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So Why Create a Mixed-Server Environment?

With relative ease, you can create an environment centered around a single server platform that supports both Mac and Windows users. You can even do it with a fair degree of integration of services, regardless of the platform. But there are still some advantages to having both server platforms in a mixed environment. These advantages stem less from shared file or printer access, and more from support for directory services integration.

Directory services (Active Directory or NT-style domains in Windows, Open Directory in Mac OS X) store information about user accounts, computers, servers, share points, and such in a central repository. They allow users to have a single account for accessing all servers on the network and enable people to use that same account to log in at a workstation (and for administrators to control which workstations allow user login). Directory services also allow administrators to manage the user environment for specific groups of users or computers, control printer and application access, and set permissions and access restrictions for resources stored on computers throughout a network.

Although Apple provides the ability for Mac OS X clients to access Active Directory and for Mac OS X Server to host a Windows domain, limitations are imposed when working with a directory service that's not native to a computer's operating system. For example, Mac OS X Server allows administrators to leverage the power of Open Directory to manage preferences for any aspect of the Mac OS X environment and properly written Mac OS X applications for any user or group or any computer running Mac OS X. Windows 2000/2003 Server offers similar capabilities for Windows 2000/XP workstations through the use of Group Policy Objects (GPOs) in Active Directory.

In a pure Active Directory environment, administrators can manage very little of the Mac OS X user experience, although they can impose permission limitations, such as which workstations a user can log into, what network resources he or she can access, and whether the user has administrative control over a workstation while logged in. The reverse is also true. Mac OS X Server can provide Windows login and basic access management for workstations, but cannot apply GPOs because it cannot host an Active Directory domain.

Managed Preferences and GPOs provide administrators with a great tool for managing the user experience as well as for maintaining software updates on computers, improving workflows between users and departments, providing enhanced security, and any number of similar tools that are becoming increasingly used and valued. Thus, this capability is one of the best reasons to create a solid mixed-server infrastructure.

Other reasons for integration may be as simple as determining that another platform server may be more cost-effective or better at providing specific services for your network: web access, email, instant messaging, weblogs, FTP, and so on. Often it can be advantageous to provide directory services integration for servers that do work other than file and print sharing, because of the greater flexibility you gain in managing the service. An Exchange server, for example, could be integrated for mail while personal information management is based on Active Directory user accounts.

For users, these services often are helpful because they rely on a single user account with a single password or function in a single sign-on environment, where users need only enter a password once during a computing session.

In some cases, such as Microsoft's Terminal Services or Citrix, a type of service may be available to only one server platform.

Finally, you may want to consolidate separate Mac and Windows server environments into a single infrastructure, without removing services to which users in each environment have become accustomed.

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