posted by Scot Hacker on Mon 17th Dec 2001 17:34 UTC

"Networking Nirvana"
Networking and multi-user capabilities go hand-in-hand, so I'll discuss them together here.

One of Be's failings was that they never completed a multi-user implementation. The Be file system had multi-user capabilities and apps could be constructed to respect these, but there was little OS-level enforcement of permissions, nor was there any UI to administer users. BeOS is POSIX-compliant and includes a bash shell, but it's not genuine Unix. OS X, on the other hand, is Unix (though some will surely argue about what makes something "true" Unix). And Apple has built in a fine interface for adding and deleting users, with all the security controls which follow from that. However, there is currently no group management console to accompany the user manager. I was able to set up desktop accounts and SSH login shells for friends and family with zero fuss.

Speaking of SSH and networking, I only had to click a single button in the network prefs to be running a secure shell daemon, rather than the insecure telnet offered by BeOS. Remote administration of my OS X box was possible minutes after booting. Similarly, the Apache web server is built into every copy of OS X, pre-configured to serve pages both from a common root directory and from ~/Sites/ folders.

It's been pointed out that Apple is now, or will soon be the world's largest vendor of Unix systems. Creating a user-friendly Unix has been something of a holy grail for decades, and is of course the goal of many Linux developers. The fact that Apple (and, to a lesser extent, Be) succeeded in providing the power of Unix to those who want it while not requiring the average user ever to think about it is an example of what I was saying earlier -- that good user experiences don't tend to flow easily from the open source development model. Creating a good user experience requires that everyone working on a project be on the same page -- something that is decidedly not the case in the open source community. I made this point again and again through the years I was writing about BeOS, and the new Apple experience underlines its truth. Be and Apple have been able to create good user experiences alongside the Unix shell with far fewer developers and years than the open source community has put into the various X11 window managers.

Providing the power of Unix to general consumers carries with it a certain level of responsibility to know how and where to separate userland shine from the grimy nuts and bolts. For example, if you want to further configure the Apache defaults, you need to know how to find and edit /etc/httpd/httpd.conf. Because /etc is hidden from the Finder by default and requires an admin password to edit, it's safe from non-savvy users. On the other hand, those same users can dish up pages from a world-class web server without ever opening a Terminal window or tweaking a single Apache directive. Seamless.

It gets better. PHP was pre-installed and configured to work with Apache, and MySQL was a simple download with clear, fail-safe installation instructions. In contrast, the lack of mmap() in the BeOS kernel means that it's still not possible to install MySQL for BeOS. Apple also includes a built-in FTP server configured to work with user directories, as well as the ability to mount Samba, AFP, and WebDAV shares. Be's built-in FTP server accomodates only a single login, and gives access to the entire filesystem. SMB connectivity in BeOS is a spotty affair at best.

While OS X's networking is already more advanced than Be's ever was, it's not yet perfect, and more advanced users have run into some problems. Irfon-Kim Ahmad offers these notes:

If running Apache and SSH servers is a top priority, it's excellent. If you want to connect up to your workplace's VPN as a client, however, go find a Windows box. There are some pptp tools, but little by way of documentation, and I haven't been able to actually get any of them working yet (although I've just started trying recently). Many people I've spoken with have had troubles with their passwords to their wireless networks being spontaneously 'forgotten' on a regular basis by Keychain, although I haven't had that problem since I reinstalled the OS. One MAJOR minus to OS X that I only discovered this weekend that pertains to networking: If all of your DNS servers are down, you might as well forget it -- OS X will take 10+ minutes to boot, and then act flaky. That's probably a fairly easy to bug to correct though.

Overall, the foundation for world-class networking is present in OS X. It's secure, it's stable, it's Unix... but it's not finished. If we were comparing to Linux networking, Linux would win. But in comparison to BeOS, OS X takes this round hands-down. However, there's no reason to think that in the future OS X won't become fully competitive with Linux/BSD as a world-class server OS as well. For now, people who want to run an ISP from a Mac should choose OS X Server.

Table of contents
  1. "Out of the Frying Pan..."
  2. "... And Into the Fire..."
  3. "Smells Like Home Cookin"
  4. "A Lot To Like, First Impressions"
  5. "Networking Nirvana"
  6. "CD Burning, Disk Images"
  7. "Applications"
  8. "iMovie, iDVD"
  9. "Browsers and E-Mail"
  10. "Power Editors"
  11. "Community"
  12. "The Bad and The Ugly"
  13. "File System Shoot-Out"
  14. "Application-Binding Policies"
  15. "Alien Filesystems"
  16. "Miscellaneous Moans and Groans"
  17. "All Told, Life Is Good"
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