Switcher Sensei: Share and share alike

David Braue
2 July, 2010
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Back in the old days, Apple’s insistence on using the proprietary AppleTalk network protocol made networking Macs and Windows systems a real headache. Thankfully, however, those days are long behind us; Macs are TCP/IP natives and can easily share files and resources with other systems.

Sharing on a Mac is, conceptually, not too far removed from sharing in Windows, but is effected in a different way. In XP, you could right-click on any folder, choose Sharing and Security … and expose it to the network using a share name.

Vista put tight restrictions on where publicly-accessible folders and files needed to be placed (in Vista’s Public folder) and provided granular control over access rights: Owner, Reader, Contributor, Co-owner status dictated who could do what.

Windows 7 added the idea of ‘homegroups’ for sharing files between Win 7 machines on a home network. And sharing in Vista and Windows 7 is managed through the central Network and Sharing Center, a centralised approach mirrored in Mac OS X.

To share files in Mac OS X, open System Preferences and click on Sharing. You’ll note immediately that the Mac offers more sharing options than Windows. Windows manages file, public folder, printer, and media sharing, while Mac OS X also lets you share the disc in your DVD drive; your screen, which lets other networked users access and control your screen; and your printers, scanners, Bluetooth, and Internet connections.

Web Sharing lets your system act as a web server on the local network, publishing web pages stored in your Users > XXXXX > Sites folder. Remote Login lets other users log into your system; Remote Management controls access in large sites using Apple Remote Desktop; Xgrid sharing controls your computer’s participation in networked computing clusters; and Remote Apple Events allows networked computers to coordinate their activities.

Note that each type of sharing has a tick box and can be easily turned on or off. Most options won’t be relevant to you most of the time so, for security’s sake, only activate the sharing services you require.

To share files across the network, click on File Sharing. By default, a folder called ‘Public Folder’ has been set up for sharing access, with full Read & Write privileges for you and other privileges for Staff and Everyone user groups. Add other users by clicking the plus sign below the Users window, and you can set access privileges for specific users or contacts from your Address Book.

The Public Folder created by Mac OS X lives in your personal user directory – Users > XXXXX > Public. For example, on Switcher Sensei’s system the Public folder is Users > david > Public.

Copy files into this folder and everybody on the network can access them – subject, of course, to the restrictions imposed by your access controls. Share other folders by clicking the + sign and navigating to them; note that Mac OS X, unlike Windows Vista, does not let you share specific files.

Finder shows networked shares in the Shared menu of the left-hand sidebar: click on a computer’s name and you’ll get a list of all the shared folders on that system. In the Finder window, you can also choose Share Screen… to initiate screen sharing, and Connect As… to log into another system with a password.

Mac OS X uses AFP (Apple File Protocol) to share resources over networks by default, and this is generally a safe option as it works efficiently with Windows systems as well. However, you can also click the Options… button to enable FTP-based file sharing or force sharing using Windows’ SMB protocol.

The other thing to know about is Bonjour, Apple’s implementation of the Zeroconf protocol that lets computers discover shared network resources automatically. Bonjour works in the background to help computers find everything from folders and printers to shared iPhoto and iTunes libraries, the Remote iPhone application, iChat, Skype, and more.

This article originally appeared in the May issue of Australian Macworld magazine.

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