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Mac in the Enterprise: An Odyssey

by Marley Graham

When I first saw Derrick Story's call for presentation topics for the O'Reilly Mac OS X Conference, my first thought was that I would like to hear from professionals who have successfully deployed Macintoshes as the primary (or only) enterprise platform.

After considering that idea, I decided that it wouldn't really work as a presentation. But it did seem to me that, if success stories could be communicated to these Mac enthusiasts, it might provide them with some encouragement to push the boundaries of Mac usage in the enterprise.

I emailed that suggestion to Derrick and got an unexpected response: He asked me if I would write up my own success story and send it to him. So in my mind I conjured up a couple of clichés such as, "It has to start somewhere" and "If I can do it anyone can do it", and talked myself into it.

In the Beginning

The company I work for, Aqua-Flo Supply, has been in business for over 30 years, providing PVC piping, sprinkler systems and components, landscape products, low-voltage lighting, as well as related plumbing and electrical supplies to contractors and homeowners. In 1996 they took the technology leap, installing an IBM RS/6000 AIX Server and Wyse Terminals running an integrated Point-of-Sale/Accounting system. The four business locations at that time were linked together with 56K Frame Relay circuits and to the Internet using a 64K ISDN line. Macintosh Clones were purchased to handle day-to-day management tasks at each location.

The first step toward enterprise integration was to install VersaTerm on the Mac clones and enable AppleTalk routing over the Frame Relay connections. That allowed the computer users to access the character-based functions of the Point-of-Sale (POS) system. Timbuktu provided file sharing and management over the Wide Area Network.

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By 1999 there were six locations, a few more Macs, and much more traffic on the WAN. The Macs were still happily connecting to the server, but connecting to the Internet brought the whole system to a standstill. It was obviously time to start doing some serious thinking about the future.

I was hired in the spring of 1999 to "Bring Aqua-Flo into the 21st century." Being a Mac enthusiast (and an optimist at heart) I assumed that we would be able to do everything we needed to do without switching platforms. That was then and this, after traversing a few minor rocky places, is now.

Let's Do It

One of the first things I did was purchase two new G3 Towers; one for my boss and one for me. Life was sweet! I downloaded a few free utilities and began to set up network and system management procedures. I was able to ping, traceroute, telnet, ftp, and more--contrary to the popular notion that those things were out of the realm of the Mac. But my euphoria was cut short by the realization that there was a correlation between the number of complaints about network stalls and the time I was spending on the Internet. So I had to relegate my Internet access time to after hours while I addressed the issue of updating the network.

The network problems were eventually solved by upgrading the branch router PVCs to 64K and the main router PVC to 128K, replacing old 10-MBit hubs with 10/100-MBit switches, moving from serial printer interfaces to 10/100-MBit Print Servers, upgrading Network Interface Cards in the computers to 10/100-MBit units and installing a T1 Internet connection. Then it was back to the task of setting up the network and system management procedures.

I looked at commercial network monitoring and management packages and found a surprising percentage of packages that actually supported Macs. Most of the commercial software was costly by our standards. However, I did find one that was within our price range and (surprise) it was a Mac-only program. It is called InterMapper, software originally developed at Dartmouth University but which is now sold by Dartware LLC. The cost of a commercial license ranges from $295 to $1,995, depending on the number of devices you will be monitoring. We were able to set it up on a PowerMac 8600. Using a 19-inch monitor we are able to display connections to every device on our now seven-location network on a single screen. It has saved me countless hours of troubleshooting by isolating problems and giving a visual representation of the faults.

When people observe the network monitoring setup I just described, they seem to gain a new respect for the Macintosh platform. On occasion I've had to employ network consultants to help with router problems, and even they are impressed by what they see--they can't believe it's a Mac.

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