Archives for: January 2011

Xserve discontinued.

20/01/11 | by admin [mail] | Categories: Hardware, Mac

Apple has decided to discontinue the Xserve. They say because it was a money losing product. They are offering Mac Pros with OS X Server and Mac Minis with OS X Server as alternatives.

I'm not sure what to make of the decision to discontinue the Xserve. The Xserve was a real server product, with a 1U form factor and redundant components, built for the enterprise and datacentre. If you are looking for a Mac Server for uptime critical applications, there is no alternative. If you need 1U formfactor computers for collocation, then you can try the Mac Mini and hope they don't fail too often.

Certainly, for smaller workgroups (design departments within enterprises, or small to medium business), the Mac Mini or Mac Pro are real alternatives.

The Mac Pro is more expandable, and can be connected to a Promise RAID, SAN or other Fibre Channel or eSATA devices, but it is a whopping 7U of space. If you are paying by RU (as is usual in most collocations) then this will cost considerably more. If you are interested in HPC or clusters, then you might need a little more room (although the Mac Pro does have superior cooling, so you might save some space there).

The Mac Mini Server is good for smaller tasks, we have installed them in offices of 10 users, and as single service devices (mail services). However, with their lack of expansion and Core 2 Duo processors, they aren't much use where you need lots of storage or lots of power. They aren't too good for running virtual machines, for instance.

Neither the Mac Mini nor the Mac Pro offer redundant power supplies. You can use a UPS, but the power supply in the computer will still be a single point of failure. This means downtime.

Neither the Mac Mini nor the Mac Pro offer hot swappable storage. This means downtime.

Apart from the technical, the other thing dropping the Xserve does is send a message that Apple is no longer interested in the enterprise, indeed is not interested in the clusters used for video production and CGI. The question remains whether Apple will continue to ship its server software and XSAN. If Apple is moving away from the enterprise, should the enterprise be moving away from Apple?


Mac OS X 10.6.6

10/01/11 | by admin [mail] | Categories: Hardware, Software, Mac, OSX

So Apple decided to release 10.6.6 the day after I installed my CalDigit USB 3 card. This is an issue because USB 3 is very new, and the drivers (kexts) are still not completely solid. CalDigit released an updated version of their driver for 10.6.5 (and make you jump through some hoops to get it), since the driver broke with the 10.6.5 update. Their current (10 Jan) recommendation is not to update to 10.6.6 until they have done their tests (and probably released a new driver). Update: a new driver is available.

So, the Mac Pro is on 10.6.5 for the meantime, but the Mac Mini is on 10.6.6. I've tried out the app store on the Mac Mini and downloaded an app. The nice thing is it is a little easier to search and find stuff than The downside is that it requires 10.6.6, many of the apps cost money (interestingly the AUD prices are STILL much higher than the USD equivalents despite the exchange rates). And the fact that Apple can now easily track what you download and where you install based on your AppStore account.

The good news is that you can copy some apps from the Mac where they were downloaded to another Mac without issues. So, set up a Mac with the account, and then copy the apps (many ways to do this) to however many other Macs you like.


Debian on a Via Epia

10/01/11 | by admin [mail] | Categories: Hardware, Software, Linux

I mentioned that I also installed Debian on a Mini-ITX box, specifically it is a VIA Epia with a 533MHz Eden CPU, and nearly all you need integrated (as mini-itx boards normally are). I bought it a little while ago from someone who had assembled 95% of the parts to make an ADSL/WiFi router, but gave up on it. All it needed was a case/psu, which cost about as much as the board and bits I had already purchased. The other small problem was that it only had 256MB RAM. Not really enough. But since I had just upgraded the Cube, I took the two spare 256MB chips and bumped the RAM up in the MiniITX to 512MB.

I had previously attempted to install 3 or 4 distros (Fedora, SUSE, Mandriva etc) on this box, but had a variety of issues, ranging from the installer not running (or halting part way through), installing but then going into a restart loop, or installing and then not doing anything. This is probably due to the fact I was using current distros on a rather old board. So, back to old faithful Debian, which goes out of its way to support obsolete hardware like this.

I used a 5.0.4 DVD to install and only two little snags during the install: the Intel wireless card needed nonfree firmware (very simple to do), and half way through the pre-install config, the font died and turned to the default square boxes for all chars. Fortunately, I found screen shots of the install online and could work my way through the rest of the config. Installed ok.

At some point I will need to configure the WiFi on the MiniITX box, and put it in an appropriate location. I'm thinking to play around with kismet.


A typical weekend

10/01/11 | by admin [mail] | Categories: Hardware, Software, Networking, Mac, OSX

So, this weekend I did the usual housework, eating, sleeping, watching TV etc, that people the world over do of a weekend. The other thing I did was install Debian on a mini-ITX system, and Mac OS X Leopard on a PowerMac G4 Cube.

The Cube is a little upgraded, having an 80GB hard drive, 1.5GB RAM (a Friday night upgrade after ordering 2x 512MB sticks from OWC), Airport, nVidia 6200, and a Sonnet 1.2GHz G4. Since the CPU is upgraded, Leopard will install without issues (it has a 867MHz G4 minimum requirement, although trivial to get around). I did the install using Netboot from a virtualized 10.5 server (another weekend project). I created the boot image from a 10.5.4 ISO image, which was mounted to the VM (Fusion) using the virtual optical drive device.

Boot over the network from the image, and then upgrade the installed 10.4.11 Server (this Cube was set up briefly as a server). There were, needless to say, a couple of hitches. I could not remember the original password for the admin account (I had to reset it last time, as well), so I needed to reset the password using the install disk, which did not work. So, retry to make sure I had clicked all the right buttons etc, and still no go, so a boot to single user mode to edit the local directory using dscl.

Dscl showed that the user accounts had not been imported. The home folders were there, but no account entries in the local node. So, reset the root password, reboot, login and then re-created the account. dsenableroot is a nice trick,

The other, small, issue was that the Airport card could not connect to my draft N WiFi (airport express). Not a big deal since 10/100 Ethernet is working, and I can always plugin in an older basestation (WAP) if needed.

Next trick is to get an SSD drive to saturate that slow 66mbyte ATA bus :)


Mac Myths

09/01/11 | by admin [mail] | Categories: Hardware, Software, Mac, OSX

Working in the Mac world, I sometimes forget how little non-Mac people know about Macs. Even people in IT are surprised to know that Mac OS X Server even exists.

So, there are a few interesting factoids I'd like to share.

Mac OS X is Unix.

To qualify that a little, Mac OS X 10.5 and 10.6 running on Intel Macs is qualified as Unix by the Open Group, the only BSD variant qualified as UNIX03.

This means that Mac OS X is probably the most widely used UNIX in the world. The current Mac userbase is between 30 and 94 million (and the vast majority of these are running 10.5 or higher on Intel Macs). This leads to some interesting conclusions. AFP is probably the most widely used UNIX network file system. HFS+ is probably the most widely used UNIX filesystem.

Mac vs Linux as desktop *Nix.

Estimates of the Linux user-base put it at about 30 million. Mac OS X undoubtedly outnumbers Linux on the desktop, but Linux is still ahead in the server market and probably ahead in the embedded-device/appliance market (despite the success of IOS on iPods, iPads and iPhones).

Macs have Unix tools

There are about 12000 Linux/Unix ports available via Fink. Mac Ports has about 5400. There is some overlap between the two. This compares with about 24000 in Debian.

Mac OS X comes with a large array of standard UNIX tools and FOSS. Mac OS X (the standard version, not the server), comes with bash, tcsh, ksh, ssh, telnet, vnc, ftp, Apache, PHP, Python, BIND, Perl, Ruby, Rails, Kerberos, Postfix, Dovecot, AMaViS, RADIUS, Samba, NFS, X11, gcc, curl, rsync, dtrace, OpenLDAP….

…and CUPS, which is now owned and maintained by Apple, and more.

Macs run Linux.

Linux was first ported to the Mac back in 1997. Debian for PPC Macs was released in 2000. Ports also exist for 68k Macs, and Nubus PPC macs (the first Power Macintosh x100 series). Linux for the PowerPC was first released at the 2.2.x version of the kernel. Current Macs will happily dual (or multi) boot Linux, or run Linux virtualised. It's also possible to run Linux on a Mac, run Mac OS X virtualised under Linux.

Macs have malware.

Malware exists on the Mac. The largest class by numbers is still Office macro viruses. There is a growing number of Trojans (distributed mainly in warez), and web browser (java/flash etc) based malware. The Mac is probably also vulnerable to other application based exploits, like the famous PDF exploit.

Macs also have security software.

Mac OS X has a firewall. Free anti virus is available in the form of clamav, and the frontend ClamXAV. And has been available for many years. Mac OS X Server ships with clamav antivirus since at least 10.3 (don't ask me about 10.2 server, it's too old!).

Macs have multi-button mice

It is a surprisingly common view, that Macs only have single button mice. Multi-button mice have been available for Mac users for 20 odd years. Native support for 2+ buttons and scroll wheels has always been a feature of Mac OS X. I've always used 2 button + scroll wheel mice with my Macs, except for my PowerBook G3 (since it had a built in trackpad). All currently shipping Macs feature multi-'button' and scrolling support, and have done for more than 5 years.

Mac OS X is open

This is an interesting situation. Mac hardware is closed to an extent, and the OS is only designed and licensed to run on Apple hardware. But Mac OS X is Unix, and Unix is a fairly open platform in any flavour. You can install whatever you like, compile what you like, modify and customise a hell of a lot. Nearly all preference/configuration files are in text, or easily convertible to text, and XML formatted. Some of the OS is opensource, although covered by licenses of varying restriction.

The basic BSD framework underlying the OS is called Darwin. The sourcecode is open to read and compile, and to some extent to modify/distribute. Different parts are covered by different licences. Most of the Apple developed components are covered by Apple Public Source License. Apple were releasing ready to install binaries up until Darwin 8 (10.4), but stopped due to limited interest. You can get ready run installs of the Darwin based GNU-Darwin.

Apple developed launchd to replace init/xinit. Basically, launchd is a daemon which starts other daemonised services and agents, both system and user. Originally, it was released under Apple Public Source License, and there was some interest from people such as Ubuntu, however the licence was determined to be too restrictive. Apple has since changed the licence to the Apache License v2 to encourage broader adoption. And, as mentioned, there is CUPS.

Mac OS X and SOE

An interesting feature of Mac OS X, and this comes out of having well defined hardware it runs on, is that you can take a hard drive out of one Mac, and put it in another and it will work (if the computer you are swapping it to meets the minimum system requirements for the OS). There can be some licensing issues with third party software, but by and large it's plug and play. What this means is that half of your SOE is done for you. The OS and drivers is consistent across platforms (different drivers will be used depending on the hardware, but all the drivers are installed and available).

It makes migration a breeze. On top of this, Users accounts are clearly defined. All the users individual settings are in their home folder, a single directory tree, which can be copied between computers and then associated with a log on account. This means you can do cool stuff like keep user accounts on external media, or on a server, and move them between computers.

So you can adopt a fairly radically different approach to SOE builds. All you need to manage is the third party software, which you can do in a variety of ways. You can develop work flows which build an image for deployment, or update a live machine with the software and configuration it needs. You don't need adopt the more conventional approach of identical hardware, single images with OS and sofware which need to be imaged to the hard drive prior to deployment, and centralised, network based, accounts (and all the required hardware to back it up).


Current Hardware Projects

This is all about my on going fumblings with hardware. Regular entries should provide an indication of the depths of my obsession.

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