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Essential Mac Skills for the IT Professional

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Let’s face it, finding and keeping an IT job is becoming more competitive daily; that’s why Ryan Faas, author of Mac OS X Snow Leopard Server Unleashed, has created tips to increase your value by adding essential Mac IT skills to your repertoire. From obtaining core certifications to understanding Apple’s underlying technology and mastering Mac OS X Server and Open Directory, Ryan provides insights and links to help you gain knowledge to stay current and broaden your professional skill set.

With an economy where layoffs are becoming a daily fact of life, many IT professionals are looking to broaden their skill sets and boost their resumes by adding additional technologies and certifications to their backgrounds. With an increasing number of businesses adding Macs to their environments, the idea of adding Mac support and integration to an existing skill set is an idea that is becoming more attractive for those working in a range of IT jobs — a transition from a few years ago when Mac support skills represented a more specialized and niche market.

Whether you’re an existing Mac technology professional or someone looking to broaden a more general skill set to include Mac knowledge and support, here are some of the core skills that will make you a more attractive candidate for jobs that include supporting or managing Macs.

Apple Desktop Support Skills and Certifications

It may seem like an obvious observation to say that Mac support skills are important, but it is a point worth mentioning. Even though Mac OS X is a Unix operating system, Apple has customized and developed the platform to meet certain needs. Having a solid understanding of Mac OS X and how to support it is probably the most crucial skill set for any Mac IT professional.

Likewise, it’s important to understand Apple hardware. Although largely based on standard industry interfaces and technology, Macs do rely on custom-made Apple firmware as well as custom motherboard designs and a unique overall design for both their internals and cases. Understanding both the hardware and OS are critical to success in basic Mac support.

Apple offers a number of training options and certifications that can provide you with both these skills and a way to show employers that you’ve mastered them. The company provides certifications in basic Mac OS X support as well as support and troubleshooting of desktop and notebook hardware. Training classes are available for each exam, and the text of the training classes are also published as part of Peachpit's Apple Training Series.

These make a good starting point, but they are not the only source of information. Apple’s own Knowledge Base provides an additional level of Mac knowledge, and any Mac support professional should be familiar with the Knowledge Base as well as Apple’s discussion forums and mailing lists.

Understanding Common Mac Workflows and Software

Beyond basic Mac OS X support skills, a crucial addition is being familiar with common Mac software (both from Apple and third-parties). Although Macs are becoming more common for a diverse set of tasks, familiarity with the tools and workflows of the core Apple markets will always be an advantage. Any Mac IT professional should have at least a passing knowledge of desktop publishing, photography solutions, audio and video technology, and common education tools.

Specific titles that can be helpful to understand both how to use and how to support include: Adobe's various products, Apple's Pro apps, iLife and iWork, Office for Mac, and Quark XPress. Certifications in the use and support for these various solutions (as well as a wide variety of training options) are fairly broadly available.

As you become familiar with the individual solutions, it’s also important to become familiar with how they are commonly used — both individually and as a whole as part of a single solution. This will not only give you a leg up in talking about them, but also in actually working effectively with users to develop ideal solutions and/or provide high quality and efficient end-user support.

Working With Apple Remote Desktop

There are a number of remote desktop control and management solutions on the market for Mac OS X, Windows, and Linux workstations and servers. However, one of the most common for managing Macs is Apple Remote Desktop (ARD). Rather than simply being a remote control solution, Apple Remote Desktop provides a wide range of features including basic remote monitoring and control, software (including operating system and application), update and deployment, user interaction, and both software and hardware inventory and auditing capabilities. ARD is also generally low-cost and supports varied permissions and scheduling options. All of these combine to make working with both the basic and advanced features of this particular product a skill for any Mac IT position from helpdesk to systems and server administration.

Working With Mac Software Update Strategies

Like Microsoft, Apple provides an automatic software update mechanism for Mac OS X and Mac OS X Server. This can help ensure that Mac OS X and Apple-branded software is up to date. While helpful for consumers, the process of managing software updates in business and education environments can be a bit more problematic and many organizations rely on a variety of update strategies for both Apple software and third-party applications. These can include Apple whole-disk deployment solutions, the NetInstall and Software Update Server features of Mac OS X Server, third-party deployment and client management tools, and Apple Remote Desktop.

Additionally, it is important to stay abreast of the available updates and any reported problems with those updates and to understand how to integrate update management into general IT workflows. These issues primarily affect desktop support and systems administration staff, but because the workflows can vary from similar activities on Windows systems, being aware of the options, including Versiontracker and MacUpdate for maintaining third-party software updates, as well as the fact that Apple doesn’t maintain the same rigid schedule for updates that Microsoft does can be important skills.

Mac OS X Security

There has always been (probably always will be) a debate as to whether or not Mac OS X is inherently more secure than Windows. Regardless of your opinion on that debate, understanding Mac OS X security, which is in many ways unique from Windows or even other Unix variations, can be a critical skill for any Mac IT professional (particularly systems administrators). Apple provides a security guide for Mac OS X, and Corsaire has an extensive white paper on the subject that are excellent starting points for such knowledge.

Also in the realm of security is an understanding of anti-virus solutions available for Mac OS X, including the commercial options from Intego, Sophos, Symantec, and McAfee. In particular for business and education environments, understanding the volume licensing and managed client anti-virus options on the market is important, particularly if you will need to provide cross-platform management and support.

Underlying Apple Technologies

It may sound obvious to say that supporting Macs requires an understanding of many of Apple’s underlying technology, but the breadth of technologies in Mac OS X Leopard is quite expansive and includes a range of open source and proprietary Apple solutions. In order to support or manage Macs in any way, you should have a fundamental grasp of how Apple has implemented many of these technologies including BSD Unix (and Apple’s changes to the standard Unix environment), user management, home directories, directory services, CUPS printing, POSIX and Access Control List permissions, as well as preferences and other library files. Having a grasp of Mac OS X’s technical design and implementation will not only allow you to better support and manage the platform but will also allow you to digest available information and training and readily interact with Apple and other vendors if you do need additional support.

Windows and Active Directory Integration Options

With very few exceptions, Macs exist in a multi-platform world and in many situations are not the dominant platform. Understanding this, it is important to know the options available for integrating Macs into other platforms — most commonly Windows Server and Active Directory environments You should understand Apple’s built-in SMB and Active Directory support, and you should be familiar (in concept at least) with the offerings from Centrify), Group Logic, Likewise, and Thursby, all of which provide more advanced capabilities for integration. Depending on your environment, you may also want to explore the options for integrating integrating Novell, such as those available from Prosoft and Kanaka (though this primarily relates to education markets at this point).

Similarly, because Macs are rarely an isolated island unto themselves, having a mix of skill sets that enable to you to support and manage other platforms (most commonly Windows) is almost a requirement in Mac IT jobs. Even if you are dedicated to working solely with Macs, you’ll most likely need to be able to support Windows running on a Mac either in a virtual machine or under Apple’s Boot Camp. Of course, the broader your skill set, the more valuable you’ll be in general to an IT team. However, a solid multi-platform familiarity and willingness to pitch in with other non-Mac team members not only adds value to you, but it also tends to help reduce the “Mac guy” stigma in environments where Macs are in the minority and provides cross-training opportunities within a team.

Mac Client Management

One of the biggest skill sets that can be helpful in managing Macs in any network environment is client management. Apple provides a pretty robust client-management system that can be used to define user preferences for virtually any component of Mac OS X or any installed application as well as to restrict user access to various software and hardware components. In many ways the effect, though not the actual implementation, is similar to group policies in Active Directory.

The primary basis for these capabilities is Apple’s Open Directory when using Mac OS X Server either alone or in combination with other server platforms. However, Centrify and Thursby both allow you to leverage them without Mac OS X Server (in the case of Centrify this is actually done directly in Active Directory as group policies). In any Mac OS X Server environment or in most environments with more than a handful of Macs, this is a core skill for systems administrators but can be equally valuable in other support and technology integration positions.

Imaging and Deployment Technologies

A close second to client management is deployment solutions. Apple includes built-in deployment capabilities through Apple Software Restore, a command-line solution included with all Macs that supports multicast and unicast operations. Mac OS X Server also includes support for Apple’s NetInstall and NetBoot technologies. The free http://deploystudio.com/Home.html" is another increasingly common solution (replacing the now no-longer produced NetRestore). All of these solutions provide mass deployment options that can be run locally or over the network (similar to commonly used Windows solutions like Symantec’s Ghost). Similarly, there are a number of products that can also be used to roll out and manage individual application distributions that function in both Mac and Windows.

If you are looking at Mac systems administration, general IT management, and most desktop support positions, having a clear understanding of mass disk imaging solutions (as well as Apple’s Disk Utility) is an important skill. Being familiar with the larger gamut of solutions is also helpful.

Mac OS X Server and Open Directory

I’ve already mentioned Mac OS X Server and Open Directory, Apple's LDAP-based directory service, as part of other skill sets. Although not as widely deployed as other server platforms, Mac OS X Server is a highly flexible server operating system that integrates both Mac-specific and open source technologies in an easy to use environment. In fact, in the current Leopard Server release, Apple introduced two simplified setup modes intended to make initial implementation of Mac OS X Server easy for small businesses and workgroups with larger organizations.

For organizations with a moderate to large percentage of Macs, Mac OS X Server provides a very capable platform for tasks ranging from basic file sharing through complex deployment and client management. By aggregating a number of open source technologies, Apple has also positioned Mac OS X Server as a single platform-neutral solution for an even wider range of tasks including web-based collaborative tools such as blogs and wikis, CalDAV based calendaring, secure instant messaging, cross-platform file and print sharing, and a wide range of fundamental technologies like DHCP, DNS, and Kerberos and LDAP (on which Open Directory is based).

This makes a basic understanding of Mac OS X Server a useful skill set for anyone pursuing Mac-based systems administration jobs. Because many of the technologies employed are central to the underpinnings of Mac OS X itself and are based on common open source technologies and technical concepts, that understanding also provides a broader basis for additional Mac and sysadmin skills. Advanced knowledge of the platform is almost crucial to successfully achieving systems administration tasks in many Mac-based environments.

Helpful Certifications

Apple provides a range of certification programs for both basic and advanced Mac OS X Server administration and matching training options as well as a series of general guides for the included technologies. My own work on the topic also takes these concepts and builds on them with real world experience.

While many of the skills outlined in this article correspond to specific Apple certifications, there are also a number of general IT certifications that can showcase general IT and network troubleshooting and management skills that can be helpful in concert with Mac-specific certifications. Some of these include the various Microsoft certification options, Adobe's Certified Expert certification, CompTia's platform neutral Network+ and Security+ as well as the more Windows-specific A+.

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