Why you need to run OS X Server

By | 2014/12/11

I’ve tried hard to be a big user of OS X Server. I’ve been installing it for several years now at home, but recently decommissioned my last and final attempt at using it exhaustively. It’s one of those interesting beasts that walks the line between the back-end power and infinite flexibility of a Unix style server and the front-end ease of configuration of a Windows server. Sadly though, my needs seem to fall into that uncomfortable middle ground where many of the GUI options aren’t quite enough, and the obfuscation introduced into the back-end configuration files from relying on GUI configuration makes fiddling with said files more problematic than its worth.

All that said and done, I believe every household with a Mac in it and more than one iOS device and/or more than one Mac should install it.

When I decommissioned the Mac Mini I was running OS X server 10.9 on, I next went to the App Store and purchased, downloaded and installed OS X server 10.10 on my iMac, and I did it for one key function: caching.

caching server

The OS X server Caching function is entirely magical. In our house, we’ve got 3 iPhones, 2 iPads and 3 Macs. There’s a good amount of account centralisation and shared interests, so a lot of apps tend to be common across the iOS devices, and there’s a bunch of common apps between the Macs as well.

If you’ve used OS X Server before, Caching is not the old “Software Update” service, where a monumentally large amount of updates and software would be downloaded for local distribution. To someone on a low speed link*, the old Software Update service in OS X Server was paradoxically one of the worst things you could possibly enable. You also had to go through a bit of a rigmarole to get clients to use the software update service. Compared to the Caching services, that’s just medieval.

Once you turn the Caching service on, any time a Mac or iOS device on your network downloads a new update, app or Mac Store purchase, the Caching service gets a copy of that, so subsequent downloads of the same item come from the cache. There’s no special setup, there’s no changing of configuration, it just happens. The most challenging configuration decision you’ll make is whether to click the “On/Off” Slider, or to try to slide it. To quote the help:

How does it work?
A computer running Caching service keeps a copy of all operating system updates, Mac and iOS App Store downloads, and iBooks content that local networked computers (called clients) download.

For example, when the first client on your network downloads an operating system update, Caching service keeps a copy of the update. When the next client on the network connects to the App Store to download the update, the update is copied from the server rather than from the App Store.

I honestly can’t say enough how much time this has saved us in our house. For instance, we’ve both got the Microsoft Office apps on our iOS devices … they’re collectively almost 1.5GB between Excel, Word and PowerPoint. (Hell, the iOS version of GarageBand these days is 784MB just by itself.) When our download speeds peak at around 1.5MB/s and that’s usually offset by Crashplan** backups, repeated downloads of 1.5GB of updates is tediously slow.

I’ve got approximately 19GB of apps on my iPhone, and many are the combo apps that run on both iPad and iPhone. Further, many of those are also on my partner’s iPhone and/or iPad. So if 2GB of App updates trickle through in a week and we share 80% of those apps, we might have reduced our common download requirements from 6.4GB to 1.6GB. Assuming a happy medium of 1MB/s download, that’s dropped the download time from 109 minutes to a much happier 27. Even if you’ve got a faster internet connection than most of Australia has, there’s often going to be a good chance your local LAN will still be considerably faster than your incoming ‘net speed.

That’s just for home use, of course. Imagine you’re a business that does BYOD … a good percentage of your staff may have iOS devices, and those devices are likely going to be connecting to your WiFi network in the office. A small Mac OS X server, providing caching in the office of even just 500GB or 1TB of space? The cumulative reduction to your incoming network utilisation will be beneficial – as much as can be done, it’ll get those updates out of the way of core business utilisation of your internet links. That can’t be a bad thing.

The Caching service takes away almost all of the tedium of updating common iOS or App Store content, and it alone makes the $30 cost of OS X Server worth it. Even if you don’t use OS X server for anything else at all. And that’s why despite mostly giving up on OS X Server, it’ll be a cold day in hell before I stop using it.

* Practically any internet user in Australia.

** Seriously, start using Crashplan.