Apple's desktop Macs are incomparably well suited for the full range of uses from general productivity to technical and creative design, with the entire user skill and requirements spectrum covered by a rich, engaging, intuitive platform. It took Apple several years to get its head out of hardware long enough to perfect its client software. But the combination of broad feature set and usability that Apple brings to desktops, with the idea that one can sit down and start working immediately, didn't stand a chance of making it to servers.

Apple has brought its unique brand of richness and simplicity to servers. OS X Leopard Server is the fifth generation of the software half of Apple's server platform. This time around, Apple took what is a unique and bold approach for a UNIX server. Leopard Server continues the OS X Server tradition of delivering platform-independent file/print, e-mail, Web, and network edge services (such as stateful firewall, VPN, proxy, virus, and spam filtering). But it is as easy to set up and run as a desktop. Truly; the typical Mac user could get a Leopard Server going, because the default administrative interface is a match for a Mac's System Preferences.

Leopard Server breaks from the previous Mac server, and all server practices in general, in another regard. It takes the core server capabilities that I described in the preceding paragraph for granted, and places a completely new emphasis on cutting edge network collaboration that includes blog, wiki, instant messaging, calendar and scheduling, and address book (which Apple refers to as Directory).

Sure, that's a trick that Linux or Windows can pull off, but Apple's spin is unique. These services are turnkey simple, but even in a turnkey setting, Leopard Server's services are loaded with features and integrated to an extent that one finds, well, on a Mac desktop. If you can wrap your mind around this idea, then you won't be surprised that Apple has supplied templates and default behaviours that make the services you put on the air look professionally designed from minute zero. Leopard Server passes the true turnkey sniff test by supporting all of its services without requiring custom coding or scripting.

Open and mighty

Apple, which has been known to approach challenges by inventing proprietary wheels, went full-bore on public standards with Leopard Server. Standouts among Leopard Server's standard standards are CalDAV shared calendars, Jabber/XMPP, Apache 2.2, Ruby on Rails with Mongrel and Capistrano, IPSec and PPTP VPN, RSS, and Kerberos. Apple went proprietary only on the underlying plumbing of management GUIs. SNMPv3 is supported for monitoring with open tools. Apple's bullish on security, and some of the secrets it keeps are in customers' interest.

Although Leopard Server has the outward appearance of a gentle, unintimidating client that magically makes collaboration, general server, and edge services appear on your network, it wears its UNIXness with pride. Leopard Server is UNIX with a U, the real deal, with Open Group UNIX 03 certification for the first time in OS X history. That puts Leopard Server in the rarified company of AIX, Solaris, and HP-UX. The Big Three is now the Big Four.

The point is, if you're concerned that Apple's having brought client ease of use to servers means that UNIX gearheads have to clear a lot of brush to work their craft, don't worry about it. Leopard Server is source-level compatibility with any UNIX software in the wild, or at least that which adheres to UNIX standards. Further, a full set of commands -- including command-line administration of its entire feature set -- means that Leopard Server is both pretty to look at and well-muscled, a fine specimen all around.