Home > Mac administration, Mac OS X, Mac OS X Server, macOS > Portable home directories will not work on macOS Sierra

Portable home directories will not work on macOS Sierra

As part of the pre-release announcements about macOS Sierra, Apple released the following KBase article:


As part of the KBase article, Apple included a Changes coming with macOS Sierra section which featured this note:

Portable home directories:
Starting with macOS Sierra, you won't be able to create portable home
directories. Mobile home directories, which have networks accounts that
are cached locally, can still be created. However, their home folder
will no longer sync with their network home directory.

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Screen Shot 2016 09 03 at 2 13 42 PM

Portable home directories (PHDs) were Apple’s attempt at providing roaming user profiles. Starting in Mac OS X 10.3.x, you could configure a person’s account so that the data in their home folder resided on a server in a network home folder. The data on the server was then synchronized with copies of the same data residing on the one or more Macs that particular person used on a day-to-day basis.

Portable home directories

It was also possible to configure what data was synchronized between the Mac(s) and the server, to conserve space on the server for only essential data.

Portable Sync Rules

Unfortunately, the idea was better in concept than it was in execution. Depending on how much data needed to be synchronized, the copying process between the server and the individual Macs could take a while.

Picture 1

Synchronization conflicts were also left for the user to figure out, which usually meant a call to the local help desk.

Phd conflict resolution

The synchronization agent itself was prone to crashing when working particularly hard.

Picture 7

The problems with the synchronization process, coupled with the increasing availability of continuous backup solutions like CrashPlan and Apple’s diminishing support for PHDs, helped make portable home directory deployment something many Mac admins avoided. Nine OS releases after PHDs’ initial debut in 10.3.x., it appears Apple now agrees with that sentiment.

  1. Matt
    September 4, 2016 at 10:17 am

    Sadly Apple just keeps giving business less and less reason to buy Macs. Network/Portable Home Directories were brilliant in their ability to quickly deploy and replace computers. Now it’s a case of having to make sure each computer is backed up, and staff can’t simply sit down at any machine and log in, nor can their computer be quickly swapped out.

  2. cashxx
    September 6, 2016 at 7:21 pm

    Anyone else a little worried? They keep taking enterprise features away more and more with every release. I’m waiting for OS X Server to go away completely. Lack of updates to Apple hardware is also a little scary.

    • February 25, 2017 at 10:09 am

      Yep… Their cloud service seems to be the driving force.

  3. September 12, 2016 at 3:26 pm

    I never had a chance to work with portable home directories in our environment but worked with roaming profiles in the Windows world for 11 years. In the Windows world I saw it as something just not quite there yet. It was alright if you only had one system you logged into which most did. If the profile got too big though which was easy to do, it could get painful. By all accounts I’ve read on the internet, Apple’s implementation was more painful than Windows.

    Now the best thing about Windows profiles for me was the mandatory profiles(one way transfer of data on each login). Those were perfect for managing generic lab user accounts. This is something I’ve wanted to do in the Mac world but never have had the time to explore. My guess is that if such a feature existed in the Mac world then Sierra likely has put the kibosh on it.

    At any rate for those arguing about enterprise features considering the industry move toward cloud services…OneDrive on the Windows side and iCloud on Apple’s, the direction is pretty clear and from what I can tell it’s a much better solution. One big argument would be Apple’s lack of enterprise access to data for admins and I can understand that one but let’s face it Apple has rarely if ever been very friendly towards the enterprise market. Hopefully they’ll address it though. It’s that or hope that One Drive for Business becomes much more robust.

  4. September 18, 2016 at 2:35 am

    Great article, as expected from DerFlounder. Never really had a need for Portable Home Directories. Tried it a few times but had too many issues. Easier to give users server space, so important stuff is stored/copied there, and backed up nightly. Guessing maybe schools use this feature more than enterprise?

  5. October 20, 2016 at 8:10 pm

    OK. That is bad news for me. How am I now going to make sure that people can have an account on multiple laptops that have a) the same data in their account and b) work when not i range of the local (fast) network but also when there is no internet at all?

    Or should I forget about macOS Sierra and go to El Capitan? But does that even matter? Isn’t it a question of the version of the Server app?

  6. Roger
    November 9, 2016 at 8:17 pm

    Is there a guide somewhere about how to convert portable home directories to mobile homes (network homes cached locally)?

  7. Jim
    April 16, 2017 at 2:03 am

    This explains why my login has been useless since rebooting after the last OS update. As Roger alluded to, there needs to be some sort of guide to help us know the best way to convert. I now also need to consider what to do with my Mac Pro and Mac Mini since their usefulness as a home server just greatly decreased.

  8. Roger
    April 16, 2017 at 7:09 pm

    We are not entirely unhappy about the loss of portable homes because the synch process became more and more errorprone and more and more folders had to be excluded from the synch.
    We created personal shares on our servers instead. Users are supposed to put personal data there instead of on the desktop and into documents. Homefolders are not backed up (unless the user sets up a time machine solution for him or herself), only the personal share on the server is.
    It’s not optimal but good enough and saves us from a lot of support calls due to problems with the portable home synch. All in all, we see it as a improvement.

    • August 30, 2017 at 9:11 pm

      The improvement would be to get it to work. Personal shares on a server only work for people smart enough to use them. You could set up time machine autosync everything in their home directory but that only works on one computer.
      Apple gets a trophy for giving up YAY!

      • August 31, 2017 at 7:41 am

        Actually, I have a setup working again on macOS Sierra for multiple users using ChronoSync. It’s slow because you cannot use feventsd in full (so a lot of unnecessary scanning) and has some serious disadvantages (mainly stemming from the fact that it is meant for single-user), but it works for a small group. I have a blog post that has been in draft for half a year now, but because of feedback from the company I have to do some testing checking first before I go live.

  9. June 20, 2018 at 3:21 pm

    @gctwnl,.. I have finally bit the bullet and moved beyond 10.11.6 and now have to deal with this. We are already using CS so I plan to leverage it to replace Apple’s deprecated/abandoned service . I would really enjoy reading your blog post,.. Can you share the url with us? Thanks!

    shawn – from Switzerland.

    • June 20, 2018 at 6:08 pm

      I’ll see that I finally publish. It has been ready for 1.5 years, but at the last moment the guys from CS sent me something that fixed one critique and I never got around to changing the story. I will though.

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