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Mac troubleshooting isn't hard, but watch out for kernel panic

Admins unfamiliar with Mac troubleshooting may find it familiar and frustrating, but these tools can help with diagnosis and security.

The Mac OS has a small share of enterprise desktops, it's true. But IT administrators who must deal with Mac troubleshooting soon find that Mac tools and terminology are similar but not identical to those for Windows systems. In my previous article, I listed some common Mac terms, and here are more:

Console

The Console utility is your one-stop shop for accessing all the system and application logs. In this app, the Spotlight window at the upper right serves as a filter. Type in a string, and it will show you only the entries that contain it. Want to follow a specific log in real time? Use the Terminal and enter the command:

                tail -f /var/log/system.log [or any log name]

You'll also find that the Console utility regularly updates its logs as well. This is a great tool for diagnosing installation problems when they crop up.

Core Services

Like Microsoft, the folks at Apple do a pretty good job of hiding the executables they don't like users to run directly. These are usually hidden behind some other interface element (or they may even be the interface elements themselves). To look for the kinds of things you'd normally find in System32 or SysWOW64, check out /System/Library/CoreServices. The files are quite clearly named, and a quick Google search will let you know what they do.

Directory Utility

If you're an Active Directory shop -- and who isn't these days? -- you should know about the Directory Utility, a onetime resident of the Utilities folder. As of OS 10.7 (Lion), it has been sequestered in /System/Library/CoreServices. You can also call it up in System Preferences, on the Users & Groups panel and under Login Options via the Network Account Server. (Click "Join," then the button to open this utility.) You can also use the Directory Utility to enable the Root account, but this is generally considered a very bad idea. (See sudo below.)

Disk Warrior

Alsoft's Disk Warrior is a one-trick pony: It rebuilds and replaces directories. It has been doing that trick for nearly 30 years, however, and arguably is still the most effective and reliable tool for the job. Users who regularly work on very large files run some risk of a disk directory failure, although they're fairly rare. Disk Warrior rebuilds and replaces the master directory based on what it finds on the disk. A bootable DVD, it's one utility that it makes sense to have on hand, because when Mac management is needed, it's usually needed right now!

Drive Genius

This is a useful collection of disk tools from Prosoft Engineering that goes several steps further than what you can do with Apple's built-in Disk Utility. Though the Mac OS file system does a good job of keeping itself running optimally, you may occasionally run into something that Disk Utility can't repair (a directory rebuild will often fix this). If a user has lots of files that are larger than 20 MB (media files are often this size), the Drive Genius defrag tool may be useful. Drive Genius comes on a bootable DVD for $99.

Kernel panic

This is the Mac version of the Windows "blue screen of death." This gray and black screen displays error information in a variety of languages when something has gone very, very wrong. Sometimes it's transitory: Just use the power button to force a restart, and it may not happen again. Problems are often hardware-related, but they can also be caused by software (usually cache files). In any case, expect to spend anywhere from several minutes to several hours dealing with it. An Apple support document (outdated but still useful) can guide you through the Mac troubleshooting process.

Keychain

The Keychain is what Mac OS uses to securely store passwords, certificates, encryption keys and the like. You can access it through Keychain Access in the /Applications/Utilities menu. Once in a while, the database where all this information is stored can get a bit corrupted, so it's good to know about the Keychain First Aid utility sitting under the Keychain menu in the program. That will verify and repair the Keychain database.

sudo

Though pretty basic to Unix people, this can be a source of frustration if you're new to the Mac command line (via the Terminal). Commands that affect system files and directories need "super-user" (root) rights, and sudo will get around those Access Denied errors. You'll be prompted for your admin password after receiving a brief lecture on the dangers of using sudo.

To move your Terminal session into super-user status, use the command "sudo su," and your command-line prompt will become a "#" meaning that you can now move, modify and delete files in a way that can permanently damage the OS. Another important note: You need to be logged into a user account with admin rights for the sudo command to work.

System Preferences

This is where the Mac OS hides its control panels, called preference panes in the Mac world. Under the Apple (icon) menu, it is available from the desktop and all Mac applications. The actual preferences are stored in the XML-based PLIST, or property list, files.

Wireless Diagnostics

The one real gem in the CoreServices is Wireless Diagnostics, which is a very robust analysis tool added in for Apple's own support techs. With Wireless Diagnostics open, select the Utilities window to open this remarkable little toolbox, or you can also find it by holding down the Option key while clicking the wireless icon in the menu bar.

About the author:
Ric Getter is a programmer/analyst at Portland Community College, Oregon's largest institution of higher education. He focuses on enterprise deployments and remote system and application management. Getter has also been regularly writing about computers since 1999.

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This was last published in September 2014

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