The State of Mac Management

In the glory bygone days, managing Macs was easy: just setup a OSX Server, get Workgroup Manager working and then configure users preferences to your heart’s delight. There were ways to easily tweak settings using a GUI, or you could import whatever .plist file you wanted to and have a custom preference.

Now, it wasn’t all a bed of roses: the Mac had to be bound to the OSX Server for these managed preferences to work, meaning things got rather ugly if the server got taken down for any reason. Plus, you had to find other solutions for imaging Macs, deploying and updating software and remote access. But there were tools for this (Deploy Studio, Munki, Apple Remote Desktop), so we were happy.

Then along came Lion. As part of taking everything Apple had learnt from iOS ‘back to the Mac‘, Configuration Profiles were introduced. These were just the same as the profiles used to manage iPhones and iPads, offering ways to lock down certain things and setup accounts like email etc. The other cool thing was that these lightweight profiles could be pushed out to a Mac from an MDM server, removing the need to have the Mac permanently bound to a server. Instead, the Mac would keep hold of its profiles until the server gave it some new ones. Macs and iPads could all be managed from one place: one MDM to rule them all!

Workgroup Manager continued to be updated by Apple, but with very little attention given to it. The last version released was for 10.9 server: it still works in 10.10, but has officially been retired and any future support for it is quite unlikely.

As someone who likes to live at the bleeding edge of technological change, did I adopt it straight away? Not for want of trying! Apple offered their own ‘free’ version of an MDM as part of their Server app, called Profile Manager. We couldn’t even get it to work in 10.7, finally got it working with some iPads in 10.8 and then gave up on it in 10.9 (after suffering email profiles being pulled off every teacher iPad due to some weird Active Directory issue).

The issue with it boiled down to how Configuration Profiles just aren’t the same as Managed Preferences. In the ‘walled garden’ of iOS, we just accepted that certain things just weren’t manageable (like position of apps on the home screen or the initial setup of apps etc). Whereas Managed Preferences had given the Mac administrator the taste of absolute control – you shall have the settings I give you! Plus, they also had the fine-grained option of setting preferences to ‘once’, ‘often’ (ie every time you logged in) or ‘always’… with profiles, everything was just ‘forced’.

So, the questions are: what actually needs to be managed? what are the ways of doing it?

Things that need to be managed:

  • First run settings on stuff like Office
  • Mounting shared drives
  • Tweaking the UI as required, eg right click on Apple Mouse, sidebar defaults etc
  • Licence keys for apps
  • Setting keyboard, location etc
  • Managing the dock
  • Installing new software and patching existing software
  • Imaging new Macs
  • Running Apple Software Update

So what are the tools?

  • Using a Configuration Profile, either for the settings Apple gives you, or importing a custom plist – only works if you don’t mind it being ‘always’. Tim Sutton has a command line tool for converting a .plist file into a profile. An MDM server can push out profiles over the air and Munki can now install profiles too.
  • Tweaking the preferences in the default user template. Composer as part of Casper Suite has a handy feature for doing this as well as filling existing users’ preferences as well.
  • Running various scripts on startup/login/logout. Our Apple reseller has a way of running various scripts like this, and Casper can manage his too. You can also make payload-free packages which just run a script when installed and can be distributed with Munki.

So how do you choose the right tool? The factors are:

  • Cost: MDM servers aren’t cheap necessarily, nor is spending money on getting an Apple reseller to set things up for you.
  • Experience: are you savvy with scripting and dealing with the command line? If not, a solution with a GUI might be better.
  • Continuity: I work in a primary school where high turn-over of staff is quite common. Does the solution need to keep working even if you go?
  • Time: do you have time to learn and understand the intricacies, or do things need to work ‘out of the box’? I am in the fortunate position of being able to give time to figure some things out, but most primary schools aren’t.

At my school, we’ve gone for Casper Suite as a way to have a GUI for managing Macs that doesn’t rely on me being a complete Mac system admin with lots of experience in scripting etc., whilst also moving away from Managed Preferences and leveraging Configuration Profiles instead. Let’s hope it works!

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