In my last post, I explained my frustration with web hosting services and how this frustration led me to purchase my own server. In this post, I will briefly touch on some of the ups and downs I’ve experienced with the Mac Mini Server and its Snow Leopard Server software.
The Server Edition of the Mac Mini is very similar to a normal Mac Mini, with a few notable exceptions: it has 4GB RAM, it does not have an optical (DVD) drive, and it comes equipped with a second 500GB hard drive for a total of 1TB. If you’ve never seen a Mac Mini in person, it truly lives up to its name… this bugger is TINY. It also uses very little electricity compared to other PCs.
I’ve read that the Mini is actually capable of using up to 8GB of RAM, though Apple doesn’t officially support it yet. I didn’t want to try it, as I believe 4GB should be enough for my needs. I don’t plan on doing anything fancy besides serve my websites.
No Optical Drive
This is a bit of a pain sometimes, but in my case I’ve shipped the Mini off to a data center, so I couldn’t plop a DVD into the optical drive if I wanted to! The Mini uses the same technology as the MacBook Air for accessing optical drives in other computers. You also have the option of hooking up an external USB drive if you need to.
Since the Mini came with Snow Leopard Server pre-installed, I wasn’t worried about the optical drive.
Dual hard drives
The Server Edition comes with dual 500GB drives for a total of 1TB of disk space. Of course, the operating system eats up a chunk of that space, so you’ll have less than 1TB of free space to work with.
Both drives are 5400 RPM, which I didn’t notice until after I bought it. I was a bit disappointed about this, as we all know 7200 RPM drives are much more responsive. However, on the bright side, 5400 RPM drives don’t run as hot and won’t use as much electricity. If I were using this Mini for a major corporate site, I’d bump up the hard drives, but for my purposes two 500GB 5400 RPM drives will be fine.
As for how the drives are configured, it appears Apple intended the second drive to be for content storage (Snow Leopard Server is heavy on content creation tools). Since I don’t plan to use much space (for now), and because I’m completely paranoid about losing my data, I’ve repurposed the second drive as a Time Machine backup drive. I’ve also hooked up an external 500GB USB drive for bootable SuperDuper backups. Redundant backups are a good thing, right?
By the way, I’ve read that an external 7200 RPM hard drive connected via the FireWire 800 port can beat the internal 5400 RPM drive’s performance. You’ll be able to upgrade pretty easily if you need to.
Other hardware notes
Mac Minis don’t come with keyboards, a mouse, or a monitor. You’ll need to get those yourself. Since mine is located at a remote data center, I connect to it remotely using my Macs at home. Works great.
Snow Leopard Server
The Snow Leopard Server (SLS) marketing materials had me drooling. I know that Linux is no fun. Mac OS X is a variation of Linux, and it’s way fun. So it was logical to assume that Apple would do for Linux servers what they did for Linux desktops.
Umm… not quite. Actually, it’s kind of a big fail.
SLS is nowhere near as easy to configure as Apple makes it sound. Apple positioned the Mac Mini/SLS combo as if you can be your own IT department. True, it does provide many very cool enterprise-level tools and services, but if you don’t have previous system administrator experience on a Unix/Linux system, you are in for a world of confusion. For instance, if you intend to host more than one website, you’ll need to get out of the “one-click” Server Preferences app and dig into the advanced settings in the Server Admin app. If anything gets messed up here, you’ll probably have to go to the command-line to make fixes. While on the phone with Apple Support.
SLS uses the Workgroup Manager app to manage login accounts. This is a front-end GUI for a heavily customized Open Directory authentication system. Don’t know what Open Directory is? Then you’ll especially hate trying to set this stuff up. Unix/Linux uses POSIX permissions for users. These are what you see when you use most FTP programs or even WordPress. Windows uses access control lists (ACL) for user permissions, as they provide a finer level of control than POSIX over what people can access. Mac OS X uses BOTH. This causes a great deal of consternation when trying to set up FTP services for your users, as the POSIX settings may look correct, but the ACL settings will override the POSIX! I still haven’t gotten mine sorted out yet. It’s a real pain.
Long story short, Snow Leopard Server is very confusing to administer. And since it varies so much from the traditional Unix/Linux setup, it’s very hard to find help. For instance, file paths for Apache (the software that serves web pages) are completely different in Snow Leopard Server than they are in a typical Linux environment. If you have an Apache how-to guide, a significant chunk of the info will be wrong for your SLS system because of different file paths, or Apple-specific security restrictions, or Apple’s unique implementation of add-ons like PHP.
I often feel that I may have been better off ditching Snow Leopard Server and installing a typical Linux server system. Which, I might add, is completely free (Apple charges $499 for SLS if purchased separately from the Mac Mini). If I had done a typical Linux install, I would have had a much easier time finding answers online or in books. I’ve purchased two Snow Leopard Server books, and while they’ve been a little helpful, they’re still incredibly dense.
I should mention one bright spot for Snow Leopard Server support: Apple provides free 90-day phone support for Snow Leopard Server when you buy a Mac Mini Server. I found the phone support to be very helpful a couple of times, and completely exasperating a couple of times. It’s like any other company’s tech support: some guys know their stuff and are very helpful, and others are either ignorant or standoffish, treating you like you’re an idiot. Par for the course, I suppose. One major problem I had with the phone support was that Apple apparently doesn’t have the Mac Mini Server Edition in its phone tree. When it asks you what product you’re calling about, if you say “Mac Mini” you’re taken to the wrong line (I speak from experience). If you say “Snow Leopard Server” it always thinks you’re calling about the non-server edition of Snow Leopard. I’ve yet to make a call to Apple support where I didn’t have to explain my hardware/software setup and be redirected a couple of times.
Snow Leopard Server includes some tantalizing features that almost make it worth the trouble of dealing with setup/administration. Here’s a quick list:
iCal Server, Address Book Server, Mail services: Apple’s version of a Microsoft Exchange system.
- iCal Server is similar to Outlook’s calendar system. It’s great for businesses where everyone needs their own calendar, including the ability to send meeting requests and whatnot. My take? I don’t have iCal Server enabled because it’s easier to use a service like Google Calendar, and you don’t have to worry about administration headaches. However, iCal allows you to be in complete control over security and privacy, if that’s an issue for you. It also syncs with iPhones and MobileMe.
- Address Book Server is a similar deal: It allows multiple users to maintain address books online, and they can all be synced with iPhones and MobileMe. Makes sense for a business, but not worth the effort for an individual like me.
- Mail services. This is a biggie. Mail services allows you to create mail accounts for every user in your system. It has all kinds of features, but to be honest, it’s such a pain to administer that I mostly stick to my GMail account. Again, if you’re a business, this is a great app. Keep in mind that it’s a repackaging of a free Unix-based application named Postfix, which means you could have similar functionality free without buying Snow Leopard Server, it just won’t look as pretty. And yes, Mail includes webmail access and spam filtering.
Podcast Producer, Wiki Server, iChat Server: Apple jumping on to the Social Media bandwagon.
- Podcast Producer is an interesting application. You can record podcasts using your desktop Mac, then upload them to the server where they’ll be encoded and served to others (much like your very own YouTube). I find it alluring, yet I currently don’t have much need for it. I do plan to play with it at some point… it has great potential for e-learning.
- Wiki Server. For better or for worse, every website you create in Snow Leopard Server has a wiki enabled by default. These wikis are powered by Wiki Server. Wikis are certainly useful, and the wiki system in SLS is probably the easiest and lowest-hassle feature of the entire system. It just works, and it’s very pretty compared to most wiki systems. The problem for me is that I often don’t want a wiki attached to my sites. This means I have to manually go in to each site and turn off the wiki feature. You got it — the one thing that works great out-of-the-box is the one thing I don’t really want to use!
- iChat Server. I didn’t understand why anyone would want an iChat Server. Then I realized that it includes video chat support, and it can be completely encrypted. That is pretty cool. You can have private video chats with anyone, and since you’re using your own server and encrypted video, you can rest assured your video is not being monitored or cached on some corporation’s server. Unless you’re being monitored by a government agency or something. In that case, I don’t know you.
- Client Management. This is where Snow Leopard goes enterprise. You can remotely administer Macs on your network, including performing system updates and remote software installation. You can also manage iPhones. This is certainly not something I’m in need of, but if you’re a business (or school) I can see this being a big plus.
VPN, Time Machine, File Sharing: Essential tools for daily work.
- VPN. This is a great feature for people concerned about privacy. Most people know that VPN allows you to connect to your workplace’s network via an encrypted connection. But did you know you can use VPN to secure your data over WiFi connections? When you connect your laptop to your server via VPN, all of the data transmitted between the two computers is encrypted. So if you’re using WiFi at a conference or a coffee shop (or even at home) and want to make sure someone isn’t intercepting and reading your data, use VPN to encrypt those transmissions and protect yourself.
- Time Machine. Every Mac comes with Time Machine, but Snow Leopard Server’s Time Machine lets you back up your Mac’s hard drive to the server, no matter where you are. No USB cables, no external hard drives… all you need is an internet connection (preferably using VPN as described above).
- File Sharing. Snow Leopard Server’s file sharing feature is nothing new, but so far it seems quite sturdy and is flexible enough to work with both Mac and Windows systems.
Snow Leopard Server: Yea or Nay?
Do the pros of using Snow Leopard Server outweigh the cons? I’m not sure I can answer that question yet. I haven’t tried using every feature available, as I’m taking baby steps to ensure I don’t accidentally kill my system. I’ve got the basics up and running (web server, MySQL, file sharing), and so far it’s been running pretty smoothly. I’ve been pretty hands-off. I still don’t have FTP set up the way I’d like, and there are a few other odds and ends that need fixing, but on the whole everything seems pretty stable right now.
If you ever decide to get Snow Leopard Server, do yourself a favor and do a test run before deploying it. Go ahead and set it up in your living room, and try to get every feature up and running. Chances are you’ll make some critical mistakes, and hopefully you’ll learn from them. By the time you deploy the server in a production environment you’ll be an old pro.
If you do your first setup in a production environment, you are guaranteed to run into trouble. When I called Apple support the first time, the first thing they suggested was for me to reinstall the system. Seriously. Multiple techs informed me that because of the intricacies of the underlying Unix system, if you fudge some of the key settings it’s much quicker and safer to reinstall than to try and fix the problem(s).
Running your own server from a data center
As I mentioned in my last blog post, I decided to get the Mac Mini because of my frustration with commercial web hosts. Jon Gruber pointed out an article written by Brian Stucki, who owns macminicolo.net. I was intrigued by the idea of having my own computer in a high-class data center. I set up an account, mailed in my Mac, and next thing you know I have a server!
Brian has been pretty helpful getting my hardware up and running, and as you’d expect, his company has been pretty hands-off when it comes to administering the software side of things. It was Brian who suggested the external drive with the SuperDuper backup. As they say in Hawaii, akamai!
I did have a hiccup, which was no fault of macminicolo — my Mac Mini apparently got damaged during shipping and wouldn’t boot. Luckily for me, Brian is a regular at the Apple Store in Las Vegas (where the data center is located), and they hooked him — and me — up with a new server on the spot, no charge. Brian wasn’t obligated to go to the Apple Store on my behalf, but he did, and at no charge, so props to him and his excellent customer service.
If you use a hosted web service, especially a shared hosted service, chances are you will be limited to whatever they give you. Having your own server means freedom. Unfortunately, it also means more work. Macminicolo’s hosting prices are slightly more expensive than a typical shared hosting plan, but it’s cheaper than my AT&T iPhone plan, so I can’t complain.
The Mac Mini Server Edition is currently $999, and includes Snow Leopard Server. If you’re looking for a cheaper alternative, you could buy a standard Mac Mini instead. They start at $599 and have nearly identical hardware, except for the amount of RAM and hard drives, both of which you can upgrade on your own for a fairly low price. If you get a standard Mac Mini, you’ll be getting the desktop version of Snow Leopard, in which case you might want to check out MAMP. You could also replace your Mac OS with a Linux server system like Ubuntu server edition. Or you could install Linux server software as a virtual machine using VirtualBox (free), VMWare or Parallels. In this scenario, you can easily replace or upgrade the server software without having to reinstall your entire operating system.
Am I glad I did it? You betcha. Was it as easy as I had hoped? Not at all. Would I recommend it to non-technical people? Probably not. You have to have a decent level of technical savoir-faire and a good amount of stick-with-it-ness. However, once you get over the initial hurdles, it mostly runs on its own. Snow Leopard Server can even email you when there are patches that need to be installed, so it isn’t like you need to log in as an administrator every day. On the whole, I’m pretty happy and I’m glad I took the plunge.