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Mac and PC: the best of both worlds

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Sophia Boulton of Jigsaw Systems Ltd investigates how architects can integrate Macs and PCs

Creative professionals love their Macs and architects are no exception. Productivity increases dramatically when we use tools we feel comfortable with - but the best software for the job is not always available on all computer platforms. That’s why being able to integrate Windows applications on Apple Macs quickly and easily,  is vital for busy users.

We often take it for granted that things will simply work together - and certainly compatibility is much better than it used to be. However, a closer look reveals that there are still issues that can be addressed to promote seamless integration, greater efficiency and maximum productivity. AutoCAD and most business accounting applications, for example, currently require the Windows operating system.

The problems and pitfalls

So, what are the problems facing architects when working across multiple platforms? When it comes to Mac file sharing and printing with a Windows server, Microsoft includes a tool called Services for Mac (SFM) with its Windows Server. Unfortunately Microsoft hasn’t kept SFM updated to support enhancements to Apple’s operating system or the way it stores data and, most telling of all, there is no SFM in Windows Server 2008.

 When Apple released the OS X operating system in 2001 they included the ability for Macs to access native Windows Server file sharing in the form of the Server Message Block protocol (SMB). However, Windows doesn’t support all the features of OS X files - such as some possible characters in Mac filenames, full path/filenames, certain types of embedded information and icons for files. Apple has a partial workaround in the form of hidden ‘Appledouble’ files. Windows users see these as greyed out files with a name starting with a dot and underscore (._). Although the files are invisible to Mac users, they can confuse Windows users – and beware; they quickly get orphaned from their data files and cause file administration headaches. Native Apple file sharing performance for Mac users is as much as six hundred times faster than SMB and, when working with large numbers of files or with large data transfers, SMB gets even slower and users are left twiddling their thumbs.

Choosing the best tools for the job

Choosing one computing platform at the cost of total exclusion of another may not be a realistic option for most businesses. As we all know, creative professionals produce their best results using familiar tools, so it’s not realistic to expect them to migrate to other platforms or software unless there are real commercial or creative benefits in doing so.  The costs of migration can be high, both in terms of lost productivity in the short term and re-training costs in the medium to long term.

The same argument applies to IT support personnel. In larger organisations it makes sense for technical staff to use the tools they know best to manage their organisation’s IT systems. Concerns surrounding data security legislation mean that support professionals are reluctant to deploy tools they do not fully understand in case they should inadvertently introduce problems. Furthermore Windows-based PCs tend to be more tolerant of incomplete networking configurations than Apple Macs. Features such as Active Directory Sites and Locations, DNS and reverse-DNS and Domain Controller fail over across wide-area networks if not configured fully and can lead to problems on large networks.

Limitations of virtualisation and dual booting

Bootcamp, VMWare Fusion, and Parallels all have their place as tools that allow Windows software to work on an Apple Mac; but their additional cost or complexity mean that they are not always the best solution. For example, Apple’s Bootcamp software emulates several features of standard PC hardware to allow multi-booting; it’s a clever bit of software engineering but it can go wrong when people experiment with low-level Windows features.

How to solve the problem generally

There will always be some end-user issues that cannot be resolved without software updates. Compromises are often necessary. The best way forward is to approach integration from several directions at once. First, the tools built into Mac OS X have gone a long way towards a workable solution; then there are also some third party tools that extend these capabilities and increase performance; thirdly, previous experience helps ensure user expectations are appropriately set in the beginning and that technical pitfalls are avoided and finally, innovative use of technology, especially in the form of workarounds, can help to solve the problem.

Getting the right help

Wading through the minefield of integration can be a daunting task, so it’s important to get advice from consultants who have strong relationships with both hardware manufacturers and software developers. Vendors recognise the role consultants and resellers play in making them aware of users’ issues and experiences and can write patches and updates to address a specific customer problem that they have been made aware of.

Investing in training from qualified Apple and Microsoft Certified Systems Administrators and Engineers will ensure you exploit the capabilities of your software and hardware to the full. It may appear to be costly, but in the long-run it can make a real difference to personal productivity and the end-user experience.

It’s also important to know when third party tools will add value. For example, Group Logic’s ExtremeZ-IP resolves many administrative headaches in a mixed-platform environment, as well as providing a significant file-sharing performance boost that architects will appreciate. Other packages allow architectural practices to administer Mac clients as they would existing Windows clients, through tried-and-tested Windows Server infrastructure, or provide a ‘lifecycle management suite’ – remote and scheduled shutdowns of Macs, patch management, asset inventory and more, all crucial for proper compliance procedures.

So, to get the most value from technology and help architects to be more productive without compromising creativity, it’s going to be necessary to tackle the issue of integration. While there is no substitute for your own experience and knowledge in resolving these issues, there are tools and advice available that will solve many of the problems and improve performance.

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