Tiger burns bright

Apple's Mac OS X 10.4 brings productivity to desktops, turnkey power to servers

Users usually don’t expect much from OSes. They’re the foundation for prefabricated or build-it-yourself solutions, but none is a rich solution, a self-contained platform out of the box. If you want a complete productivity platform, you can nickel and dime your way there with Windows, hammer and saw your way there with Linux … or hit the ground running with OS X.

Unlike any OS X before it or any competing desktop OS, Mac OS X 10.4 (Tiger) sends users’ productivity skyrocketing before one manual is opened or one application is purchased, thanks to stellar new search and workflow tools. OS X Server 10.4 has made an impressive trek, putting in one place every service you could need or want, with the exception of a commercial database. It boasts turnkey ease of operation but no restrictions on customizability or configurability.

Open source stripes
There are three Tigers: The Tiger client, OS X Server 10.4 (Tiger Server if you like, but I do not) and Darwin 8. Darwin is Tiger’s foundation. It is an open source project, maintained by Apple, that stays in perfect lock-step with Tiger and OS X Server 10.4.

Darwin is not the whole of Tiger or OS X Server 10.4; Apple adds a good bit of proprietary value to both. Open source developers, however, can obtain OS X, its extraordinary documentation, development tools, and commercial knowledge base, all free, and ignore all of Apple’s proprietary extras. Indeed, the Mac’s graphical interface is easily obliterated in favor of totally open source GNOME or KDE presentation layers and window managers. Even then, Apple’s Quartz Extreme graphical acceleration applies.

Darwin 8 compiles to a bootable operating system that, when run on a Mac, is binary compatible with Tiger’s Unix. Darwin 8 will also build and boot on 32-bit x86 hardware. Yes, Darwin runs on x86, a fact that, whenever mentioned, gets people all stirred up. Unstir yourself. I don’t have time to address the whole OS X-on-x86 issue here, but I take it up in my blog and my Ahead of the Curve column.

Don’t think of Darwin and OS X as analogous to Red Hat’s free, open source Fedora project and Red Hat’s Enterprise Linux. Fedora is, in Red Hat’s words, “a virtual laboratory” where “visitors can make available incremental code improvements and bug fixes.” Darwin is not an incubator; what developers see is the fully cooked, validated code that Apple ships to paid OS X license holders. And when Apple issues a fix or enhancement to an open source component of OS X, Darwin gets it the same day -- not after a delay of several weeks, as is typical with commercial open source operations.

Apple selects and grooms open source projects for Darwin, a controversial practice that's actually a blessing for commercial users. By design, there is one mail server, one Web server, one instant messaging server, and so on; the scavenger-hunt quality of Linux is absent. And Apple made no effort to cripple Darwin to make it unsuitable for production use. In my opinion, Apple sticks its neck out farther in this regard than do other players.

Lest you think that Apple’s selectivity blocks users from the richness and variety of open source, understand that Apple has built up enormous goodwill in the open source community. Darwin and OS X are first-class platform targets for the vast majority of open source projects. In other words, developers have tested and tweaked their code to compile error-free on Apple’s Unix. If you’re concerned that Apple’s choices won’t coincide with yours, dip into DarwinPorts and Fink. These projects maintain gigantic repositories of ready-to-run and ready-to-compile open source software.

Click for larger view.
Letting Tiger loose
Both the Tiger client and OS X 10.4 server are built on Darwin 8. Compared to Panther, the OS X 10.3 system software, Tiger exhibits broad performance improvements. It’s noticeably faster at booting the system and loading applications (especially the second application load, which is aided by cache). PDF rendering and all text and graphics rendering is faster with Tiger on late-model Macs. That’s most obvious in Preview, Apple’s PDF viewer, but it’s also apparent throughout the GUI.

The big boost in rendering speed shows up in unexpected places. For example, Finder (Tiger’s file manager) scrolls through detailed file lists in real time, something that Panther couldn’t manage on my burdened 1.5GHz 17-inch PowerBook.

Of Tiger’s surface-level enhancements, Spotlight is the marquee player responsible for elevating the Mac to a new class of productivity-enhancing solutions. Spotlight looks like a pretty desktop text search engine, but it shares some salient features with large-scale document- and records-management systems I’ve worked with — albeit at a considerably smaller scale and lower specificity.

Spotlight isn’t an application, but a service fully integrated into Tiger, exposed to developers, and shared by all Tiger applications. It does rapid searches based on content and metadata. Spotlight drills into 14 different document types, including Apple’s e-mail and address book databases, and it understands not only their encoded content, but also the invisible key/value metadata that applications attach to files.

In practice, Spotlight is incredibly powerful. Entering the search term “PowerPC Apple” on a PowerBook with nearly 40GB of searchable documents populated a results list as I typed, sorted by document type and relevance. Further qualifying the search by adding the metadata string “kind:PDF author:apple” narrowed the list to PDF-formatted documents created by Apple. Spotlight has a lengthy vocabulary of document-specific, shared, and system-supplied metadata types.

As with any search engine, you’ll get some false hits and missing matches until you get the hang of it. But once I was familiar with Spotlight, I spent little time scrolling around in Finder, and I uncovered documents I thought were long lost -- including, to my embarrassment, one large document I had completely retyped after a fruitless manual search.

One clever kitty
Tiger’s new Smart Folders allow you to save the results of a Spotlight search in a continuously updated list. This is a great tool for managing projects: If new files, e-mail messages, or Address Book contacts that match your criteria are added to your system, they show up immediately in a Smart Folder. The folder is virtual -- no files are moved or copied -- and you can change a Smart Folder’s criteria at any time.

Spotlight has a few small flaws. When you kick off a Spotlight search from the Finder toolbar, it doesn’t match on Spotlight’s full set of file types by default. Finder searches still suffered awful intercharacter lag (unacceptable on slower Macs) as I entered search terms.

Also, Spotlight cannot index volumes on a server, so every user must build and search against a private index that points at server content. When I mentioned this to the company, Apple’s response was that I should “expect great things from Spotlight in the future.”

As for the other new features, they certainly have their place in the updated client. Automator reduces common, repetitive operations to a workflow (pipeline) of predefined actions. To create each stage in a workflow, you drag icons for actions into the workflow window. The actions run in sequence and pass their data to the next stage.

My first efforts with Automator were ambitious: Create a blank CD image on disc, do a Spotlight search, create a compressed archive from the Spotlight results, and burn the archive to a CD. It worked on the first try and I was able to save that workflow as an executable.

Tiger’s Dashboard interface pops up a layer of pretty desktop widgets, some hooked to services such as weather and Yellow Pages. What I like most about Dashboard is the programming layer underneath. Apple really jazzed up JavaScript, and Dashboard shows off the underappreciated WebKit HTML rendering engine Apple built around portions of the KDE project.

Unfortunately, Apple’s Mail.app remains a second-class mail client. In Tiger it gains Smart Folders that appear in the mail folder hierarchy, but the mail folders can’t be freely rearranged or hidden to save space. Mail.app also lacks Outlook’s ability to present multiple views. The e-mail API, most easily accessed through Automator or AppleScript, is in many ways more useful than Mail.app itself. I prefer Spotlight for mailbox content searches.

Click for larger view.
Full tilt server
Everything in Tiger is in OS X Server 10.4, giving administrators access to Spotlight, Automator, Dashboard, and all of Tiger’s desktop advantages. Below ground level, new development tools, OS changes, and a pair of updated frameworks allow OS X Server 10.4 to run native 64-bit daemons and command-line applications. You cannot link 32-bit code into 64-bit apps, so going beyond basic system services and accelerated math will require the use of interprocessor communications between 32-bit and 64-bit executables.

With OS X Server 10.4, Apple has eliminated performance-choking resource contention between processors in multiprocessor Macs. Users will see this as a substantial boost in file sharing performance, but it will also improve all Mac servers with heavy nonstreaming network and/or disk operations loads.

The level of consistency and integration supplied by Apple’s management GUIs -- Server Admin and Workgroup Manager -- is remarkable. OS X Server 10.4 creates a genuine zero-effort server, replete with every Internet, intranet, and security service imaginable.

In the new server, starting configurations are more robust and additional configurability has been added. Support for new services -- including IM, Weblog, the Xgrid distributed workload manager and agents, and much stronger e-mail spam and virus guards -- are all wired into one interface, accessible both remotely and locally. For administrators who prefer or require it, OS X Server 10.4 enhances command-line administration tools, which were introduced late in the 10.3 lifecycle, with additional commands and documentation.

You needn’t understand how all of OS X Server 10.4’s services interact, how they are interdependent, how each is started and stopped, the location and format of their configuration files -- none of this is relevant to the server’s setup or operation. If you want an unaided, Real Unix experience for part or all of OS X Server 10.4, you have it.

I’ve got the chops to manage Unix by scripts and C code. Years ago, I’d have asserted my hardcore status by refusing to use idiot-level GUIs where command-line equivalents existed. I can manage OS X Server 10.4 the hard way, but I don’t do that just to prove I can. Still, there are times when my best connection to the Internet is through a Nokia Bluetooth phone, or when I need to script an operation to do more than once (I don’t have a library of Automator scripts built up yet), and the GUI is impractical. OS X 10.4 has command-line equivalents for every setting you can manipulate in Server admin, as well as some that aren’t available in the GUI.

As with all facilities in OS X Server 10.4, the command-line tools are implemented consistently, mostly through a command called serveradmin, without requiring familiarity with the way Apple configures a particular service.

File system security gets a boost from ACLs (access control lists), which attach an arbitrary list of users, groups, and associated permissions to folders. OS X Server 10.4 implements ACLs in a Windows-compatible manner. Unfortunately, the structure of the OS X file system precludes full compatibility with Unix ACLs; however, enough of the functionality is present to satisfy requirements and run most ACL-enabled Unix apps.

Apple’s directory services are based on LDAP, making them inherently compatible with all systems that browse and update directories through LDAP network interfaces. Apple added to OS X Server 10.4 the ability to masquerade as a Windows Server 2000 PDC (Primary Domain Controller) or BDC (Backup Domain Controller), making it a Windows server peer. It’s easier to enable than is a domain controller in Windows: In System Admin, I selected PDC as a role, typed in a Windows domain name, and after several seconds the domain appeared on my Windows XP and Windows 2003 machines, indistinguishable from native Windows.

The new Software Update Server asynchronously downloads fixes and point releases from Apple’s site and rehosts locally an administrator-determined collection of updates that clients receive automatically. OS X Server 10.4 simplifies the process of pushing updates, applications, and even new OS versions from the server to one or more clients without going near the client machine.

Roaring success
Tiger and OS X Server 10.4 have real value, not just in price but also in a shared principle: Professionals shouldn’t have to build, either from purchased or downloaded code, application platforms brick by brick. Users should start with a complete structure, ready to do real work, which they can enhance and take apart at will.

Trepidation about single-sourcing notwithstanding, BSD’s incomparable pedigree, Apple’s openness with its OS code, and its recognition that users, developers, and administrators get paid to work not to prepare to work will prove alluring to many. Seeing Tiger and OS X Server 10.4 as productivity platforms puts them in the proper, brilliant light.

InfoWorld Scorecard
Management (20.0%)
Value (10.0%)
Ease of use (20.0%)
Interoperability (20.0%)
Features (15.0%)
Security (15.0%)
Overall Score (100%)
Mac OS X 10.4 (Tiger) 10.0 10.0 10.0 9.0 9.0 9.0 9.5
Mac OS X 10.4 (Tiger) Server 10.0 10.0 8.0 10.0 9.0 9.0 9.3

Copyright © 2005 IDG Communications, Inc.

How to choose a low-code development platform