In the couple of months since it was announced, I think the meaning of the MacBook Air has become clear. I think that Merlin Mann had the best explanation of where Apple is going. It’s all about the cloud, baby. Of course, this causes one to wonder why the MBA didn’t include 3G wireless support, but it is a first generation product.
My initial plan for life with two computers was to basically partition the tasks that I do on the computers. I would use the MacBook Air for virtually everything except for photography, those tasks which require a virtual machine (Quicken and the occasional Office document with macros), and those tasks which require lots of storage (like digital movies, which I have very few of). The MacBookPro would live at home, as most of its functions are home-centric. This would have been mostly workable. I have heard of several people with multi-computer lives who do just this. It may still be what I do at first, depending on how much preparation I am able to get done before the MacBook Air arrives. But, there are several flaws.
First, I want to be able to access data remotely. Since I don’t have a static IP address at home (and my past experiences with dynamic DNS have been unimpressive), this basically means that the data will have to live at work. At first, this seemed like no problem, as I already have a couple servers in the lab with plenty of disk space. But then I realized that my lab servers are administered by my graduate students, and I have sensitive (student grades, recommendation letters, student application materials, etc.) and ITAR (if you don’t know what ITAR is, be thankful; if you must know Google it) data on my machine. Although I trust my graduate students completely, putting sensitive data on a student-managed server would be negligent and perhaps illegal; putting ITAR data on a machine administered by an international student could cause me to go to jail.
Second, my recent laptop repair made me realize that I really wanted the ability to hot swap laptops if needed. So, if something were to happen to the MacBook Air, I’d like to be able to pick up the MacBook Pro and keep working with minimal interruption or downtime. If tasks are partitioned, this simply isn’t possible.
In order to solve either of these problems, I was going to need some new hardware, capable of serving files, in my office at work. For reasons to be detailed in the next section, I decided to go with another Mac. Since I already have an external monitor on my desk at work, my first thought was to get a Mac Pro. But Mac Pros are expensive, I thought, and they are far, far more computer than I need; the rack-mounted Xserve is even worse. And the other headless Mac option, the Mac mini, has the opposite problem — it really isn’t a sufficient computer to act as a server. So, I had settled on an iMac, and planned to move my current external monitor home.
Before I ordered the iMac, though, one of my grad students came to me saying that they need more computing power. Apparently Student M is running simulations nearly full-time on the current simulation server, and Students D and R, who are planning to graduate this summer, have quite a few simulations to run, too. Because I aim to be sure that my students have the resources they need to get their work done, this clearly demanded a Mac Pro, which I promptly ordered.
My initial thought was to do something naive and just sync my home directories between the machines using Unison, omitting the things that I didn’t want on each machine. This might even have worked, if I had carefully tweaked which directories to sync, but I couldn’t find much information on making it work.
What my web surfing did turn up, though, was information on network based home directories and (more importantly) mobile home directories, which are both natively supported in OS X. A mobile home directory is a home directory that is kept in sync with a version on a server when you are on the network, but works locally when you are detached from the network. Perfect!
There is a lot of information on the web on getting mobile home directories (MHDs) to work with non-Apple server solutions. It can be done, and it doesn’t even seem that hard to do. I even read that you can enable FileVault on the MHD, which might mean that I could do this safely using the student-administered server in the lab. But getting MHDs to work with a non-Apple server requires lots of work: setting up an LDAP server, setting up NFS on the server, and setting up appropriate automounts on the client machines. I am busy. And lazy. I just can’t see myself getting that deep in system administration to configure a service that only I will use.
Part of Apple’s Raison D’Etre, though, is making things easy. And there is an Apple product that makes setting up MHDs (among other things) easy: OS X Server. So, I’ve decided to purchase a license for OS X Server and put it on the new Mac Pro that I’ve ordered for my office. Besides, it’s a good excuse to gain some experience with Apple’s server OS.
The Mac Pro will then be at the center of my computing universe. Most of my computing tasks will be available and synced across all three computers, although the storage-intensive tasks will be restricted to the Mac Pro and the MacBook Pro. (The only downside with respect to the original iMac plan is that I won’t have an external monitor at home. Oh well.)
I don’t have my MacBook Air yet, but I’m hopeful that it will come soon. The Mac Pro is likely to arrive this week, I think. So, my computing world is about to change dramatically. I hope it’s for the better…