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The trouble with Mac Ethernet

Denial doesn’t help in a production environment. From time to time, I use this space to alert the target audience–network administrators and other IT managers–of a significant technical challenge we face in our organization. The hope is you can apply what we’ve learned if you ever get into similar circumstance, or at the very least you can avoid the circumstances altogether. This is one of those columns. Nontechie readers, please bear with me.

For those of you who do not know, I work for a large publishing company that owns several publications and also does a lot of custom publishing. As is common in the publishing industry, all of the 50 or so creatives in our office run Macintosh systems, myself included. Sales and administration run PCs. The reasons for the mixed environment are myriad. Macs are simply better for graphics-intensive work in Quark, Photoshop, Illustrator, etc. Our sales department likes ACT for low-end customer-relationship management. Accounting uses a high-end Windows-based system. In order to meet the needs of this diverse user set, we have a mixed environment.

It turns out, it is not a trivial task to manage a single network of different clients. AppleTalk does not like many of the standard networking environments, especially TCP/IP. I remember when we first combined the network under NT 4. In dynamic addressing, two Macs would try to claim the same address. For some time, there was always someone in my department who could not get on the network or get Internet service because of this kind of conflict. For a long time, we went to static addressing–simply assigning everyone with a unique IP address. This worked, but you certainly wouldn’t choose to do it if you didn’t have to. Eventually, Apple fixed this, but it still hasn’t fixed all the technical problems with AppleTalk. Every time we find a problem, Apple blames another vendor.

Lately, we’ve moved all our publications to direct-to-plate technology. This means that we combine all the content and ads into PDF files and have the printers print them directly, as opposed to the old-fashioned way of boards and bluelines and such. It also means that we need a lot more bandwidth on our network to take in and manage all the digital files. So we replaced our main network hub with a switch. The switch we chose–the Cisco Catalyst 4000–would give us gigabit Ethernet. Before we made the purchase, we brought Cisco reps in to show them the network and explain to them the mixed environment. They assured us that we would have no problems, in fact, they said, this is a “trivial install.” They even convinced us to get the Cadillac of switches, because it gave us a lot of features we would need down the road.

When we finally installed the switch (during production on many magazines), the Mac G4 clients kept dropping off the network at random. I started seeing admins frantically running from cube to cube. Conference calls with Cisco representatives got louder and louder from the admin office next to mine. Even Joe Cisco himself came in to try to show us idiots a thing or two, and he was stumped. More conference calls followed between Joe Cisco and his compadres at the home office (each one started off with “I don’t know why they like Macs, they just do”). Finally, one of our admins went on the Mac Fixit site and found out it is a very common problem for G4s to drop off like this. (I had the problem myself at home and blamed my cable company for it.) The solution requires us to disable most of the features we paid extra for on the switch and buy new Ethernet cards for all our G4s. Even though Mac Fixit has pages of messages on this problem, Apple denies that the problem is with its stuff.

Believe it or not this frustrating story has a point–actually three points. Clearly the industry led by Cisco thumbs its nose at Macs. Cisco’s own consultants had no idea this was a problem. They blame us for having Macs in the first place rather than taking responsibility for how their products work with 5 percent of the market. Also, Apple could get off its high horse and get to work on its networking protocols. I’m told it will be better with OS X, but that is what Apple has been saying with every OS upgrade since I took this job. At least it could admit that its own cards don’t work right. Finally, if it weren’t for vocal user communities, we wouldn’t fix many of the problems these companies create. I sometimes wonder where the tech industry would be without these “free” services.

James Mathewson is editor of ComputerUser magazine and ComputerUser.com.

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