'Lion' Server Falls Short

The latest Mac server software feels like the end of the road.

The "Lion" Server may be the last version of the Mac OS X Server that matters, and, if that's the case, it is a solid operating system designed for ease of use. But any other goals Apple may have for the Lion Server aren't easily discerned.

Since Apple's exit from the enterprise server market at the beginning of the year, the company has tried to position its Mac Mini and Mac Pro server-ish configurations as replacements for the rack-mounted Xserve. But if Apple has plans to expand its server business, it's doing a good job of disguising them.

For fans of Apple's server add-ons for clustering and storage, they're not dead yet: The Xsan storage network and the Xgrid clustering software are now bundled with the OS, if anyone cares to use them.

Another "sort of" new feature in the Lion Server is Profile Manager. This tool builds on Apple's experience with mobile-device management through the iPhone Configuration Utility to offer centralized, profile-based management for devices running iOS and Mac OS X Lion.

Unlike previous versions of the Mac OS X Server, the Lion Server isn't a one-disc install. The core software and services have to be downloaded from Apple in two installments, so upgraders can expect about an hour's downtime for the install: first of Lion, then of the Lion Server components.

These components are packaged in an application that's simply referred to as "Server." It performs first-tier management tasks such as user creation and simple service management, as well as acting as a service installer for other server applications.

The install of the server components seemed to end badly-at least, that's what I inferred when the splash-screen indicated that a service had failed to restart. However, that may have been a false alarm because there was no access to service or system logs from within the installer, and everything looked normal when I rebooted (without any sign of software-related problems in the days following).

As it is, the lack of meaningful information suggests that the Lion Server may have been dumbed down past the point of no return.

The Lion Server's management tools are a hodgepodge. Some utilities, such as the Podcast Composer or the Xgrid and Xsan management tools, are single-purpose utilities, while others, such as the Server and Server Admin, overlap functions to a degree that can be confusing.

Apple's decision to use the Server application would make sense if it were the entry point for simple management tasks, with Server Admin reserved for more intricate work. Instead, the company has chosen to treat Server Admin as obsolescent: New features to the OS have to be managed from inside the Server, which doesn't always run reliably on client computers- even those running Lion.

By inserting yet another management portal into Lion Server, Apple has made the problem worse. Does one change a setting in System Preferences, Server, Server Admin or another tool altogether?

It's hard to recommend Lion Server to anyone except the most fanatical Mac loyalists. Consumer king Apple could care less about its server customers, and I suspect that the company could walk away from that line of business in a year and suffer only minimal backlash from consumers.

Use it if you choose, but I wouldn't plan on it being available beyond the 10.7.x releases.