It goes without saying that every IT pro has a toolkit at the ready-the hardware, software and knowledge necessary to diagnose and resolve issues. It’s no different on the Mac side of the fence. Mac OS X may be a bit different than Windows, but both systems share plenty of problems in common. Macs are no strangers to corrupted hard disks, failed RAM, network connection issues and so on.
In my first article, I talked about how Macs are increasingly popping up in the workplace, posing a challenge for Windows-oriented IT support professionals. This time out, I want to share with you some essential tools and techniques which will make your job easier and which will help you better support the Mac users in your enterprise. What follows are the tools and tips I use regularly to keep Macs running smoothly. (Note: I’m an enthusiast of several of the products below, but I am in no way affiliated with any of their vendors.)
An absolutely indispensable utility is Alsoft’s DiskWarrior. If you do not have this in your organization, stop what you’re doing and order it. I cannot describe how many times DiskWarrior has made a drive boot, made a lost directory reappear or otherwise saved the day. If you remember Norton Disk Doctor from the DOS days-where a simple program magically just seemed to fix everything-that’s DiskWarrior now.
The best way to use DiskWarrior is to run it on your own laptop, connected to the user’s Mac via FireWire Disk Mode (which I’ll get into in a minute). You can also start up the user’s Mac from the DiskWarrior CD but it takes a very long time and won’t work on the newest Macs.
Bombich Software’s Carbon Copy Cloner
Bombich Software’s Carbon Copy Cloner is another fantastic tool. Distributed as honor-system shareware, it lives up to its name. It will clone one Mac drive to another, making sure the target is bootable. You see where I’m going with this: when you’re upgrading a drive or rescuing a failing one, Carbon Copy Cloner is the tool you want.
If you’re copying between drives of the same size, you can perform a block-level clone for an exact replica. Otherwise, it performs a file-level clone, preserving all file metadata and access permissions as appropriate. The author of Carbon Copy Cloner also distributes useful tools for deploying customized installations across networks, and his Web page has a plethora of useful information.
FireWire Disk Mode
FireWire Disk Mode
One Mac hardware feature which is especially adored by Mac geeks is the ability to access the internal hard drive(s) directly, bypassing the operating system. The Mac becomes an expensive enclosure. This means that when you need to run diagnostics on a drive, you don’t need to pull it out. All you need to do is hold down “T” while you turn the Mac on, until you see a FireWire icon on the screen. (If you see a grey Apple, power off the Mac and try again). Then, attach a FireWire cable from the user’s Mac to your own and the user’s drive becomes available to you on your own computer (very useful, for example, for running either of the previously-mentioned tools).
It’s also handy in the other direction: you can put your own Mac into FireWire Disk Mode and start up the user’s Mac with it-which can help determine whether a problem is related to software or hardware. To choose which drive you start up from, hold down “Option” as you turn on the Mac until you get to the graphical boot chooser. Again, if you see a grey Apple, power off and try again. Two recent laptop models lack a FireWire port, so you can’t use FireWire Disk Mode with those. You’ll need to start them from a USB external drive or pull out the internal drive.
Want to see what kind of RAM is in which slots? Not clear if a USB device is being recognized? System Profiler is your friend, giving you a window into much of what’s under the hood of a Mac. It’s part of Mac OS X in the Utilities folder of the Applications folder, or you can simply choose Apple Menu->About This Mac->More Info.
ID-Design’s WhatSize is the program you want when your user’s drive is full but he or she can’t figure out why. It will allow you to very quickly drill down into the heaviest folders and files with a highly intuitive interface. Be sure to run it in Administrator mode, as this will allow it to see inside folders belonging to other users on that machine-which is often where large, abandoned files such as iTunes libraries lurk. WhatSize once helped me figure out where a misbehaving printer driver was spooling endless temporary files, filling the disk.
Apples Remote Desktop
Apple’s Remote Desktop
If you are managing lots of Macs or need to remotely access them, Apple’s Remote Desktop is a must. Effectively Apple’s version of Remote Desktop Protocol (RDP), it provides a central management console which not only allows for remote observation and control, but remote software installation, machine status and lots more.
Remote Desktop’s daemon is installed as part of Mac OS X 10.4 and later, so it only needs to be enabled in the Sharing system preference. You can also enable Virtual Network Computing (VNC) service if you’d rather connect with a PC VNC client.
Single-user mode+AppleJack: If you’ve got some Unix chops-and if you’re managing Macs, they certainly give you much more leverage-then become familiar with holding down “command-S” during startup. This will put the Mac in single-user mode which halts the boot process as soon as the Unix layer is loaded-long before the GUI and all the Mac OS X frameworks load (not unlike booting in Safe Mode to the command prompt on Windows).
Single-user mode allows you get to get in and perform operations directly on the underlying operating system, such as removing corrupted preference files or obsolete system extensions which may be interfering with a full boot. An invaluable, free utility to be used in single-user mode is AppleJack, which simplifies several cleanup and maintenance operations, which can only be performed at this early stage of startup.
It’s the same hardware, mostly: Keep in mind that the hardware of modern Macs is barely much different than that of PCs. If you have your doubts about a component of a user’s Mac, you can absolutely swap in a compatible drive or RAM module, which would otherwise be used in a PC. SATA is SATA and DDR2 is DDR2. The same techniques apply.
Of course, these are just a few tools and techniques of the many you might need to troubleshoot a Mac, but these alone will help you through quite a few common issues your users will have. If you have questions about any of the applications I mentioned, or if you have suggestions for others you’d like to see mentioned, please drop me a line. Until next time, may you have happy Mac users in your organization.