Snow Leopard Server with Mavericks clients, and why to avoid Mac Server

Note: the below text was written in 2014 but never posted. I have kept the same tense since I don’t want to rewrite it.

Our lab has a setup where we have multiple workstation iMacs that connect to a Mac Mini server, with network accounts stored on the server. Previously, both server and clients were running Snow Leopard, but I’ve just upgraded two of the clients to Mavericks while keeping the server on Snow Leopard. (Upgrading to Mavericks server costs money). I’ve been running this setup for a few weeks now and nothing major seems to have broken. For details of our lab’s setup, and why you should avoid Mac Server, read on…

In 2011 my advisor purchased an expensive Mac Mini Snow Leopard server for the lab, to store data generated by the lab and do other things that only servers can do. The lab had several iMacs that served as workstations for lab members, as well as a Mac Pro used for data analysis. Data were originally stored on the Mac Pro as well, but with the new server we could separate those tasks and use the Mac Pro only for analysis work.

At the time, I didn’t do too much research into Mac Server and assumed that things would “just work” out of the box. I also figured that the best way to handle the “data storage” aspect was to store everything on the server, including user accounts. In essence, this means that user home directories were stored server-side and all home folder access and user authentication is done over the network.

The network account system has a couple of advantages. Every member of the lab could have their own account, files, and settings, that would work regardless of which computer they signed in on. It’s actually really cool to be able to just sign out of one computer and then sit down at another and keep going right where you left off. Central control of user data and user accounts also meant that backups were also centralized, hopefully insuring against data being lost because it was on an old machine that was rarely used.

However, the drawbacks are pretty significant. The major one is that the server is a single point of failure for every single person. Originally, if the file server was down, you couldn’t get access to the shared lab data, but your own data were still intact on your workstation. Now, if either the server or the network were down, you couldn’t login to your own computer, never mind access your files.

Other quality of life issues include:

Update 2015: Basically, I don’t think using OS X server is Worth It. Thankfully Apple seems to have scaled back their server offerings so hopefully no one else is falling into this trap. Our new setup uses a dedicated network appliance (Synology NAS) to serve files, combined with several (quite beefy) shared Linux workstations. All devices can connect to the Synology NAS over NFS. The issue of having shared desktops but personal accounts is no longer a problem, since all analyses are performed on the workstations, and everyone has their own personal laptop that they used to remotely login to the shared workstations. Although this is less secure in the sense that it’s possible for people to trample over each other’s files, in practice this hasn’t really been that big of an issue. There are separate horrors associated with accessing an NFS share on Linux systems with automount, but I’ll save that for a separate post.