The Mac OS X App Store & Managed Environments

The Mac OS X App Store was released earlier this month as a part of the Mac OS X 10.6.6 update. The App Store, with over 1,000 applications (including a couple of server tools), allowing people to download and install applications on Mac OS X computers without needing to understand how to click through the screens of a standard package installer, drag applications from disk images into the /Applications folder or basically how to do practically anything except for click and provide a valid credit card number. As with the App Store that debuted with the iPhone, the App Store for Mac OS X is clearly aimed at residential customers, but being that these computers are used in enterprises around the world, the impact to managed environments cannot be discounted. I decided to do plenty of testing and reading before I wrote this up, so hopefully you’ll find it helpful, if not very timely.

The first and probably most important aspect of the App Store to most who are charged with managing large numbers of Mac OS X computers is that only administrative users can install software from the App Store. This little fact makes the App Store itself a non-issue for most enterprises, who do not make typical users administrative users. Because only administrative accounts can download and install applications, there is little risk created from leaving the App Store on client computers.

Applications installed from the App Store can only be deployed into the /Applications directory. These applications are owned by System, with read-only access given to the wheel group and everyone else. No ACLs are used, so while a single user purchases the software any user on the system can open it. If you copy the software to another computer then you will be prompted to authorize it using the same Apple ID that was used to purchase it.

When an administrative user purchases an application, they are not prompted for a system password, only an App Store password, which uses the same Apple ID used for the iTunes Store and the iOS App Store. Application updates are handled using the familiar Updates screen borrowed from the iOS App Store, which includes the nifty Update All option.

As far as controlling the user’s experience with the App Store, there are a few options. Administrators can remove the App Store application bundle (which can be replaced any time) from /Applications. Administrators can also black list the application using managed preferences/parental controls. A Dock item is added by default and can be removed as well. Removing both the Dock item and the Application bundle will then remove the App Store menu item from the Apple menu. You can also block the hosts at apple.com, which includes itunes.apple.com, ax.itunes.apple.com, ax.init.itunes.apple.com, albert.apple.com, metrics.sky.com and possibly gs.apple.com. These will communicate over ports 80 and 443, according to the operation being used. There is also a launch daemon at /System/Library/LaunchAgents/com.apple.storeagent.plist that should be unloaded and likely removed if you’re going to outright disable the App Store. However, the only real way I would personally disable is using a managed preference.

There is also a property list file for the App Store that can be used to manage the application in Workgroup Manager in ~/Library/Preferences/com.apple.storeagent.plist. However, there isn’t much that can be done here at this time.

Because applications are tied to users, when a user moves computers you will want to backup and restore the applications for the user. To do so, here’s the captain obvious article for ya': http://support.apple.com/kb/HT4482.

The App Store is not a replacement for a good patch management system. Software distribution cannot be managed centrally using the App Store and Software Update Server in Mac OS X Server does not currently cache applications from the App Store. Trying to think of a way to shoehorn the App Store into a software distribution system such as JAMF’s Casper Suite, Absolute Manage or FileWave is just asking for a world of pain, so let’s pretend that we never brought it up. If your organization isn’t able to license one of the aforementioned products, check out Star Deploy from http://www.stardeploy.com/StarDeploy/Home.html or munki from http://code.google.com/p/munki. Finally, I think that Apple’s done a great job with the App Store for a version 1 release. I think that my wife loves it and that over time if Apple chooses to do more with it then great; otherwise, all of the options we’ve been using, from the installer command on, are still at our disposal.

  • Patrick Fergus

    If you have an InstaDMG workflow and you want to prevent the App Store icon from appearing in the Dock the following postflight should work:

    /usr/bin/defaults delete “$3″/Library/Preferences/com.apple.dockfixup add-app

    Apple didn’t use add-app in 10.6 until 10.6.6. In 10.5 it was used to add the Downloads folder/stack and Time Machine to the Dock.

    – Patrick

  • http://www.gurucollege.net/blog Breandan Dezendorf

    Funny enough – I’ve moved a number of Apps from /Applications to ~/Applications, and I just got checked for updated. TextWrangler, which I had moved by hand into the ~/Applications folder, just updated to the most current version. (I sync a number of utilities between my Mac’s by symlinking ~/Applications to ~/Dropbox/Applications)

  • http://blog.macadmincorner.com Patrick Gallagher

    I’m not sure how/if this is going to factor in, but in higher education we have the volume purchasing program (VPP) which is used for volume purchases from iTunes and the iOS app store. I can only assume this can also be used to purchase for the Mac app store.

    http://www.apple.com/itunes/education/

    • http://www.krypted.com Charles

      I’ve asked about VPP availability for the Mac OS X App Store and am waiting to hear back. I was hoping to hear back before I wrote something (in fact that’s what I was waiting for)…