Leopard: Shining the spotlight on Spotlight

The simplicity of Spotlight could make you wonder both how you lived without it and why nobody developed it sooner

In recent columns, I've talked about the new features coming in Mac OS X 10.5 Leopard, including Time Machine and Spaces. Both are major additions that will make computing more reliable and help organize the way you work within Mac OS X.

Now, I want to talk about two less prominent features -- one of which isn't even new. Leopard will include an enhanced version of Mac OS X's Spotlight search tool as well as Quick Look, a new tool for previewing documents without opening them.

Compared to Time Machine and Spaces, an updated version of Spotlight may not seem particularly exciting -- after all, it got the shortest amount of attention at the Worldwide Developers Conference (WWDC) keynote last August and hasn't really been talked about since. However, changes that Apple is making both refine and expand Spotlight in major ways, particularly in network environments.

Remote Mac and server search support

One of the biggest advances in Spotlight is that it will be able to search remote computers. This is a big deal for home users, who have different files -- think digital photos and music -- stored on different Macs. You'll be able to search across all the Macs in your house for that one photo that you know you downloaded from your camera but can't find or for the particular CD track you ripped but don't remember on which of three Macs you placed it. The new and improved Spotlight will even offer some unique parental monitoring capabilities because you can remotely search your kids' computers if you suspect they're downloading files illegally or saving files that you feel are inappropriate.

However, the power of remote searching at home is nothing compared to its use in the office. Apple is adding a new Spotlight Server feature to Leopard Server that will index all content on Mac servers, allowing you to search all servers in a network -- just as you would look for something on your local Mac. This stands to offer incredible value in any network environment, particularly collaborative environments where many people are working together on a single project.

Being able to search based on metadata, file names and file contents across multiple folders, share points and even multiple servers will make locating documents much simpler. Imagine, for example, a situation in which a colleague asks you to update a grant proposal or an InDesign file for XYZ company. You don't know the file name or whether it is in a group folder, his public folder or in some other location on your department's share point. Being able to search among all Spotlight's criteria -- or even just the ability to look at file contents for XYZ company -- will make locating the file much easier than locating information in any file on a network has ever been.

Spotlight under Leopard Server will also respect file permissions and access control lists (ACL). That's critical because it means that while Spotlight would theoretically have access to all information stored on a server, users won't. Making Spotlight fully respect Mac OS X's permission structure is actually quite a feat for Apple to tackle (though clearly one that it needed to) because of the varying levels of access people might have. That would include access rights assigned explicitly, through group and nested group membership, POSIX permissions and ACLs.

You don't want a situation where someone is denied access to a file while browsing through the Finder because they lack permission to an enclosing folder, but can access that file through a Spotlight search because of permissions on a subfolder or even on the file itself. Apple's Leopard Server Sneak Peek page for Spotlight states that Leopard Server will ensure that if you cannot browse to a file, you will not be able to locate it with Spotlight. No doubt, this is a challenge for Apple's engineers. But for users and systems administrators it will mean fewer security headaches down the road.

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