Why sysadmins shouldn’t overlook the Mac

I have three requirements for a laptop:

  1. Run the tools I need
  2. Fit a LOT of stuff on the screen
  3. Run for a long time if I can’t get to an outlet

For the past couple years I’d been using a good ol’ Dell Precision Mobile Workstation M4400 (http://www.dell.com/us/dfb/p/precision-m4400/pd).  It had a lot of things I liked; WUXGA screen resolution (1920 x 1200) on a 15″ platform, fingerprint reader, built in 3G cell radio, very long battery life (8 hours or so) if I attached the large Dell ‘battery slice’.

Its downsides are that with the battery slice I need for obtaining that long run time, whether attached or in my laptop bag, gave me a combined weight of nearly 11 pounds.  With the battery slice attached, the laptop was nearly four inches thick.  The 3G radio ultimately became useless when I moved to LTE and had to start using an external USB radio.  The batteries also eventually stopped holding as much charge and would have cost a few hundred $$ to replace.

At this point I figured I’d look into what newer options Dell had available.  Well, to my surprise, they no longer offered anything in a 15″ platform with resolution greater than 1080p video.  Our sales rep confirmed they were going the opposite direction and would no longer offer WUXGA or above.  Umm, I want more, not less.

After a bunch of research, I decided to buy my first ever Macintosh, the MacBook Pro Retina 15.4 with 2.6 GHz cpu, 8 GB memory, 512 GB flash drive storage.  Looks like the prices have gone down since the time I ordered them; in any case, here’s the one I bought (LINK):

I couldn’t be happier after the fact. There is simply no laptop on the market that has the specs of this particular MacBook while also being as light and thin as it is; i.e. fast CPU, high power graphics if needed (it dynamically switches from low power integrated to GPU-enabled), 7.5 hour run time on battery and, last but not least, an incredible display that can go all the way up to 2560×1440 resolution. Here’s the MBPr and my old Dell side by side:



I can do everything I used to do on the Dell in a platform that has nearly the same run time, much better resolution, much better performance and it only weighs 4.5 pounds instead of 11.  I can also drive an external monitor at very high resolution without any special hardware; just connect to the built-in Thunderbolt connector (which doubles as a mini-DisplayPort for third party monitors).  You can span your desktop so you can easily drag windows between screens.  Personally I just bought, and love, the Dell U3014 monitor; it’s pretty huge at 30 inches, so be prepared, but the Mac can drive it at 2560 x 1600 native while also putting up 2560 x 1440 on its own built-in screen; that’s a LOT of stuff on your displays!  There is a catch though; you have to make a system-level change to the Mac or it will think the display is a television instead of a monitor, the article on how to fix that is located “here“.


Dell UltraSharp U3014

Most people just go with Apple’s own Thunderbolt display as it does have some advantages.  It’s a bit less obnoxious on your desk at 27 inches compared to 30, but the resolution is slightly lower at 2560 x 1440.  It has one small cable from it to your Mac Book that contains a Thunderbolt connector AND (bonus!) a power connector, so you now get to avoid having your power brick sitting around with that extra cable.  But wait, there’s more; USB is also transported over the Thunderbolt bus so now you can also connect your USB devices to the monitor and the Mac can use those too. But wait, there’s even more; gig ethernet is also transported so there’s an RJ45 on the back of the monitor so now you don’t even need to hard wire to your laptop when plugging in!  I went with the Dell simply for the higher resolution; I wanted the most I could fit on the screen because I get a lot of terminal sessions going watching all kinds of things while I work.  Additionally, the Dell has mini-DP, DP, and DVI for input, so it’s a lot more useful if you have non-Thunderbolt devices to connect.  As of July 2013, Amazon has it for $20 less than the Apple monitor too.

Back to the hardware; yes it is a bit expensive, and yes, there are laptops from other manufacturers that do some of the same things, i.e. perhaps they give you long run time, or have a fast processor, or are thin and light, or have a flash drive, but there are simply NONE that have all of that plus such an extremely high-res screen.  I was willing to pay the Apple premium price to get all of that, and after carrying it around for the past six months and thinking back to how much I hated carrying the Dell, I’m very glad I did.

Now, how about some useful sysadmin goodies you may find helpful:

  • You can do whole-drive encryption at a reasonably high level of security.
  • If the above doesn’t leave you feeling warm and fuzzy, take it one step further with True Crypt (http://www.truecrypt.org/).  You can choose your desired encryption algorithm/strength, built a disk file store and mount it in as a drive that pops up on your Mac desktop just like any other volume for you to drag files in and out of, etc.  True Crypt integrates very well with Mac OS.  Even cooler, True Crypt supports plausible deniability by way of hidden volumes that decrypt using different passwords, so if someone knows you use an encrypted volume, knows the location of that data file, forces you to reveal or enter your password, you can use the secondary password you’ve set up and it will show entirely different data.  Keep in mind that copying new data into that volume could destroy the data protected with the primary password, so there is one drawback, but that’s the price you have to pay for the protection.
  • You of course likely know OpenSSH is built in so you need nothing to be able to SSH to your servers or network equipment other than adding your private keys.  All your other happy unix commands are present as well; it’s nearly as nice as running linux on your desktop/laptop but without the hassle of trying to find replacements for commercial apps you might still need to use that are available for the Mac or remembering to run yum (or whatever your preferred distribution uses) all the time making sure you’re up to date.  If need be, you can compile most things from source just like you can on linux.
  • iTerm 2 is a great app to replace Terminal. Let’s you highlight to copy, right click to paste, map keys, multiple terminals, scroll back, color control, close when exiting the last terminal, etc.  If you do a lot of sysadmin work, you need this.
  • SwitchResX is a 14 Euro app that lets you change screen resolutions from the status bar and lets you change a retina display to unsupported resolutions; i.e. go above Apple’s highest default resolution of 1920 x 1200 to the limit of the screen.  2048 x 1280 and even 2560 x 1440 are usable if your eyes are good.  In good lighting I often use 2560 x 1440, otherwise I’ll drop it down some.
  • If you do a lot of sysadmin work, you probably use Ctrl a hell of a lot more than the caps lock key; the Mac lets you swap them via preferences; you don’t have to make a registry change like you do on Windows.
  • Cord is a good remote desktop client for connecting to Windows servers.  Microsoft’s client has a bug that will prevent connections given some licensing setups.  Microsoft’s client also does not support IPv6.
  • Your Mac can be a TFTP server!  To do this:
    • sudo launchctl load -F /System/Library/LaunchDaemons/tftp.plist
    • sudo launchctl start com.apple.tftpd
    • That’s it, you now have a tftp server running from /private/tftpboot.  It will behave like a standard linux tftp server where you have to pre-create world writable filenames for incoming files, but outgoing files can be requested without special steps.
  • Need to connect to routers and switches?  There’s no serial port of course; that’s so old school.  Here’s a great USB serial adapter that works just fine with MacOS including the latest 10.8.4.  You will want to download the drivers from http://prolificusa.com/pl-2303hx-drivers/:

Once you have it installed and working, all you need to do is open up a terminal and type “screen /dev/cu.usbserial 9600” and you’ll be on the port good to go.  You can adjust the 9600 to the required baud rate as needed.  To exit Screen, type Ctrl-A Ctrl-\.

I do have a couple of complaints about the laptop and/or Mac OS:

  • If you close the lid, it goes to sleep.  As best I can tell, there is simply no way to avoid this.  For a device with an HDMI port, this seems very stupid to me, because it means if you’re going to watch movies from your laptop on your television, you have to leave the screen on consuming power for no reason.  The only saving grace is at least there are physical brightness buttons on the keyboard so when I do this I just start playback and then turn the brightness down to zero where you no longer see anything; I figure that uses less power.
  • The spacing of the keys on the keyboard takes some getting used to and I still occasionally miss the intended letter.
  • Stupid light-up Apple logo on the lid.  I get it, it’s a Mac, go ahead and put a logo on the lid so everyone knows what I’m using (like they wouldn’t have known anyway) but don’t waste my battery life lighting the damn thing up.  Note: it is tied to the keyboard backlighting so if you turn that of it goes off too.
  • Apple has some networking algorithm that tries to decide whether IPv4 or IPv6 is faster when you tell it to connect to a given remote host, whether it be for http, ssh, POP3, etc. so unless the application you’re using allows you to force your choice, or you go by IP address explicitly, you have no way of knowing if it will choose to use either one.  As best I can tell, there is no way to turn this ‘feature’ off.  I find it mildly annoying because I do a lot of IPv6 work and in some cases need to access web pages using IPv6 intentionally to test, but I have no guarantee the browser will actually do it even if it’s available.  I end up having to pop open a terminal, dig the AAAA record and access by IP to force it.
  • Only two USB ports.  Tech geeks have lots of USB stuff; two isn’t enough in my mind.  I have an encrypted memory stick, 4G cellular modem, mouse and might want to charge my phone.  I don’t want to carry around extra chargers, don’t want to waste power on bluetooth just for a mouse and I don’t want to have the bulk and power waste of of cell hot spot over 4G modem.
  • The case is beautiful, but will get scratched since it’s aluminum; buy a cover for it! I love carbon fiber, so this is the one I bought:
  • The screen is very glossy so it will show all kinds of dirt, dust and fingerprints very quickly, as will the case, so you end up cleaning it a lot if you find seeing those things annoying.
  • No gig Ethernet port.  Mac folks hate cords, and Apple loves wifi.  Sysadmins like gig+ speeds.  This is a very minor complaint; I’d prefer the case being as thin as it is over having an Ethernet port, so I’m okay with having to carry a small dongle to get wired Ethernet.  Here’s what you’ll need to order:

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