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Macs in Business: Building a better business server with a Mac

By Nobody Special, 7 September 2000

Most Mac users who do the cross-platform thing know the names of all the emulators, translators and network client software and slide them into their compatibility toolkit. Then there are others, like Fred Engelmann, who figure, “Why build a Mac-compatible toolkit when you can build a Mac-only toolshed?”

Engelmann, who owns Rainmaker Network Services in Mission Viejo, California, works with a loose-knit organization of other independent networking professionals. They work on various projects involving the design, construction and maintenance of backbones, routers, large-scale remote access services (RAS), ISDN backup, virtual private networks (VPN), firewalls and other packet crunchers.

Since his co-workers are remote from his location, and the groups vary from project to project, Engelmann needs a strong set of flexible tools that will allow everybody to hook up, communicate and take care of business with a minimum of fuss and bother.

“Since I often sell and manage the projects, I set off to find collaboration tools to use within the organization,” Engelmann said. “I also wanted to share info with customers in real time; as well as support all the tough stuff like accounting and billing.”

“Because my customers and colleagues are stuck on Windows, all the collaboration tools [have] to run on Mac servers and serve Windows clients,” said Engelmann. “Access to the Mac servers is through a firewall here, or direct VPN connections. Consequently, many of the tools [have] to support HTTP as the lowest common denominator.”

Working off a tried-and-true AppleShare IP server, Engelmann finds the platform is not only effective at handling the cross-platform traffic, but is far more reliable than anything else out there.

“I restart my server at least once a month, sometimes twice – just for the hell of it,” he quipped. “For what I do with my Macs, I’ve saved tens of thousands of dollars and untold aggravation compared to the alternatives. My business runs just fine on Macs, thank you.”

On the server, Engelmann’s main tool for handling billing is a package called TRAQtix from RedRock Software. TRAQtix is a browser-based time tracking and reporting software which supports multiple contractors logging their billable activities to different projects. It allows those contractors to charge clients at different rates.

Entry and viewing permissions are set by task for each user, and the clients have access to the reports for all activities on their projects. Monthly vendor and customer reports are fed to the accounts payable and receivable. TRAQtix also can use FileMaker databases and supports Web publishing through firewalls.

For coordinating group activities, Engelmann uses TeamAgenda from TeamSoft. TeamAgenda is a shared calendar and address book which publishes and updates schedules to AppleShare IP through a CGI plug-in. It allows customers and contractors to view milestones, schedule visits and meetings, see others’ schedules and propose changes.

For other task management work, Engelmann’s group also uses TeamCenter from Inovie Software, which is a project management package written in Java. TeamCenter allows contractors and customers to view, modify and create tasks and Gantt charts – all in real-time. The web interface not only sports live data but also file exchange and storage for the project members. Unfortunately, the company’s current product lineup no longer runs on a Mac server.

For keeping his clients up-to-date on the status of their networks, Engelmann uses InterMapper from Dartware LLC, which tracks router, wide area network (WAN) and VPN utilization for multiple customer networks. InterMapper also publishes maps, graphs and statistics to its own Web server where clients have password-protected access to minute-by-minute network status and utilization for their networks.

On the road, Engelmann regards his trusty PowerBook as a networking engineer’s best friend. It’s loaded with Thursby Software Systems’ DAVE (for Windows/Mac file and disk sharing), Connectix’s VirtualPC (for running Windows 98 and 2000), and the AG Group’s EtherPeek (for network protocol analysis).

“The first benefit (of using a PowerBook) is networking flexibility,” he said. “In any given week, I need to change my PowerBook network settings a few dozen times and I score a big time savings with Mac OS. That includes switching among multiple wired, wireless and PCMCIA interfaces; often using more than one for different applications. That’s a few dozen times I don’t need to reboot.”

While the backbone of his work is handled by an array of exotic software, the nuts and bolts of his system are handled by an array of software far more familiar to most Mac users. Loaded on his system are: QuickBooks Pro, AppleWorks, MacLink Plus, SnapzPro, BBEdit, Claris Emailer and Home Page.

“Too bad Intuit gave up on QuickBooks Pro, to the point where they [took] away features to discourage sales.” he said. “I still use it, but can’t grow my business by networking my books to a remote accountant; nor can I extend data entry and access control to other remote users.”

Engelmann added he’ll stick with QuickBooks for as long as he can, as he prefers QuickBooks’ interface over that of rival MYOB from Bestware (now known as MYOB Limited).

At this point some may be wondering why there aren’t more people like Fred setting up networks using Macs. It all seems so much more easier, right? Well, all is not a complete bed of roses, as Engelmann explains. Video conferencing is one such frustration: “I have ‘supercomputers’ that can’t do standards-based video conferencing.” There once were numerous Mac options including QuickTime Conferencing, Connectix Videophone and cross-platform support by Netscape and Timbuktu. “Now there’s nothing,” states Engelmann, “I build such infrastructures for customers, but I can’t participate with my Macs.”

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The Macintosh Manager is another product that Engelmann has little enthusiasm for: “The kindest thing I can think to say is that Apple’s in a painful transition between At Ease and OS X,” he states. “Forget WebObjects and Unix ports – not having a reliable, basic computer management system will keep Apple out of the business market all by itself.”

All in all, though, using Macs has turned out to be an excellent solution for Rainmaker Network Services. The stability of AppleShare IP and the convenience of quickly and painlessly resetting network preferences on the PowerBook are particularly advantageous.

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