Use Regular Mac OS X to Set Up a Low-end Server

Apple offers Mac OS X Server in both a $499 10-client edition and a $999 unlimited client version. While the unlimited version offers one of the best values in enterprise server software, it’s cheaper sibling is mighty expensive for an organization that only needs to serve ten users.

If you have a small office or just need a dedicated server for a small workgroup, the client version of Mac OS X can easily be turned into a server using shareware, freeware, and built-in software.

Mac OS X 10.4 TigerOS X Server is no different under the hood than the regular client version; a lot of the server software is actually included with every version of OS X, including 10.4 Tiger.

What Apple has bundled with OS X Server are easy-to-use graphical front-ends for these services. These graphical tools can either be used from the server or from a remote OS X computer.

Thanks to some enterprising developers, for those with smaller needs and smaller budgets, that spare G3 or G4 you have lying around can probably give you all the server functionality you need for a fraction of the cost of a dedicated server or a copy of OS X Server.

Set Up Your Machine

If you are using an older machine for your server on the cheap, consider going out and picking up a new, fast, large hard drive. Place it in one of your server’s available drive bays. You can use this new drive to store your data with the main hard drive functioning solely as the startup drive.

Install your version of Mac OS X. Mac OS X 10.3 Panther or 10.4 Tiger have more software actively developed for them these days, although 10.2 Jaguar would probably still work well for you.

Set up the first account as Administrator or something to that effect. After finishing the setup assistant, run Software Update, install the available updates, reboot, and repeat until Software Update reports your system is up-to-date.

File Serving

The first thing most people need from a server is the ability to share files. The interface for File Sharing (in System Preferences > Sharing) in OS X is fairly limited. You can basically turn File Sharing on or off; users can then log in and access their home folders or the Drop Boxes in other users’ home folders.

While this setup is fairly neat for a certain type of file sharing, it lacks the qualities of a “normal” file server – the ability to define share points, users, groups, and permissions for those share points. You’ll find the ability to do this in Windows 2000/XP, most Linux GUIs, and even Mac OS 7, 8, and 9.

In OS X, you could fiddle with the NetInfo Manager and the Terminal for Apple File Sharing, or smb.conf files for Windows file sharing. Or you can download yourself a copy of SharePoints.

SharePoints fills the holes left by Apple’s GUI implementation of the OS’s file sharing abilities – and a lot more. All of these features are already built into OS X, but HornWare took the time and effort to put a nice front end to them.

Users can be added as “file sharing only” users, so that they can only log in via file sharing and are not given full-fledged OS X login accounts. The users and groups management of sharepoints brings something to OS X that is badly needed – an easy way to create and manage ad-hoc system groups.

Any folder can be defined as a sharepoint and have its permissions set from within SharePoints. You can have files in the sharepoint inherit the permissions of its parent sharepoint or leave traditional Unix-style permissions in place. (In Unix mode, whoever creates a file is the “owner”, regardless of the permissions of its parent folder. Those used to Apple’s older file sharing technology will definitely want to opt for “inherit permissions”.)

Shared folders can be shared to Mac users,Windows/SMB users, or both.

Server properties, like the greeting message and what to log in the log files, can be set. The feature list goes on and on, and amazingly the developer does not charge for SharePoints. He does accept donations, however. If you get use out of SharePoints (and I’m sure you will if you install it), please send HornWare whatever you can afford to encourage further development.

Web Server

Another popular feature of OS X Server is the built-in Apache web server. However, it’s also built into the client version, where it’s called Personal Web Sharing. By turning this on and placing HTML documents in /Library/WebServer/Documents/, you’ve essentially got the same web server built into OS X Server.

While OS X Server provides a GUI for turning Apache features on and off (like enabling PHP), the same thing can be done with the client version. Nearly all configuration is stored in /etc/httpd/httpd.conf. It may take a little more thinking and reading, but most things can be done with relative ease by editing this config file.

The included Apache on both OS X Server and client is version 1.3. Point-and-click package installers for Apache 2, along with newer versions of PHP, exist for Mac OS X, making web serving on a Mac a breeze. Server Logistics [now Xfernet] makes some very popular Apache, PHP, and MySQL packages for Mac OS X.

Printer Sharing

The printer management features of OS X Server offer the ability to create queues and quotas. The small office that can benefit from this server on the cheap will have no use for this. If you do need to share a printer, OS X client’s built-in printer sharing is more than capable.


If you have a need for an in-house DNS server, OS X Server can handle this chore easily. The same DNS server software (known as BIND) built in to OS X Server is also there in the client version.

Perhaps taking a cue from SharePoints, Josh Wisenbaker has developed DNS Helper. This is a very straightforward GUI app that gets you at the BIND configuration files and makes setting up an ad-hoc DNS server on your Mac a snap. DNS Helper is freeware and open source; the source is included in the download.


FTP on OS X client is similar to file sharing on the client version – it’s very basic and limited. If you turn on FTP sharing, users can expect to log in to their home folders and any other folders they might have access to. If you’re wanting to set up a more specialized FTP server, it’s off to the command line.

Fortunately, a free, full-featured and fast FTP server is out there for OS X. Called PureFTPD Manager, this is yet another gem that will help you convert your OS X client box into a full-fledged server.


Want to run an IMAP based mail server? Here’s another example of things built in to both OS X Server and client – again with no GUI in the client. And once again, enterprising developers have come to the rescue.

Postfix Enabler from Mac@Work follows what must be a familiar trend by now – it provides a GUI to the Postfix mail server built into OS X 10.3 or 10.4.

Other Services

Of course, there are some things you get with OS X Server that you just don’t get with the client version no matter how many freeware packages you install. Traditionally, it has been the QuickTime Streaming Server and WebObjects deployment license, although Apple has added more server-only features in the last few years.

Organizations that are best served by this “cheap server” probably won’t have any need for these extra bells and whistles. Among these services are DHCP, VPN, and NAT. A small office/home office Internet router can provide these services. The Firewall service available in OS X Server could be emulated with third-party software in the client version, but a good SOHO router could also take care of this.

Managed clients is also pretty much an impossibility without OS X Server, but that’s very well out of the scope of any small workgroup.

XGrid control is one of the recent server-only additions, but a small office with ten clients or less won’t ever come close to needing distributed computing power.

The remote administration tools of OS X Server are very nice. If you’re handy with the command line, turning on SSH will provide you with a nongraphical way to accomplish most things you can do with the Server Admin tools. If nothing else, you could also install a free VNC server and use one of many free VNC clients to control the server remotely.

OS X Server Is a Good Buy

Mac OS X Server is a good buy. At $999 for unlimited clients, it’s an incredible value in comparison to Microsoft’s “per user tax”.

But for those who can’t or don’t want to spend the money on the real thing, most services for small workgroups can be had for nothing more than a little downloading and elbow grease.

Many aspiring Mac sysadmins will find it a lot more fun to turn the Mac OS X client into a server. Those who appreciate a good bargain are also likely to enjoy this process.


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