking required. And other types of configurations that required legacy tools, such as mail, have now been smoothly integrated into Mavericks Server.

The upgrade experience with Mavericks Server was the smoothest we've ever seen; older versions of OS X Server could not be easily updated from one version to another, requiring a couple of days of re-jiggering all the relevant settings. By contrast, Mavericks Server preserved all the settings that Lion Server, legacy tools, and hand-edited configuration files had implemented. It was truly impressive. The entire update took less than an afternoon.

There were just a few glitches in the update that required additional time to investigate and resolve. The smaller glitch was a setting in the Postfix mail server that allow our mobile devices to send e-mail via Postfix through the server, specifically commenting out these lines in /Library/Server/Mail/Config/postfix/main.cf:

  • #smtpd_helo_restrictions = reject_invalid_helo_hostname reject_non_fqdn_helo_hostname
  • #reject_non_fqdn_helo_hostname

    A more serious issue was the difficulty we had getting a stable installation of the MySQL database server. MySQL comes with a Mac package installer, a module to launch the database on system startup, and a preference panel that lets you turn the database server on and off. This system had worked for us for years, up through Lion, even after Apple stopped bundling MySQL with OS X in favor of another database server, PostgreSQL. However, for whatever reason, we encountered substantial issues with MySQL on Mavericks: the database would crash frequently. Because we used MySQL as the back end for our mailing list software, PHPlist, its instability was a problem: we cannot communicate with our customers.

    After several hours over a couple of days trying to get MySQL working, we simply gave up on it. This also meant giving up on PHPlist, which doesn't support other databases very well. After some additional research, we settled on DadaMail, which is much simpler to install, and does not require a database server as its foundation.

    Apart from these two issues, both of which are specific to our server setup, Mavericks Server is the easiest server system we've ever deployed. So far its overall stability equals or exceeds Lion Server as well, although only time will tell over the long term. But Mavericks Server has come into its own as a robust, easy-to-configure, and inexpensive successor to the older OS X Server platform, and we recommend it highly.

    An excellent resource for more information about Mavericks Server can be founded at Krypted.com. This site is maintained by a systems administrator who specializes in Macs, and is a rich source of information.

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    Wed, 21 Aug 2013

    Apple in the enterprise

    Here's an excellent article that discusses Apple's complex relationship with corporate environments. The article makes several salient points: one, while Apple products will never be as widely used in large business environments as hardware from IBM, HP and similar firms, Apple has gained an increasing presence in corporate circles through employee demand and especially with the emergence of the iPhone and iPad, providing an increasing range of tools to manage these devices; and second, Apple's server products have evolved away from targeting large corporate environments to small business settings, with an emphasis on simplicty and ease-of-use over power and scalability.

    Speaking as long-time Apple server users from the days when Apple was making a serious play for the large corporate market with its offerings, we can confirm that the more recent shift toward small businesses does sacrifice some power for simplicity, but the server OS remains viable. It is also surprising to see how extensive Apple's offerings for the corporate sector are with regards to device management (as distinguished from a server platform). The roaring success of the iPhone has not just come in the consumer sector, but also the corporate sector, and Apple has quietly emerged as a major player here. For those of us who have used Macs in a business context for years, that's gratifying to see.

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    Wed, 24 Jul 2013

    OS X Mavericks server--good for business?

    At its World Wide Developer Conference (WWDC) in June, Apple announced the next iteration of Mac OS X, 10.9, code-named "Mavericks." The OS will be released in the fall of 2013 and seems to extend the influence of iOS on the Mac platform. More details on Mavericks can be found at ahttp://www.apple.com/osx/preview/.

    One question that the WWDC discussion did not touch on, however, is the server version of Mavericks. Will Apple continue to support and improve its server platform?

    According to Mac journalist Peter Cohen, it will. Cohen discusses the server-specific features of Mavericks here. Among the features include greater support for iOS devices such as the iPad, and improved communication for developer groups working on the Mac platform. He summarizes:

    OS X Server in Mavericks is pretty much going to be a continuation of what we've seen - enhancements, rather than a major upheaval, designed to facilitate better workgroup communication in areas where OS X Server is really useful.

    We've spent a great deal of time tuning Lion Server on our network to address issues with server lockup and e-mail hanging, so we may opt to pass on this upgrade. A production server requires a fundamentally conservative approach to upgrades and the new features specific to Mavericks Server don't seem to specifically benefit us, a small two-person business with a half-dozen machines on the network. However, it's good to see Apple continuing to support and enhance the server OS, and we encourage other Mac-based business to take a close look.

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    Customer communications

    Like many companies, my business makes use of mass e-mails to communicate with customers, and our Mac OS X Server setup plays a useful role in this communication. We use two types of tools for customer communications: a monthly newsletter and one-off messages. The tool we use depends on the type of message we are sending.

    For our monthly newsletter, which customers can sign up for at our website, we use phpList, a popular open-source mailing list program. phpList is a good fit for us, because it is web-based and can be installed and configured on our server without much difficulty. OS X Server supports web serving, databases, e-mail, and the PHP programming language out of the box. phpList allows you to send nicely-styled HTML e-mails to customers, and provides complete management of the contact database, allowing customers to sign up and unsubscribe with no trouble. phpList provides considerable cost savings over commerical customer mailing lists services like Constant Contact, allowing us to communciate with our customers without incurring additional expense.

    For the books we publish, we typically send an announcement about the book to an e-mail list of the author's friends and family, provided by the author. Using phpList for this type of communication isn't really appropriate because the messages are sent only once, and the e-mail addresses are not retained in any database or used for subsequent communications. For this purpose, we have started using a more lightweight tool called mailmerge. Rather than being web-based, mailmerge is a single Perl script that is run from the command line. It is very simple, requiring only minor configuration in the script itself, a list of e-mail addressed saved in a file called "data," and the text of the message savied in another file called "template." It doesn't allow HTML e-mail, just regular text, but for simple announcements it is more than enough and is, in my view, more professional than sending out a large batch of e-mails using the "BCC" function of an e-mail program. The script is very convenient because, again, OS X Server comes with Perl installed, and so it's simple to run.

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    Configuring Server.app

    Here is an excellent overview of configuring Mac OS X Server in its Mountain Lion configuration: http://arstechnica.com/apple/2012/07/the-server-simplified-a-power-users-guide-to-os-x-server/. It's the most comperehensive discussion I've found, and is typical of the insane depth that Ars Technica brings to their discussion of OS X.

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    Wed, 20 Mar 2013

    New site feature: Screencasts

    We've joined the ranks of developers running promotional screencasts of their apps on their website. The first screencast, for PacketStream, is below.

    Screencasts can range in quality from the strictly bare-bones--someone recording a session of an app running on their machine while narrating over an echo into the computer's built-in mike--to highly sophisticated videos with lots of animation, special effects, slick background tracks, and more. It was the latter type, produced by MacUpdate in support of a promotion for FileMorph, which inspired us to give screencasting a try.

    The result of our efforts is somewhere between rank amateur and highly slick commercial production--we wanted something with a little polish but don't have the budget for uber-slick--and we're reasonably pleased with it. Our toolset, similar to what we use with our own software, was mainly open-source software (Audacity for mixing the soundtrack, Avidemux for editing the video, and ffmpeg for post-processing for upload to YouTube). We tried a couple of commercial Mac tools on a demo basis; while these tools seemed quite powerful, their learning curve was a bit steep, as was their cost. The open-source toolchain fit both our budget, and our brain, better.

    We plan to do screencasts for all our apps over the coming year, and now that we have an idea of how the process works, we think it will be a bit simpler to proceed. We're looking forward to it.

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    Sun, 03 Mar 2013

    Mac Mini quietly gains ground

    Via Slashdot:

    In 2005, the first business to offer colocated Mac Minis inside a data center made its debut, provoking criticism of everything from how the Mini was cooled to the underlying business model. Since then, more than half a dozen facilities are either hosting their own Mac Minis for rent, or offering colocation services for individual consumers and businesses. And although you may not find the Mini being used for high-performance computing, plenty of customers are finding them to be a cost-effective, dependable solution for Web hosting and other tasks.

    Not a bad idea for small businesses who want to make use of a Mac server but don't want the headache of managing it in-house, or whose data needs are more sensitive than an in-office setup can afford.

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    Another use for server: Server-side product data

    Part of our business is publishing, and the other part is software development for the desktop (Mac) and mobile (iPhone) platforms. Our OS X server setup plays a vital supporting role in these businesses, even beyond hosting their websites; it also provides direct support for the mobile apps that we develop.

    We've developed and released two mobile apps, QuickWho, a whois client, and WTPoem, which is a poem-of-the-day app. In both cases, the apps themselves are written using a combination of the Jo JavaScript framework and the PhoneGap application wrapper for native deployment on the iPhone. However, by themselves the apps don't do very much; they call out to code running our OS X server for their data. In the case of QuickWho, it talks to a Python module running on our server, which runs the whois inquiry and returns the data to the iPhone client. In the case of WTPoem, it gets its daily poem data from a Perl module running on the server, which parses a flat-file database of poems and related info, and nicely formats that day's poem in HTML for download to the iPhone.

    Developing these apps and testing them is greatly simplified by having control of the server. Not all web hosting companies support certain programming languages, especially Python, so having that control is very helpful. It makes it easier to install custom code libraries, test, make changes quickly, and deploy with a minimum of difficulty. It's another reason that the time spent maintaining our own server setup isn't wasted.

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    Mon, 18 Feb 2013

    Mail issues: still no rhyme or reason

    The near daily issues we were seeing with our Mac-based e-mail server seem to have declined in frequency, down to once every couple of weeks or so, but it's still hard to discern what the issue is. There's no rhyme or reason to the crashes; sometimes it's the SMTP server (Postfix) that receives outside mail, sometimes it's the local mail server (Dovecot) that holds it for delivery to local e-mail clients. We've taken various measures to increase the stability of the server system, and that seems to be the best we can do.

    Ultimately it's likely that we're going to stay with OS X Server because it's the least bad, or expensive, alternative; commercial alternatives such as Kerio Connect or Communigate Pro are light-years ahead of OS X's open-source components in terms of cost (anywhere from $800 to $1200, paid annually), and we have not been able to verify whether they are superior in terms of stability and performance, especially for a small company like us (two employees). Plus, with a decade of investment in the OS X Server platform, changing our structure at this point--a setup we have some expertise with--seems like a risky proposition. So, we're staying with OS X Server.

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    Tue, 22 Jan 2013

    New release of OS X Server, January 2013

    Ars Technica has a good review of the latest release of OS X Server for Mountain Lion. If you've updated your server to ML (we haven't), check this out.

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    Thu, 17 Jan 2013

    Epic tax battles of history

    A man uses the machines you build
    to sit down and pay his taxes. A man uses the machines I build
    to listen to the Beatles while he relaxes.
    --Steve Jobs to Bill Gates, "Epic Rap Battles of History"

    I'm finding this statement to be true: I own a heavy black Windows 7 laptop for one purpose, running the tax software I use to pay my taxes.

    The leading tax software vendors, H&R Block, make Mac versions of several flavors of their tax software--but the most complex software, for multi-employee companies, only comes in Windows.

    Why?

    I am not unhappy with the tax software I've chosen, H&R Block's home/corporate tax edition for LLC's, partnerships, etc. It is complete, does its job well, and is reasonably priced at $75 (far less expensive than the comparable mix of TurboTax packages). But their Mac software stops at the level of sole proprietors/independent contractors. Both TurboTax and Intuit seem assume that the only Mac users of their business-oriented tax packages are indie/solo creative types. More complex businesses, with partners or corporate structures, must just use Windows.

    Sorry, guys, that's not true. I'm very grumpy that I had to buy a Windows laptop, even a cheap one, to run your software. Running Windows in a virtualized fashion on my Mac via VMWare or Parallels wouldn't be any cheaper, or more convenient. In case you aren't aware, Apple is now considerably larger than Microsoft, and the Mac platform is actually growing.

    The first tax software vendor to figure this out is going to make a lot of money, from me and a lot of other small business owners.

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    Site search

    In response to customer feedback, I've implemented a search engine for all of the sites I maintain, including http://www.wordtechcommunications.com and http://www.codebykevin.com based on some clever code documented at Build a Search Engine in PERL. My own code was heavily modified, but this example was exceptionally helpful in helping me get started.

    I've also implemented a similar feature at my blogs using the find plugin for Blosxom by Fletcher Penney. This plugin, unlike the other search engine I developed, is a drop-in module that required no configuration on my part. It works beautifully.

    Both search tools enhance the usability of my sites, and both are written in a programming language I'm having fun learning: Perl. Perl is well-suited for website programming, and I look forward to doing more with it.

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    Mail issues

    We've been struggling over the past year with mail server issues. Despite late-model hardware (2011-vintage iMac) and plenty of RAM (four gigabytes), the server has been locking up on a semi-regular basis, requiring a hard reboot. This has never previously been the case in a decade of running OS X server.

    The culprit, as far as I can tell, is the server's e-mail component. OS X Server uses Postfix to send and receive e-mail. Postfix is the most widely deployed open-source e-mail server, and is widely hailed as robust, stable, and continuously improved, so the apparent problems I'm seeing with it are a real surprise--and a real mystery.

    I posted a question to a Mac OS X Server mailing list describing the typical symptoms, and I've gotten some useful suggestions. What I've tried based on the feedback there is to disable greylisting, which may make the mail service's performance a bit snappier; and I've set the server app to dedicate server performance to server services, which hopefully will allow the system to better handle large surges in data load. Among other things I've previously tried are tweaking various connection settings in Postfix itself, including those settings that allow it to respond while being overloaded.

    I'm hopeful that these changes will allow me to continue hosting e-mail on the server, as I've done for a decade. If they don't, I may have consider moving our e-mail to an outside hosting service such as Rackspace. Transitioning to a paid service is a big change, especially given Apple's recent moves in significantly lowering the price of OS X Server, but the loss of productivity because of lost-email and server issues is significant and can't be ignored.

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