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Can't We All Just Get Along? Easy Ways To Integrate Mac and Windows Servers

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Life used to be simple: Your company was a Mac shop or a Windows shop. These days, the line between the two platforms is blurring, with many organizations using servers and workstations of both platforms for various functionalities. Ryan Faas explains some simple ways for system administrators to reduce the headaches of a multiplatform business.
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A little over a decade ago, businesses and institutions tended to be strictly Mac-based or Windows-based. The IT department supported a single platform because the servers used the same platform as the user computers they supported—Windows NT for PC organizations, AppleShare IP for Mac shops. The exception tended to be those organizations that relied on Novell, which provided servers that supported both Windows and Mac operating systems.

Over the intervening years, much has changed and that single-OS attitude has faded. Novell's market share for servers has dwindled and Apple's market share lessened enough by the mid- to late 1990s that relatively few Mac-only organizations still existed. In their place were organizations that included both Mac and Windows workstations, often separated by departments. At the time, it was often the burden of the Mac users (or the Mac technical staff) to maintain interoperability with the larger population of PC users in an organization. Schools and design companies provided the occasional exception by remaining strong Mac loyalists.

In the years since Mac OS X was first introduced, things have shifted again. Apple has developed a reliable and powerful server platform in Mac OS X Server and in hardware solutions such as Xserve, Xserve RAID, and Xsan. Both Apple and Microsoft offer excellent cross-platform products in their server lines. And Apple has even built all the required tools for cross-platform life directly in the mainstream version of Mac OS X.

All this platform-crossing activity leads us to the questions facing many system administrators who support mixed-platform infrastructures:

  • Do we need to remain dedicated to Windows servers or Mac OS X servers?
  • What's the benefit in maintaining a single-server platform throughout the organization?
  • If we choose to integrate platforms, how do we make sure that Windows servers and Mac OS X servers get along?

This article provides some simple answers to these questions—particularly for small to medium-sized networks—as well as resources for dealing with larger and more complex situations. But before we get to those questions, let's look at the common ways in which Macs and Windows PCs can be supported in a single-server platform environment.

Mac OS X and the Windows Server Environment

Mac OS X is well designed to exist in a Windows infrastructure. Apple has included support for accessing shared files and printers using the SMB protocol (the native protocol for Windows clients and servers):

  • You can easily search a Windows network by going to the Network globe in the Finder and browsing through various Windows domains, workgroups, and servers—in much the same way as you can using My Network Places on a Windows workstation.
  • You can just as easily elect to search for shared printers using SMB in the Print Setup Utility. If you open the Directory Access application, you can configure the SMB/CIFS plug-in to assign Workgroup membership to a Mac OS X computer on a Windows network (see Figure 1). You can configure the computer to access a specific WINS server for resolving the NetBIOS names of Windows computers on a network that includes multiple subnets. (All of which you can do in the System Properties and network connection properties of a Windows PC.)
Figure 1

Figure 1 Specifying a WINS server by using the Directory Access utility in Mac OS X.

Going a step further, Apple has included the ability to join Mac OS X computers to an Active Directory domain, allowing you to use Active Directory user accounts for login access to Mac workstations. You can also configure home directory access to be shared with a Windows home directory stored on a server within the Active Directory domain. This ability, which can be configured in a number of ways depending on the Active Directory configuration and the needs of the users, makes Macs nearly equal players with PCs on a completely Windows-based network.

Of course, these are all Apple offerings. Microsoft also provides Services for Mac with its Windows NT 4, 2000, and 2003 server lines. This capability allows you to configure share points and print queues to be shared with Mac clients using the Apple Filing Protocol (AFP), the native file-sharing protocol for Mac OS X and classic Mac OS versions (as well as the legacy AppleTalk file- and printer-sharing protocol). Services for Mac has some limitations, though; it requires extra attention by server administrators, and it doesn't support any direct interaction between the Mac workstation and Active Directory (that is, user login to the workstation or home directory access). But it's a no-cost option if you need to support older Macs.

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