Help me get a small business network of Macs organized
July 25, 2007 7:42 PM   Subscribe

Some clients of mine have a small consulting business that is rapidly expanding. What started as 1 desktop computer has turned into 4 desktops, 4 laptops (and recently 2 iPhones), and they'll soon be adding some more desktops. They're moving some of the computers out of their home office, and into a "real" office next week and I'm really trying to nail down a good setup for them. I'm looking for your advice on how you've organized a smallish network of Macs, allowing anywhere access of Files, Email, Calendar and Address Book.

Ever since this network started expanding, they've wanted the same thing: To access their files and email from anywhere, and to have a common Calendar, and to have a common Address Book. By "common", I mean, able to be accessed from any computer (laptop or desktop) whether online or offline, and whether on site or off. This had been a little tricky to handle, and has turned into a nightmare since I moved across the country (read: has turned into phone-tech-support hell).

First, a brief (well, I tried to be brief, anyway) background of the last 4 years, so you know what I've tried:

Email
I used to have them all set up with IMAP accounts on the hosted web server we use, until that web server crashed, losing all of their mail, which really upset them (sensibly). I switched web hosts and downgraded them to POP accounts, so they'd always have a local copy of their mail (which proved useful when they wanted to access things offline). This was fine, until they started complaining that they couldn't tell if someone in the organization had responded to an email at another computer. For this, I set up a Gmail account for them, and had all of their email forward to it. Then I set up accounts in Gmail so they could respond from the appropriate account, while having all their mail in one place, accessible from anywhere. They used this occasionally. At some point, I tried switching them over to Google Apps for your domain, which sounded perfect for managing things, but it ended up not working due to weird POP access issue, where GMail would only download messages once, meaning only one computer got the message, instead of all of them. Apparently this is a known issue, but was not known to me until it was too late, and I ended up wasting a weekend switching them over and back. I have since read about the "recent:username@gmail.com" trick to prevent this, but have not decided to switch them over to GAfYD, again.

Calendar/Address Books
I first had them set up on Entourage/iCal/Address Book. They all used Sync Services to sync the Address Book and Calendar to .Mac, and all the other computers got the information from that. This worked pretty well for a while, aside from when they decided to turn sync off (and then complain to me that it wasn't working). But then the Calendar cancer started: at first, one computer started getting many duplicate events. This was easily remedied by finding valid data, and reseting the sync with .Mac. This happened every 3 months or so. Then, a month ago, something like 15,000 duplicate calendar entries propagated to other computers, and all hell broke loose. I ended up finding a script to clean out all the bad data, and fed up with sync, I thought I'd get them to give Google Calendar a try. This has been working fine as a calendar, but now they're not sure what to do with their Notes/Tasks that Entourage used to handle.

I got all their data into GCal, and they seem to be satisfied with it, aside from the fact that it can't be accessed while not online. This was further complicated when they went early adopter on my ass, got an iPhone before I did, and wanted their calendar and address book to sync to it via iCal. I assume they can point their phones and other computers at Google's Private iCal feed to get all that data, and it will stay available. I assume this will work, but it has yet to be set up. I suppose the Address book will still have to do the sync via .Mac.

Files
Initially, I had their computers networked using their main workstation (G5 Tower) as the central-file-server, and had the others automatically mount the G5's hard drive for file sharing. This got confusing for them, as their computers are a mess, with folders and files scattered everywhere and structures duplicated between machines. They'd get messed up figuring out whether the files they were looking at were on their computer or on the G5. Also, from time to time the computers would just lose contact with each other, which would require a phone call to me to get them back up. (It was nothing too odd, just rebooting, typing in the address of the computer again, etc, aside from the time the ethernet cable got moved from Port #1 to port #2 on the G5, and the static IP settings I set up got messed. They still don't know how it got switched. Unreal.)

When the latest Airport Extreme came out, I thought AirDisk would be the ultimate solution, but it turned out to be nothing but trouble again. First, the speed was horrible (even wired into their network), and second, MS Word bombed every time you tried to save to the AFP disk. This was apparently a known, fairly common problem with AFP disks and word, so I tried connecting via SMB instead, which worked for a while. That failed in the end, though, since the easy-peasy Airdisk shows its seams when trying to use SMB instead of AFP. They had so many connection problems, that we finally ditched it and went back to our previous solution.

Based on the information I've given, does anyone have any advice? Do you see completely boneheaded things I've set up? Better solutions? What do you use?

Also, would OS X server make their lives (and mine) easier, in any way, or is that just adding unnecessary complexity to the equation?
posted by jeffxl to Computers & Internet (9 answers total) 2 users marked this as a favorite
 
Also, would OS X server make their lives (and mine) easier, in any way, or is that just adding unnecessary complexity to the equation?

You need an OS X Server box (either your G5 tower or an Xserve) for these services.
posted by Blazecock Pileon at 7:59 PM on July 25, 2007


Mail:
You could set up an internal IMAP server that acts as a relay between the mail server outside and the clients. Easy to backup since it is local, faster folder access form inside the office network, and you have a central location for sorting and filtering spam.

Files:
1) Use a linux box with some pre-baked software for the job (clarkconnect or similar) or
2) Buy a simple NAS like the Buffalo Linkstation or
3) Use Windows 2003 with AFP and Macintosh services enabled.

All of the above has worked well for me. Just don't use SMB...

Calendar:
Publish iCal calendars to the file server.

Accessing all of the above from outside:
Set up a firewall (Astaro security linux has a free edition, for example) and make them connect through a VPN. This is the only thing not entirely meeting their criteria (not any desktop or laptop, since it needs to have the VPN set up), but it's pretty much the only way to go if they want a minimum amount of security and data consistency.
posted by uncle harold at 8:18 PM on July 25, 2007


Also, there is Open Exchange Server. Although I have not tried it myself yet, and it is not feature complete AFAIK. The idea would be the same, though - install locally and access through VPN.
posted by uncle harold at 8:20 PM on July 25, 2007


Seriously, you've tried cobbling together solutions with disparate pieces, which is what you'll end up doing with Linux. Don't waste more time and money.

If you run OS X Server 10.5, which will be available in October, you can run a mail server, set up centralized calendaring and LDAP directory services, manage file sharing through networked home folders (for local and remote workstations), and provide VPN-protected access for remote users.

All from one box with one piece of software, and one user directory to manage.
posted by Blazecock Pileon at 9:38 PM on July 25, 2007


Maybe it's time for some sort of collaborative email solution (email 2.0?). MacTank has a web based system designed more for customer support, but it might get you thinking, anyway.
posted by jpmack at 9:55 PM on July 25, 2007


25 user Exchange is probably just a couple grand and can run fine on a hefty white box PC. It sounds like it's what you're looking for and everything else can be done with a network attached fileserver, maybe with a little NIS to ease the automounting of shared directories. You don't mention any prejudices or preferences, but this is how I'd set things up. Much as I'd like an open source or alternative to Exchange, I haven't found anything I'd recommend yet.
posted by rhizome at 11:39 PM on July 25, 2007


Ok, so going on the OS X server path, which by the sounds of Blazecock Pileon's answer, sounds pretty sweet...

Do I need to wait for 10.5, or will 10.4 do?

Can you recommend any sites/books to school myself in OS X server?
posted by jeffxl at 7:22 AM on July 26, 2007


Do I need to wait for 10.5, or will 10.4 do?

If you want centralized calendaring, you would need to wait for 10.5. The other features are available in 10.4.

I would recommend carefully reading the documentation at Apple's web site, which goes into more detail about the various aspects of configuring and deploying different services.
posted by Blazecock Pileon at 7:31 AM on July 26, 2007


For calendaring, keep in mind the version of iCal you'd need to run is in an upgrade to the desktop OS X 10.5. (Or you'd use Mozilla's Sunbird calendar software with your current OS X clients.)
posted by Blazecock Pileon at 7:36 AM on July 26, 2007


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