The Future of macOS Server

Posted on March 6th, 2018 by

The Future of macOS Server

If you use an iMac or a MacBook Pro, you may not realize that, with some additional software, you could turn that computer into a server, a computer that can share files, host websites, run a virtual private network, and much more.

Apple's macOS and its predecessor Mac OS X have long been able to work as servers with the installation of a single $20 app. The Server app, available from the Mac App Store, provides an easy-to-use interface to configure and manage services that are built into macOS. You could run all these services without the Server app, if you know the right commands to turn them on and manage them from the command line, using Terminal, but the Server app makes it easy so almost anyone can do it.

Apple says that "macOS Server is perfect for a small studio, business, or school," and points out that "it’s so easy to use, you don’t need your own IT department." This was very useful some years ago, but now, as most of these tasks are entrusted to the cloud—email, shared contacts and calendars, websites, and more—most people don't need to run a server. If they do, it's much easier to rent a server; this could be a dedicated server, where you rent your own computer located in a data center, or a virtual server, where you rent space on a cloud server.

Because of this, Apple has said that they are "deprecating" certain services in macOS Server. They won't be killing them off completely, but they are changing this software "to focus more on management of computers, devices, and storage on your network." The services that will be removed, sometime in Spring 2018, are:

  • Calendar
  • Contacts
  • DHCP
  • DNS
  • Mail
  • Messages
  • NetInstall
  • VPN
  • Websites
  • Wiki

Some of the services Apple will not remove include:

  • Profile Manager, a feature that lets you manage multiple Macs and iOS devices.
  • Time Machine Server, which allows you to perform Time Machine backups from multiple computers to a designated Mac.
  • File Sharing, one of the basic features of any server.
  • Software Update, which can download and cache updates to macOS and iOS.

macOS Server has long been a tool for those users who need just a bit more than what their Macs can handle. I have been running a Mac mini server for years. I use it to store some files, as a repository for Time Machine backups, and to run Plex media server, which allows me to access music and videos on my home network. The first two uses are part of macOS Server, and Plex can run on any computer, it's just easier to run it on a computer that's not being used for anything else.

It's likely that the numbers of users of macOS Server has dwindled over the years, because of better solutions, and the preponderance of cloud servers. Apple's reorientation of this software is interesting, and there are a couple of possibilities for where it may go.

What's next for macOS Server?

The most likely direction it may take is that of being a true MDM (mobile device management) system. Software like this is used mainly by companies to unsure that all their devices—computers and/or mobile devices—have the same software and apps, are up to date, and they allow for granular settings that can be turned on or off. They are essential to ensuring security across a company's devices, and allow a company to change policies and settings easily. macOS Server currently offers some of these features, through its Profile Manager service, but many businesses would benefit from a more robust solution. There are several available from other companies, and those who need this feature have probably already made their choices. But if Apple ups their game, it's possible that their Profile Manage could be superior to third-party options.

Another possibility is that Apple makes macOS Server a tool for home users to easily manage the multiple Apple devices they own. A family of four, with a couple of Macs, a few iPhones, an iPad or two, an Apple TV, and perhaps even a HomePod, find it difficult to manage all these devices. It's a hassle to control your kids' devices; you have lots of software to download every time there's an update, and an easy-to-use backup solution for all the devices could be practical. There are also other features that home users could benefit from, such as a shared photo library, a master iTunes library for those who have large music collections, and easier ways of sharing contacts and calendars. It's possible that Apple is finally going to create a true "digital hub" for its many users who find it confusing to manage multiple devices.

This change will affect the dwindling number of users who run macOS Server. For them, the best solution might be to not upgrade until they're sure they have alternate means of doing what their server does for them. For others—notably businesses, and, perhaps, home users—the updates to Server could be positive. No matter what, this marks a change in Apple's direction, the point where they full acknowledge that Macs aren't made for heavy lifting as severs any more.

If you do depend on macOS Server, you may want to not upgrade the Mac you use as a server; neither the Server app, nor the operating system, as new versions may require an update to the Server app itself.

Do you still use macOS Server or are you in the camp that believes it is no longer needed? Have something else to say about this story? Share your comments below!

About Kirk McElhearn

Kirk McElhearn writes about Macs, iPods, iTunes, books, music and more on his blog Kirkville. He is co-host of The Committed: A Weekly Tech Podcast, and a regular contributor to The Mac Security Blog, TidBITS, and several other websites and publications. Kirk has written more than twenty books, including Take Control books about iTunes, LaunchBar, and Scrivener. Follow him on Twitter at @mcelhearn. View all posts by Kirk McElhearn →
  • Ken Gillett

    As I opined when this was first mentioned, I think this is a terrible retrograde step for Apple. No wonder they cannot break into the enterprise market when they keep pulling the carpet from under the feet of those who were actually using Macs for serious stuff.

    Agreed, Contacts, Calendars etc are now better served from iCloud, but to remove DHCP and DNS and Mail is not the way forward.

    Yes, I’ll keep some old Mac running in the hope they might actually use the opportunity to turn Server into something useful (like iTunes Server), but I’ve started transitioning back to linux for serious stuff. Ha, just like Apple using linux for their own servers which says it all really.

  • hannahjs

    Walden? Lovely. I suppose you live out in the woods? 😀 Thanks for the thoreau rundown. I’m setting up a machine room with a bunch of old macs and may try returning to macOS server – now that it seems Apple will continue supporting it at a basic level. Ease-of-use is, or used to be, Apple’s finest gift to consumers (even to more tech-savvy types like you or me). Cheers!

    • Kirk McElhearn

      I do live in a rural area, but Walden has long been a touchstone for me. (The book, not the place.)

  • deemery

    I’ve been using OS X Server since Tiger (when it cost $1000 retail, my first copy was ‘used’). It was (still is) the heart of my small/home office setup. Server has come a long way from Tiger days, when I ended up having to pay someone to configure it for me (if you didn’t get DNS 100% correct, nothing else worked, and the error messages were, typically, unhelpful.)

    In particular, I have Server on 2 machines, one that is ‘outside the firewall’ running some non-commercial/personal websites, and the other inside the firewall hosts my DNS, Time Machine backups, file server, LDAP, etc.

    Apple is abandoning the SOHO user by this move. Server should be part of an initiative for both multi-user households and SOHO users, as well as for device management for larger communities.

    It would be very helpful if this blog provided suggestions/guidance on alternatives to the Server facilities being abandoned. (And it would be -especially helpful- to host a discussion of Linux vs Mac OS for situations like my ‘multiple website hosting’)

    • Kirk McElhearn

      We’re running another article about using macOS High Sierra with the basic services: file sharing, Time Machine, and content caching. But I’m not enough of a Linux user to be able to discuss that. I think these days any Linux distribution would be fine, but I don’t know if the configuration is easy on Linux.

  • Alan Goldberg

    Hi Kirk

    Just curious as to the data behind “the dwindling number of users who run macOS server”

    At $20, the caching feature alone is a money and bandwidth saving feature (acknowledging that it’s now in High Sierra albeit in a somewhat neutered form)

    All the schools who have more than a few Apple devices use this extensively.

    • Kirk McElhearn

      No data, but an impression. Given that Apple hasn’t done much with it, and given that there haven’t been any upgrades to the Mac mini in years, and that the Mac Pro still costs a fortune, there’s not much in Apple’s product line that lends itself to being a server.

      • Alan Goldberg

        It’s interesting. There appears to be a big appetite for the features in the EMEIA region, but perhaps less so in America.

        Perhaps with the size of the computing market shifting to mobile devices and MDM, it’s a _good_ thing that they’re dropping the legacy tools and will hopefully give them more time to pay attention to Profile Manager as a robust MDM rather than the functional but rather lightweight tool that it is.

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