SolutionBase: The fundamentals of MacIntosh networking in a Windows network

It can be difficult enough getting Windows workstations to work properly with your Windows servers, but what do you do when you have to support MacIntoshes as well--especially if you're not familiar with them? This article will give you the basics of how networking works in a MacIntosh world.

Mac OS X Windows server MacIntosh

Imagine for a moment that it's late Friday afternoon, and the boss calls you into his office. "Great News", he tells you, "You've been given a promotion". Before you can even start celebrating, you begin to figure out that part of the promotion means that you have just inherited the company's graphics department. That wouldn't be so bad, except that all of the employees in that department use Macintosh. You've never touched a Macintosh in your life. Your blood runs cold as your boss explains that you are now responsible for managing those machines, and that swapping the Macs out for PCs is not an option. What do you do?

Before you panic, you will be happy to know that integrating Macintosh machines into an Active Directory based Windows Server 2003 network is easier than it used to be. Don't get me wrong; there is still quite a bit of work to do up front, but the implementation and the day to day management tasks are much easier than they were a few years ago. In this article, I will basically give you a crash course in Macintosh networking.

A good first step

Imagine for a moment that our fictitious graphics department is using PCs instead of Macs. What would be the first step in the integration process? A good first step might be to take a walk over to the graphics department and see what you've got to work with. Specifically, you would probably want to know things like what operating systems the PCs are running, what is the underlying hardware configuration, what applications are being used, and where are the user's files being stored. Even though our imaginary graphics department is using Macintosh computers, the first step is basically the same as if the users had PCs.

OK, maybe the first step isn't exactly the same as if the users had PCs, but you are after the same end result. The difference is that you probably don't want to take a walk over to the graphics department and start inventorying machines because Macs are totally alien to you (at least that's my assumption for this article).

Instead, you might ask your boss for a roster of all of the department's employees. You could then send everyone in the department an E-mail message. In that message you could introduce yourself and request that the users send you the specs for their computer. You could then provide the users with some instructions for sending you those specs.

The easiest way to pull this off is to have the users to get the specs from the Apple System Profiler. The Apple System Profiler is a utility that has been a part of every Macintosh operating system since OS 7.6.1. To access this utility, users should click the Apple menu and then select the Apple System Profile. When the utility starts, the users should select the New Report command from the File menu. The utility will now offer the users some choices of what should be include in the report. Tell them to go with the default selections and click OK. Finally, have the users to save the report as a text document and E-mail it to you. You might have the users to give the text file their own name or their machine name as a way of identifying which user / machine the document corresponds to.

Know thy enemy

So you've requested that everyone in the graphics department send you a System Profiler report, and now you're being bombarded by E-mail messages containing system inventories that you don't completely understand. If the users had PCs, you would know that a 100 MHz 486-DX4 is junk and that a 3.2 GHz Pentium 4 with Hyperthreading rocks.

Macintosh machines don't use Intel processors though (well, they do now, but that's a different story for a different article). Instead, Macintosh hardware uses names like G3, G4, iMac, eMac, and Power Macintosh. Normally, I wouldn't even bother wasting space telling you this, but the machine's ability to reliably connect to your Windows network depends directly on what hardware the machine has and what operating system it is running. It is therefore imperative that you know one model of Macintosh from another.

The best advice that I can give you is to consider any Macintosh older than a G3 to be junk. You don't even want to try attaching older Macs to your Windows network. Yes, it can be done, but doing so tends to be a lot of work, and some of the functionality is often lost in the process. It's a whole lot easier to replace older machines with new ones.

So what is a G3 any way? Macintosh machines have not traditionally used Intel processors, but to put things in a way that a Windows admin would understand, think of a G3 along the same lines as you would a Pentium III. It's not the most current processor, but it is still viable for applications that are not overly demanding. The models of Macintosh that used G3 processors were the Power Macintosh G3, the all in one mode of iMac, some of the Powerbooks, and the iBook.

The Macintosh processor that is more in line with the Pentium 4 is the G4. You will find G4 processors in the Power Macintosh G4, the iMacs with the swivel screen (not the all in one units), the eMac, and some of the Powerbooks.

While I am on the subject of Macintosh hardware, I want to point out that it also important to check out how much RAM each machine is equipped with. For reasons that I will discuss later on, you need to make sure that each of the Macintosh computers has at least 64 MB of RAM. Any machine with a G3 or a G4 processor should be able to accept at least 64 MB of memory.

The operating system

So far I have talked a lot about the various processors that are used in Macintosh computers. The reason why the machine's processor and memory are so important is because the hardware dictates what operating system the computer can run. For example, imagine that someone asked you to connect a Pentium II with 64 MB of RAM to your network. You might be able to get away with installing Windows XP onto the machine, but Windows certainly isn't going to run the way that it would on a Pentium 4 with 512 MB of RAM. If you are able to install Windows XP onto that machine, you can count on it being extremely slow and most likely it will also be instable. A machine like the one that I just described would be better suited to running an operating system like Windows 98.

The exact same concept holds true in the Macintosh world. The reason why I said to make sure that all of the Macintosh computers have at least a G3 processor and a minimum of 64 MB of RAM is because these are the practical requirements for running OS 8.6. OS 8.6 is the oldest Macintosh operating system that does a decent job of interacting with a Windows Server 2003 network. Of course if all of your Macintosh machines have G4 processors and are running OS X, that's great, but if any machines are running an operating system that's older than OS 8.6, then I recommend an upgrade.

Macintosh networking

If all of your Macintosh machines are current enough to be running OS 8.6 or higher, then the machine should be equipped with an Ethernet port. Even so, there is more to connecting a Macintosh to a Windows Server network than just plugging in a network cable. Macintosh uses completely different networking components than Windows does, such as the AppleShare client, Open Transport, and the AppleTalk protocol.

As I said at the beginning of this article though, don't panic. Believe it or not, there are some similarities between Macintosh and Windows networking. For example, did you ever see a Mac user surf the Internet? Don't forget that a basic requirement of Internet connectivity is the TCP/IP protocol. TCP/IP is fully supported by Macintosh, and it works almost identically to the way that it does on a PC. Technically, if you wanted to share files between PCs and Macs, you could just set up an FTP server, but there is a much neater method of getting the job done.

So what about the AppleTalk protocol? AppleTalk has been around for years, and is included with the Mac operating system primarily for backward compatibility. In most cases, the AppleTalk protocol is not required.

In case you are wondering, AppleTalk is a lot like Microsoft's NetBEUI protocol (AppleTalk can be routed though, unlike NetBEUI). It is a broadcast protocol that allows Macintosh computers to identify themselves to other Macs on the network, much the same way that NetBEUI and the Master Browser Service populate the Network Neighborhood in older Windows operating systems. Like NetBEUI, AppleTalk is also very chatty, and eats up a lot of network bandwidth. Today, the AppleTalk protocol is primarily used for discovering network resources. Once a resource is discovered, the operating system prefers to communicate with the resource using TCP/IP.

Connecting to the Windows network

As you probably know, in order for any two devices to communicate across a network, they must share a common protocol. Since the Internet has become so popular over the last five or six years, TCP/IP has become something of a universal protocol. Windows and Macintosh machines both support TCP/IP and this is the protocol that we will use to link the networks together.

If this were a real world situation, I can almost guarantee that the Macintosh users are already using TCP/IP to some extent. Otherwise they wouldn't be able to access the Internet. Even if TCP/IP is already in use though, you need to reconfigure it to bring it in line with the configuration that your Windows machines are using. After all, Active Directory is completely dependant on DNS. You need for the Macintosh machines to be able to authenticate into your Active Directory, and in order to do that, the Macintosh machines need to be able to locate the domain controllers. One way of accomplishing that is to make sure that the Macintosh machines are using the same DNS servers as everyone else.

The easiest way to pull this off is to configure the Macintosh machines to acquire their IP configuration from the same DHCP servers that your Windows workstations use. To do so, go to the Macintosh computers, and choose the Control Panel option off of the Apple menu. When the Control Panel opens, select the TCP/IP option. Now, just tell TCP/IP to acquire an IP address lease from a DHCP server. It doesn't get any easier than that!

More to come

As you can see, networking with a Mac isn't all that difficult once you know the basics. In an upcoming article, I will continue the discussion by showing you how to configure the systems so that Macintosh users can authenticate via Active Directory and access resources that are located on Windows Servers.

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