Our favourite tools for fuss-free Mac & PC integration

Back in the day, offices (and, helpfully, classrooms) were strictly PC territory. However, as platform agnostic cloud apps and mixed platform work environments are catching on fast, it’s becoming increasingly vital that young jobseekers know more about Macs than how to sync an iTunes library.

While getting a handle on two platforms might sound like a lot of extra work, it’s actually great news for students. They’ll get a whole new skillset with which to impress potential employers, and teachers will be able to use Apple’s free creative software to take a more multimedia, multi-modal approach to learning, hopefully making lessons more inclusive.  School IT teams, on the other hand, may well be wincing at the prospect, seeing as they’re going to be left to learn how to install and configure Macs, master Open Directory and set up Mac servers, all without the help of the perfectly proportioned (but sadly discontinued) Xserve.

The good news
…is that it needn’t be as bad as all that. Thanks to developments in virtualisation and the emergence of organisations like the Enterprise Desktop Alliance, it’s becoming a lot easier to deploy Mac systems using PC software and hardware. Our servers and storage team have put their heads together and come up with five ways to make sure your mixed environment runs smoothly, using your existing PC expertise.

1. Keep everything on Active Directory with Centrify’s DirectControl
The best-known way of mixing Macs and PCs is Apple’s ‘Golden Triangle’ method, in which a Mac server works in conjunction with your Active Directory to give Mac users access to the network. While this is cost-effective, it won’t work with any Linux- or Unix-based systems you use, and relies on someone in your IT team knowing Apple’s system inside out.

If you’ve not got an Apple expert to hand, there’s always Centrify’s DirectControl. This is essentially a piece of software that sits on your Windows server and tricks it into seeing all your Mac systems like Windows ones, meaning you can control them using your existing Active Directory. Not having to get used to a new system reduces the chance of any glitches or downtime as your school gets started on Macs, and DirectControl’s AD Check feature makes sure that any settings you’ve applied to your Macs – security software, firewalls, access profiles – are compatible with AD prior to integration, making cross-platform data protection a doddle.

2. Streamline collaboration with ExtremeZ-IP
One of the big advantages of having Macs and PCs on-site is that pupils get the chance to familiarise themselves with both platforms (the idea being that they can become equally fluent in both). However, in a badly-managed cross-platform situation, getting access to PC files on a Mac and vice versa can be a bit of a nightmare: the two systems can be completely isolated, and users can end up unable to share, archive or search for critical files because of how or where they’re stored. This is especially trying if you’ve got a limited number of computers, and can’t guarantee that students will always have a Mac or PC when they need one.

One way to make things easier is to invest in Group Logic’s ExtremeZ-IP, which lets Apple machines use Apple Filing Protocol (AFP) to talk to Windows servers. This is a great leveller in mixed Mac/PC environments, as it gives Mac users access to Windows file services, printers and DFS shares. It gives you more granular control over integration, so you can set policies to manage nagging problems like incompatible file names and hidden Mac files, resulting in less confusion and greater productivity all round.

3. Keep your files in order with Connect plug-ins
Once you’ve got ExtremeZ-IP up and running, there are a couple of great plug-ins designed to solve more specific niggles. If you’ve got students who are prone to losing files right before deadlines (or teachers who are prone to losing them just after), you’ll want to look into Group Logic’s Shadow Connect. This gives Mac users access to Microsoft’s VSS function, so they can restore lost versions of their files, regardless of which platform they’re actually working on.

From a technical standpoint, it’s also worth looking at Archive Connect. When Macs are asked to browse shared archive storage for files, they can accidentally bring all your archived, offline Windows files back online, clogging up your servers and taking up valuable online storage space. Archive Connect prevents this, allowing you to browse active files without disturbing your archive.

4. Use virtual desktops to turn Macs into PCs…
If you’ve got pupils who need apps on both platforms to complete a project, or you only have space and money for a limited number of computers and need them all to be as flexible as possible, try desktop virtualisation. This is a neat trick that lets you run multiple operating systems on a single computer, so pupils can access Windows-only apps on Macs.

In newer Macs, the simplest way to do this is via Mac’s Boot Camp facility, which lets you choose to run Windows or Mac OS X at startup. You get a complete native desktop experience, plus access to Windows applications and files. However, the two systems are completely separate – you have to restart to move between them and can’t access Windows files while using Mac OS, so it’s not great if you’ve got students who need to work on both platforms simultaneously.

However, there are ways around this: with software like VMware Fusion or Parallels Desktop, you can run multiple virtual machines (VMs) on a single physical one, so you can use both operating systems simultaneously. Both Fusion and Parallels load directly onto your Mac, allowing you to run Windows and OS X in tandem, either as two distinct systems or as a native Mac desktop with a few key Windows apps embedded in the dock. Fusion’s main draw is its array of embedded security features, while Parallels is faster, making it better for processor-hungry tasks such as working with audio and video.

The downside to this is that these desktop virtualisation options are designed for single users – you can’t roll out universal updates or manage the virtual machines as a group. If you need more control, try Citrix XenApp, which lets users stream specific applications to their desktop as and when they need them. Because the virtual apps are powered by your servers rather than the users’ machine, older computers can run newer software, and you get access to your apps at native speeds.

5. …or turn PCs into Macs with AquaConnect.
Of course the problem can go both ways. If you don’t have the time, money or space to install a full suite of Macs, you can convert your existing PCs into Macs with Aqua Connect.

Aqua Connect is basically a terminal services solution for Mac. It lets you stream a Mac desktop straight to your PC, so students are able to access files and programmes from any machine at near-native speeds. This means scheduling lessons that need Macs (or even setting large classes projects that rely on their software) becomes much less complicated, as any machine in your building can become a Mac on demand. And if staff or students need access to OS X at home, they can simply log into your Aqua Connect server and stream a Mac desktop to whatever device they’re using – no matter which OS it’s running.

Another point to consider is that, because the Mac desktops you provide through Aqua Connect are stored centrally and only streamed to individual devices, you can use old hardware or very basic thin clients to host recent versions of Mac OS and applications as long as you have enough oomph in your server room. If you think the cost of a cutting-edge suite of iMacs might be too much for your school to absorb, or want to cut energy costs without losing processing power, this may well be the answer.

As the world’s first Enterprise Desktop Alliance Systems Integrator, we’re working closely with Centrify, Group Logic and other major manufacturers. Our server, storage and networking team can help you develop an integration solution that’s tailored to your school’s needs and goals.

For help with your cross-platform conundrums, give us a call on 03332 409 333 or email learning@Jigsaw24.com to find out more.

Call us: 03332 409 306

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