Sep 00 Getting Started
Volume Number: 16 (2000)
Issue Number: 9
Column Tag: Getting Started
MacWorld New York 2000
by John C. Welch
The Network Manager's eye view
Welcome To The Show
The New York MacWorld Expo was a ground breaking show in many ways. Firstly, we have the attendance figure of 61,250 attendees. While well below this year's San Francisco number of over 85,000 attendees, it was a third more people than last year's New York MacWorld Expo, and well over the best figures for the best of the fabled Boston MacWorld Expos. A jump in the numbers like this is good for many reasons, but one of the important ones is that it's a sign that the New York move is finally picking up the numbers it needs to stand on its own, without being compared to shows from the Boston heyday. Attendance numbers like this year's also means that vendors who may have previously ignored New York for the larger San Francisco show will think twice about that next year. Finally, for the first time, there were no huge empty areas of show floor, not-so-cleverly hidden behind partitions.
But enough cheerleading, what about the show itself? Well, from my point of view, it was excellent all the way around. The keynote was, as usual, an example of showmanship at its finest. Steve Jobs' famed Reality Distortion Field was working its usual magic, although considering the state of Apple the last few years, it no longer needs to work quite as hard. The hardware announcements were welcome indeed. As an administrator, I am very pleased to no longer have to automatically toss out the standard Apple mouse and keyboard that comes with the Macs we buy. And, although this may sound unusual for a corporate environment, the fact that the new mouse is very pleasing to the eye is a bigger bonus than you might think.
The announcement of the multi-processor G4 Macs was not that unusual to anyone who saw the demo of them at the Apple World Wide Developer Conference this past May. This was essentially a repeat of the initial demo of the G4 at the WWDC in 1999, and then the release not long afterwards. Although many will point out that the current MacOS can't handle multiple processors, that is not completely accurate. Apple has done a lot of work with the capabilities of the MP libraries in the current MacOS, especially with low-level tasks. Any developer taking advantage of these libraries should notice a definite improvement in performance on the MP Macs. This is also important for the upcoming public beta of MacOSX. By having MP Macs out in the hands of users prior to the beta, the radically improved MP capabilities of OSX will become immediately evident to Mac users, and this will help drive sales of not only MP Macs, but of OSX when it is released. I was surprised to see that Apple was not only making MP a standard feature of the mid-range and high-end G4 towers, but that they were able to do it for the same price as the Uniprocessor Macs. In essence, Apple is giving us a 'buy one, get one free' deal on the second CPU, and that is not a bad deal.
I'm also excited about the MP G4 models for more immediate reasons. The company I do most of my work for is a scientific firm. We make heavy use of Unix, multiple processors, and applications like Research System's IDL, which is a scientific image processing application. This type of application makes good use of additional processors when run under an operating system that supports SMP properly. Considering how expensive large-scale compute servers can be, the ability to have that level of processing capability on a scientist's desk for around $3000 has not only me, but many of my users eagerly awaiting the public beta of OSX, and the next round of Mac purchases. Since we are a scientific firm we also have network data needs that would be considered insane by anyone who isn't a Photoshop pro. When you are dealing with atmospheric models, the data sets that support these models can easily approach, and often exceed the gigabyte size range. So finding out that Apple is making Gigabit Ethernet standard equipment for the new G4 towers turned my smile up yet another notch.
The new iMacs were, as always a crowd pleaser. The new colors are rich and vibrant, but somehow more dignified than the previous flavors. The new pricing structure is appealing to a corporate environment as well. To be able to get an iMac with firewire, VGA mirroring, (a very welcome new iMac feature), 192MB of RAM, the three year extended warranty, a USB Zip and SuperDrive for under $1700 makes buying one almost a no-brainer. Even when you add in things like Office98, and the standard utilities and packages we use, we are still talking about a silent full-featured corporate computer for under $2500. Considering that corporate price points are often in the $2500 to $3000 range, the new iMacs nail this particular sweet spot dead on. It's remarkably coincidental how a company that is constantly saying they have no interest in the corporate enterprise is making some of the best corporate computers around. Or maybe home users do have a desperate need for Wake-On-LAN that none of us I.S.-types have figured out yet.
I said the iMacs were almost a no-brainer for the corporate crowd, only because there is one other Mac that is even better suited for this arena: The Cube. True, it's not expandable, and you can't put in a different video card, and it has only space for one hard drive, and all peripherals have to be external. I still think this object d'art is going to be a big seller in the corporate area. First of all, it's gorgeous, and I mean in a Porsche/Ferrari kind of way. This thing just seems to ooze coolness. It looks like it should be on a shelf with other ridiculously expensive knick-knacks in a house on a prime-time soap opera. I can't think of a better computer, especially with one of the new flat-panel LCDs to put on a desk that is in an open area, or a receptionist's desk. The Cube is just, well, phat. Secondly, it's silent. Not quiet, but almost completely without noise. The hard drive is the only inherent noise coming from the Cube, and that is low enough to be ignored. For those of you who don't understand why this is important, think about the difference in your office or cubicle the next time you have to turn your computer off. I have a Beige G3 server, an external RAID box, and an 18-tape Digital Linear Tape autochanger in my office. Believe me, the thought of getting rid of any one of those noisemakers makes me smile. Now think about a corporate cube farm full of nice big Pentium towers, each with the standard two or three fans. Now imagine all that noise gone, to where you can hear the mouse clicks from a cubicle almost at the other end of the room. That is a cube farm full of Cubes; beautiful, isn't it?
While I will acknowledge that the Cube is totally inappropriate for someone who needs multiple processors, or specialized PCI cards, or for many server needs, the truth is, the vast majority of corporate users never add cards, never upgrade video cards, never do anything that the Cube cannot handle with ease. Considering how often people end up putting minitowers on their desktops, just because having to reach under their desk to get to the CD drive, or the Zip drive is such an annoyance, the size of the Cube is also going to be a big draw for the corporate crowd. Again, for a company totally disinterested in the corporate market, the Cube is one heck of a corporate computers. Apple's protestations here remind me of the "Brutus is an honorable man" speech from Julius Caesar.
That is not to say I found no shortcomings from the new hardware. I was dismayed to see Apple jumping to a brand new monitor connection with no way around the new system for those looking to combine older monitors with newer Macs and vice-versa. This is a temporary annoyance at best though, because I can already hear the peripheral companies firing up the VGA to ADC converter production lines. Still, it would have been nice to have an announcement to that effect.
The final bit of interesting keynote news was of course, OSX. Not the Aqua demo, (and that's what these are, Aqua demos. Outside of the developer community, I highly doubt that 90% of the Mac user community has seen any part of OSX other than Aqua), but rather the public beta news. The September time frame is not a hideous delay, and if it means a better beta experience for all, then I see it as a good thing. OSX still looks to be on track for the January/Early 2001 commercial release, and as long as that doesn't slip by more than a few months, OSX should be still considered to be close to on time. Were I to be a cynic, I would say that by having a few million users who are living with, and happy with OSX, the initial sales of the new OS should be a hit right away, as those folks are not going to want to go back to 9.X when their beta copies expire. But that would be cynical.
The Rest of the Show
But the keynote is only the more visible part of MacWorld Expo, and only the beginning. There is a whole show floor, and three days of sessions that are of use to almost anyone.
The first product of MacWorld that jumped out at me hasn't been released yet. That was the announcement by Tenon Intersytems of a full featured X Window application for OSX. This is a major announcement for the new OS, one that will help it gain real acceptance in the Unix community at large. X Window is the way that Unix computers can share applications that have a graphical interface with multiple users. This is not the same as products like VNC or Timbuktu. Those products are remote control applications, allowing you to take almost physical control of a remote computer, and use it almost as if you were sitting at that machine's physical keyboard. What the X Window System, (its proper name) allows is for multiple users to log into a single computer, and use a single application at the same time. The code in the application executes on the remote computer, and only screen, mouse, and keyboard data is sent between machines. There are X Window applications available for almost every computer system on the market, but it is especially important in the Unix world, as X is the primary means of running applications with a graphical interface. X is essentially a client-server display model, although its use of those terms can be a bit confusing. Essentially, the display functions are part of the X server, and the applications running, and sending display information to the X server are the X clients. These can be not just remote applications, but applications residing on the local hard disk of your computer.
Until this announcement, the only way to run X on OSX was to use a Darwin port of the XFree86 X Window application, (ported by John Carmack of Id Software, among others). However, the lack of a commercial X Window system for OSX was a serious hindrance to OSX's acceptance as a 'real' Unix-based OS. The Tenon announcement changed all that. What is just as important is that Tenon's product will allow OSX to serve standard X Window applications to other remote machines, and to the local user as well. This means that almost any BSD Unix application that is able to run on the version of BSD that is part of OSX, and can run on the G3 or G4 processor can run under OSX. This opens up a potentially huge library of applications that Mac users have had to run on other systems before. Especially for the Scientific and Technology market, or SciTech, full X capabilities for OSX is a serious point in the OS's favor at companies and universities in that arena. Finally, the Tenon announcement also covered that they will include X programming libraries and utilities with the product. This means that OSX-based developers will be able to create applications that take advantage of the G3 and G4 architectural advantages, but are available to anyone who can run X Window applications on their computer. So a developer could easily create an OSX application that had the Aqua interface, and took advantage of OSX's capabilities, and then with a little work, add in the capability for that same application to be run by almost any other computer platform in existence today. This is a huge step forward in compatibility for the Mac, and will have a very positive effect on the platform's growth.
Other products that caught my eye, although not to the same extent as Tenon's included the SANcube, from MicroNet Technology. The SANcube is interesting as an initial implementation of a FireWIre-based Storage Area Network, (SAN) device. The advantage to a SAN is that all storage on a SAN are independent of any host. That is, to get to disks on a SAN, you just mount the drives in the SAN device. No need to have a file server with the disks attached to it. This allows for greater flexibility in that you can have multiple computers with different OS's accessing the SAN storage device. It can also improve reliability by decoupling network storage from network servers, which means the storage on a SAN only has to be a storage device, not a file server with an OS, and the problems that a server can cause. Unfortunately, due to limitations in the current implementations of FireWire disk access methods, the disk access on the SANcube is controlled at the volume level. This means that if you have only a single partition on a SAN cube, and 5 servers that are attached to that SANcube, only one server can have write access to that partition, all others can only read from it. MicroNet recommends that you try to create a partition for each computer attached to the SANcube, thereby giving each computer on the SAN a partition that they have full access to, and read access to all the others. Hopefully, as FireWire is updated, this process will be able to happen at the file level, rather than the volume level. In any case, the SANcube still has great potential and usefulness, for things such as server farms, or situations where you only want one server to be able to write to a disk.
Two of my favorite Mac networking and administration companies were at the Expo as well, namely Thursby Systems and Alsoft. Thursby is the maker of such cross-platform compatibility products, such as DAVE, (for connecting Macs to a Windows network), MacNFS, (which gives Macs access to Unix files), and TSSNet, (to connect Windows machines to Mac Networks.) For those of us running multiple platform networks, Thursby's products are the way we avoid the host of connectivity problems that multiple platforms sometimes create. Alsoft is the company that makes DiskWarrior, which is most likely the best drive recovery tool on the Mac market. All of these products are an essential part of any networking toolkit, and I have used them in various combinations over the years, and consider them to be an absolute requirement for my administrator's toolkit. (On a side note, Chuck Goolsbee, keeper of the Mac-Manager's list, gave Alsoft one of the hard to come by Mac-Manager's list buttons, as a thanks for all the administrator's keisters that DiskWarrior has saved since its release. I was with Chuck when it happened, and considering how often DiskWarrior has saved 'dead' drives belonging to various executive types for me, I can't think of anyone more deserving.)
As interesting and fun as the show floor is, there is yet another part of MacWorld Expo, that while not as glitzy, is a major part of the show for me, namely the various Pro, User, and preshow sessions.
The first set of sessions are the preshow conference workshops. These are seven hour, in-depth classes that cover everything from an introduction to Mac networking to Final Cut Pro. Not for the casual observer, the nice thing about the workshops is that with a seven hour timeframe, the presenters can really get into the kind of detail that a normal show session wouldn't allow them to. For me, the schedule is a little frustrating, so I tend to bounce between two or three different sessions. This year, I was having to decide between workshops on the Apple Macintosh Manager, a practical introduction to Mac Networking, and a getting started with AppleScript workshop. Although some might question the value of some of these workshops, especially the ones aimed at beginners, I would caution against that line of thought. These workshops, like almost all the rest of the sessions aren't taught by professional trainers, they are taught by the people in those fields, doing real work, and giving their experience back to you. As an example, the "Getting Started with AppleScript" session is run by Sal Soghoian, the AppleScript Product Manager for Apple. Even though I would consider myself to be a fairly competent AppleScript programmer, Sal always manages to give me something new, either in techniques, or looking at AppleScript in a different way. I have found this to be true of almost every workshop I have ever attended, so again, I recommend thinking before dismissing a 'beginner' workshop.
The next set of sessions are the Pro Conferences, and these are more targeted to a specific part of the Expo audience. The two that appeal to me as a network administrator are the Mac Manager Track, and the Macintosh Networking and Communications Track. The Mac Manager Track deals with, well, managerial issues. Things such as license compliance, backup strategies, an update on Apple's Open Source initiatives. I was involved with two of the sessions in this track, one titled, "Becoming a Successful Mac Manager Part I - Business Issues", and the other was titled "Scripting Mac Admin Tasks". The first dealt with techniques for communicating within a company that is considering moving to a single platform, which is not the Mac, and the second dealt with how to integrate AppleScript into your network administration tasks. (I'll withhold an opinion on these two, as I am somewhat biased.). Another session which was less technical than some others, but still very useful was the part II session to becoming a successful Mac manager. This part dealt with the nitty gritty of being a Mac I.S. manager. Things like operational procedures, hiring, internal promotion, turnover reduction, etc. All things that may not be as technically exciting as the new Macs, but are quite necessary to running a network or an IS department. Just to point out the experience of some of the presenters, one of the folks presenting this particular session was Chuck Goolsbee, who besides his role with the Mac-Manager's list, is also VP of Technical Operations for digital.forest, Inc, one of the biggest Mac web-hosting companies in the U.S. Again, where else can Mac managers get the benefits of that kind of experience, live, other than MacWorld?
In the Networking and Communications track, there were some very interesting sessions as well. The first one that jumps to mind is the Mac Networking Update session. One of the presenters for this one was Thomas Weyer, the Networking and Communications Manager for Apple. This was invaluable to me, not only for an idea of the direction Apple is taking in this area, but for practical tidbits as well. One of the most useful was Tom explaining how to set up AirPort Base Stations to get proper channel separation so that you have cleaner signal on your wireless network. Or the explanation that the dot graph for the AirPort Control Strip module is a measurement of the signal-to-noise ratio that you are currently getting for your AirPort device, not connection speed or signal strength as has been assumed. For those of us with wireless networks, these are small, yet invaluable bits of information. Other sessions included going from an AppleTalk to a TCP/IP based network, tips on tuning Open Transport, information on integrating MacOSX into existing networks, a Network Managers Forum, internet security advice, Virtual Private Network information, and how to use Kerberos authentication with the Mac OS.
But again, it isn't just the session titles or subjects that make these invaluable, it's the fact that they are presented by people who either create the technology we use, or live with it. I was able to get more VPN information in 10 minutes of discussion with Bill Vlahos, who, in addition to being the presenter for the VPN session, is also a Network Services Engineer for NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory. He deals with, and lives with cross-platform VPN issues every day, so his answers were based on experience and real world knowledge, instead of marketing brochures. The session on Comparing AppleShareIP with Windows NT and Windows 2000 services was given by Paul Nelson, VP of Engineering for Thursby Software Systems, who are the makers of DAVE, a Windows networking stack for the Mac. So here you have a session given by someone who understands not only Mac networking, but Windows networking at an extremely low level. Again, the experience brought to the table here is not going to be replicated by a professional trainer. My only complaint with the sessions is that I haven't figured out how to clone myself, so I can't possibly make it to all of them.
In the end, even though MacWorld expo is billed as a consumer exposition, there is enough good information and products there for any network manager or administrator that deals with Macs to justify the cost. As well, if you have some knowledge that you would like to share, the Expo is always looking for new presenters and new ideas. I have yet to be disappointed by a MacWorld, and this one was no exception. From the keynote to the show floor, to the sessions, there was enough there to keep my I.S. heart as happy as could be. The next MacWorld, in this country at least is in San Francisco, in January, 2001. I hope to see some of you there.
John Welch <firstname.lastname@example.org> is the Mac and PC Administrator for AER Inc., a weather and atmospheric science company in Cambridge, Mass. He has over fifteen years of experience at making computers work. His specialties are figuring out ways to make the Mac do what nobody thinks it can, and showing that the Mac is the superior administrative platform.