Saturday, December 26, 2009

Tech Churn: OS X Server, MobileMe and the Cloud

I've been gradually working through all the expected and unexpected* consequences of moving in a new machine and sunsetting my 6+ year old XP box.

Along the way I've run into another example of technology churn.

In our home we have 5 users and a guest account that are distributed across four Macs - an iMac i5, MacBook dual core, iMac G5, and a surprisingly functional though immobile iBook G3 running Camino. Each machine has its own uses, and most have six accounts.

It's a furball. It doesn't work well, for example, to put all personal files on an AFP share (Spotlight doesn't readily index shares, Mail and Aperture have issues with shares, there's no trash recovery post delete, etc). It's a pain to distribute passwords (keychain), credentials, desktops, etc. Let's not discuss our modern backup mess, shall we?

Once upon a time the answer would have been reasonably straightforward. I'd buy a used Mac Mini, stick OS X server and two 2TB firewire drives (one backup and one local) and do manage desktops.

Except Apple's iCal server fiasco tells me their server team is in disarray. There's also a relatively modern alternative to consider; at one time this is what MobileMe was marketed for. It was have been kind of OS X server in the Cloud, accessible both from the home firewall and from remote clients. (As of 10.6, incidentally, I think a MobileMe user name/pw associated with a user account in the Accounts Preference Pane acts like a kind of (undocumented) alternative global user identifier.)

So should I make good user of our family MobileMe account? Well, I'm kind of doing that, but there's churn there too. MobileMe has been caught in the iPhone, photo sharing, Google Apps and Facebook swhirlpool. Nobody, not even Steve Jobs, seems to know what the heck to do with it.

Or maybe we could extend what we've been doing for 3 years, and move more of our family functions into the gCloud? If Google does deliver a $150 Chrome OS netbook then each child will have one. Maybe we should start now.

Or maybe, because there's so much technological uncertainty, we should stall for time.

I think we're going to stall for time -- which means some combination of an AFP share, a backup server, MobileMe synchronization and continued use of our successful family Google Apps domain. That means OS X Server stays on the shelf for at least another six months.

Tech churn is a pain.

See also:
Update 10/4/09: A positive review of OS X 10.6 server convinced me that I really don't want to go that route! If Apple does make MobileMe a sort of "OS X Server Lite" for that masses, however, I'd find value there.


J K said...

Have you considered Dropbox? It syncs files between computers (PC/Macs) and there is an iPhone app. You could also partition a Mac mini and have a second partition for shared data. You can then create a shared user name for any computer to use when accessing the shared data.You can set it to ignore permissions and it works quite well for file sharing. I believe, I got this idea from the Take Control of File Sharing e-book.

John Gordon said...

I've made little use of my Dropbox account because I have MobileMe, but it sure does get great reviews. I will have to try it.

Thanks for the permission-free share tip. I should add that Permission management and inheritance is one of the great fundamental weaknesses of OS X. Apple is stuck in an outmoded UNIX model of file based permissions. It's sad that we have to resort to external drives, partitions or disk images to work around this.

I'm hoping sooner or later someone besides me will start pointing out that Apple's stuck in the 20th century.