Mac IT Guy: replacing an Xserve

We have a G5 Xserve running 10.5, which we use to provide file services, iChat, DNS, software updates, and FTP to 15 end-users who are all running OS X (10.5 or 10.6). We have two 500GB mirrored drives for file storage, another 500GB (connected through an eSATA card) for archiving, and a 2TB drive for backups. This has been a good fit for us. But now that Apple has discontinued the Xserve product line, what upgrade path should I follow if I want to future-proof that system? I could have upgraded to Xserve 10.7, but it’s too late for that.

Providing 15 users with the services you list is not a heavy workload; any computer Apple currently makes could handle it. It’s really a question of which Mac has the connections and capacity you need.

A Mac mini with OS X Server ( ) would cost you between $1000 and $1400. You could then get a Drobo ( ) network drive for backup for $325 to $600 (depending on capacity and assuming you don’t get the rack mount). You’d probably need another external backup drive (putting everything on the Drobo would not be a good idea), so that’s another couple hundred bucks. So, all told, going with a Mini would cost you around $2000. You’d also have to give up your eSATA, which the mini doesn’t support.

The other option is a Mac Pro running Mac OS X Server. That would cost about $1000 more than the mini. But out of the box, it comes with two 1TB drives; there’s a good chance you also could slot both your existing 500GB drive and the 2TB backup drive into the Pro's two empty drive bays. If you set up the built-in drives as a software mirror and partitioned them—say, 200GB for booting and swap and 800GB for file storage—you’d save space, lose no capabilities, and get more room for files. If you want to expand from there, you could use one of the Pro’s PCI slots. You could use eSATA (though you night need to upgrade your card), FireWire 800, iSCSI, or Fibre Channel for that. The Pro also ships with more RAM standard than the mini.

So, given what you’ve told me, I’d go with a Mac Pro with Mac OS X Server. It’ll be more of a help right out of the box, and your company will have to grow a lot before you start overloading it.

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I run a small company publishing company with about six Intel Macs connecting to a Mac mini server (2009) running OS X Server 10.6. When I first set up up the mini, I made a crucial mistake: I forgot to mirror the drives in case one fails. (The 500GB on each of the mini’s two drives would be sufficient for our needs.) Should I: (a) copy everything off the main drive, mirror the drives with Disk Utility, and start over again; (b) use the second drive for Time Machine backups; or (c) do something else?

Both options are viable, as long as you keep a couple of things in mind:

First, RAID is not backup. Mirroring the drives doesn’t provide archiving, and if a bad file is written to one drive, it is effectively written to the other. Mirroring and rebuilding your server will help with reliability and availability and won’t noticeably slow it down—but you’ll still need a backup drive. Conversely, if you use the second drive for backups, you’d now have two single points of failure. You’ll be able to recover from most events, but you won’t be able to store your backups offsite. If something takes out the entire server, you’ll lose everything.

So my advice would be to mirror the drives in the Mini Server, to get the reliability and availability you should have. Then get two external drives (or drive units) for backups. Hook one up and start backing up. Every so often, swap in the other drive, and take the first one somewhere that’s not in or near the office. (The frequency will depend on how much work you think you can afford to lose.) That way, if your building burns down, you’ll be able to recover at least some of your data.

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