Xserving for the Rest of Us (Part 1)

Posted by Pierre Igot in: Macintosh
February 6th, 2004 • 5:58 am

A couple of months ago, I mentioned the fact that I was going to be responsible for setting up a new Xserve running Mac OS X Server 10.3 as a web server, mail server, DHCP server, etc. for one of my employers.

The Xserve replaces a Power Mac G4/450 (my old desktop machine) running Mac OS 9 and a variety of old freeware/shareware Internet server applications (as well as FileMaker Pro for serving dynamic web pages). This old system has served us well, but are ready to take things to the next level and set up a “real” server environment.

In many respects, this is still a new thing for me. I am not a systems administrator. I am a Mac tech support person, software expert, and web designer, but I am not an IT person.

I didn’t have to learn too much about systems administration to set up and run the old Mac OS 9 server, because it was a pretty simple configuration. (I did have to learn about firewalls even with that old server, however, because, no matter how secure the classic Mac OS was, it was still vulnerable. We ended up installing NetBarrier on it.)

With the Xserve and Panther Server, the issue was whether I was going to have to learn much more about Mac OS X’s Unix underpinnings and do a lot of stuff through the command-line interface. I don’t mind learning, but, as a Mac user, I tend to favour graphical interfaces. Would the GUI tools provided as part of Mac OS X Server (i.e. mostly Server Admin and Workgroup Manager) be both powerful and simple enough for me to be able to set them up without too much head-scratching and fiddling with the command-line?

Panther Server doesn’t come with much in terms of printed documentation. Most manuals are provided as PDF files (also available on Apple’s web site). There is one for “Network Services”, one for “Mail Service”, one for “User Management Administration”, one for “Web Technologies Administration”, etc. And they are all quite long. Would I really have to read all of them in full?

The first major issue was that we had to get our network access provider (the province-wide education network) to configure their DNS servers in order to support the presence of a server with a www.xxx.ca domain name, which would be both a web server and a mail server (mail.xxx.ca). With DNS server administrators, you have to know exactly what you are asking for. They are not exactly very user-friendly people. So I had to learn about “MX records” and things like that. But it was eventually sorted out.

Then I had to configure the Xserve to run a variety of services, including a web server, mail server, FTP server, etc. I am still not clear about the whole concept of “directories” of information on the server. As far as I understand it, these directories are designed for more advanced networking features, which we don’t really need. But I still had to confront the concept as part of the configuration process.

Anyway, to make a long story short, I am very pleased to report that I now have an Xserve machine that running just fine and already serving web pages and acting as a mail server. And all this was done using the Mac OS X Server’s GUI tools. I didn’t have to open the Terminal or a config file with a text editor once.

The only tricky part was to get the mail server to run properly. For some reason, I had to add “xxx.ca” (without the “www.” and without the “mail.”) to the list of “local host aliases” in the “Advanced” tab of the Mail service configuration pane. This wasn’t mentioned anywhere in the documentation. I couldn’t get the mail server to work at all and thought it had to do with the way my directory of users was defined. But when I tried to sent an email to one of the users that I had created, I got a bounce, and the error message in the bounced message did say something about “xxx.ca” not being recognized as a host. So I just added the “xxx.ca” line to the list of host aliases — et voilà.

I was also able to do most of the configuration remotely using the Server Admin tools over my dial-up connection — which is really quite remarkable. It is a bit slow for my taste, but it certainly is more pleasant than having to do things through a command-line interface.

Now I need to figure out while the FTP server is not working right… (It seems to be running, and the authentication works, but my FTP client Transmit hangs and then complains about invalid FTP commands when it comes to listing the contents of my user directory.)

To be continued…

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