Small Biz Mac, This blog 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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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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