Old Mac, new tricks: Web server

You don't need an expensive Web-hosting service to share pictures of your toddler with a few relatives online or to support a flood of visitors to your custom fly-tying business's Web site. You can turn an old, idle Mac into a server that will give you the ultimate control over your personal Web site. Serving Web pages doesn't require much CPU power, RAM, or hard disk space, making it a perfect use for an older Mac.

In the first article in our " Old Mac, New Tricks " series ( How-to , June 2001), we told you how to get an old Mac up and running again. Now we'll show you how to turn it into a Web server. The process is fairly simple --and depending on your raw materials and what you want to accomplish, you can do it for little or no money.

Choose Your Web-Server Hardware

Before you dive into this project, you'll need to make sure your old Mac gathering dust on a shelf is a suitable candidate for Web serving. Also consider what hardware upgrades your elderly Mac might need to bring it up to snuff.

Recommended Models For reasonable performance, I recommend a Power Mac or a PowerPC-based PowerBook or Performa (those with four-digit model numbers, such as the PowerBook 5300 or Performa 6400). A 68040-based Mac--those in the Centris or Quadra line, for example--will also work, albeit slowly. Many of these Macs have on-board Ethernet, but if your Mac lacks it, you'll need an Ethernet card to connect your server to other computers. The tricky part is finding the appropriate Ethernet card for your old Mac; the possibilities vary widely. See Farallon's LAN Product Selector ( www.farallon.com/products/selector/ ) for information, and check for deals on eBay.

RAM and Disk Space Make sure your Mac has at least 32MB of RAM--enough room to run Mac OS, the Web-server software, and perhaps a few utilities. More is better, but since buying new RAM for older machines is expensive, ask around to see if anyone will give or sell you unused memory cards that will work with your Mac. You can check www.gurulounge.net if you're not sure what type of memory to buy, and www.ramseeker.com to find the lowest prices.

As for hard-disk space, you will need between 75MB and 150MB for the System Folder--plus whatever your Web-server software and site files require. Unless you're serving QuickTime movies, MP3 music files, or a lot of large images, almost any hard drive with a capacity of over 300MB will suffice.

Monitor, Keyboard, and Mouse An old monitor will work fine with your Web server. Or you can use your main monitor during setup, then switch to a VGA adapter and control the server Mac remotely over the network with a utility such as Netopia's Timbuktu Pro or the free VNC. (The VGA adapter--a small plug that lets older Macs use monitors with VGA-style connectors--fools your Mac into thinking it has a monitor and enables the remote-control software to work.) The same goes for a keyboard and mouse--you will want them for initial setup, but after that you can rely on remote-control software most of the time.

Automatic Restart Device Finally, if you're going to check in on your Web server only infrequently, you should probably use a device that can restart the Mac automatically if it crashes, such as the $99 Rebound, $200 PowerKey Pro, or $179 Kick-off (for USB Macs), from Sophisticated Circuits (800/ 769-3773; www.sophisticated.com ), or the $99 MacCoach, from Neuron Data Systems ( www.neuronsys.com ).

Choose Your Internet Connection

Before you dive into configuring an old Mac as a Web server, make sure to choose an appropriate Internet connection. Bear in mind that some ISPs--mostly cable companies--don't allow you to run servers.

Permanent Connection Because you never know when someone will want to access your Web site, you must not only leave your Web server running all the time, but also maintain a permanent connection to the Internet. Any type of Internet connection can be permanent, but DSL, cable, and ISDN are the most common choices.

IP Address Web servers generally have permanent addresses--stable IP numbers that identify them. However, the dynamic or changeable IP numbers handed out by many ISPs change whenever you restart your machine, preventing people from finding your site. There are two solutions to this problem: The first is asking your ISP for a permanent IP number. (That service sometimes costs a little more.) Alternatively, you can sign up with one of the dynamic DNS providers that rely on special software (running on your Mac) to connect whatever your dynamic IP address is to a specific domain name. See www.technopagan.org/dynamic/ for more information and a list of providers.

Fast Connection Though you can save money and can still operate your Web server if you opt for a slower Internet connection, faster is better if you want your site to respond quickly. And you can share this speedy connection with the rest of the computers on your network. (For more information on sharing your Internet connection via an Ethernet network, see " Simultaneous Surfing," How-to , September 2000.)

The upload speed of your connection is particularly important. Many Internet connections, including most DSL and cable ones, are asymmetrical. This means the upload speed, which affects how fast your Web pages load on viewers' screens, isn't as fast as the download speed, which determines how fast you can grab a collection of MP3s off the Web, say.

To determine whether your upload speed is fast enough to meet your needs, find out the real speed of your connection using the tests at www.dslreports.com/stest. You'll want an upload speed of at least 56 Kbps; 128 Kbps or higher is better.

Domain Name Finally, though it's not essential, you should get a domain name for your site. Without a domain name--a simple, easy-to-remember URL such as www.macworld.com--people will have to enter long, complex links or your Web server's IP number into their browser to visit your site. Unfortunately, setting up a domain name can be quite confusing. If your ISP can't or won't help, check out The Public DNS, at soa.granitecanyon.com, or ZoneEdit, at www.zoneedit.com, for free domain-name service (the latter also supports dynamic DNS).

Choose Web-Server Software

Think realistically about your needs when choosing your Web-server software. Try to estimate how much traffic you will get and what utilities you may want. (See " Traffic Control " for help selecting the appropriate hardware, software, and Internet connection for the amount of traffic you expect.)

Software for Light Traffic If you expect a few thousand hits a day at most and aren't concerned about your Web site's response speed, you can get by with free or inexpensive server software. These programs are also best if the Mac you're using is on the slow end of the models we recommend.

It's easy to start with Apple's Personal Web Sharing. It comes free with Mac OS 8 and later, it's trivially simple to set up (see " Web Sharing Control Panel "), and it offers Personal NetFinder (which provides a Finder-like listing of files) for people who might want to, say, share some baby pictures without building an entire HTML page. Personal Web Sharing's performance is OK, but the program is tweaked to work best in the background of a Mac that's doing everyday tasks. Another downside is that it doesn't have a live log (on which you can watch connections scroll by--many people find this quite entertaining). Also, if you're trying to figure out why your machine keeps crashing, why you can't get in via the Web, or just what in heck is going on, the live log is a big help.

Also free is Chuck Shotton's recently revitalized MacHTTP ( www.machttp.org ). MacHTTP performs well, it provides a live log (see " Mac-HTTP Log Watching "), and it's almost as easy to set up and maintain as Personal Web Sharing.

Another alternative is the $70 NetPresenz, from Stairways Software ( www.netpresenz.com ). It relies on Personal File Sharing for access privileges, which makes it more complicated to set up and slows performance a bit. However, it also provides an FTP server for remotely uploading files via programs such as Interarchy or Fetch, which is useful if you want to let other people update your site from their own computers.

Of these Web servers, Personal Web Sharing is the easiest to use, and MacHTTP offers the best performance and the bonus of a live log. Purchase NetPresenz only if you need an FTP server for remote uploading.


Web Sharing Control Panel: Starting up Apple's Personal Web Sharing can be as simple as selecting the folder that holds your Web files and clicking on the Start button.


MacHTTP Log Watching: It can be a lot of fun (not to mention useful in troubleshooting) to watch the log of people accessing your Web server in real time.


Reformat Your Hard Disk: To prepare a hard disk for Web serving, run Drive Setup. From the Function menu, choose Initialization Options, select the Low Level Format option, and click on OK. Then select the hard disk and click on Initialize.

Software for Heavy Traffic If you expect more than a few thousand hits a day, you'll need more-expensive high-performance software. For example, the main TidBits Web site relies on a Power Macintosh 7600 with 80MB of RAM running WebStar; that combination enables it to handle 30 simultaneous users, accounting for roughly a million hits a month, without breaking a sweat.

All the high-performance Web servers come bundled with extensive suites of other servers, including mail servers, search engines, and more.

The best-known Web-server software for the Mac is 4D's $599 WebStar Server Suite (408/557-4600, www.webstar.com ). It provides not just a Web server but also an e-mail server, an FTP server, support for secure connections (in case you want to conduct e-commerce), a built-in search engine, and database connectivity through WebStar Lasso Publisher (useful for serving FileMaker or 4D databases via the Web). It has a number of powerful features, yet it's easy to set up and it performs extremely well.

Tenon Intersystems' $495 WebTen (805/963-6983, www.tenon.com ) is based on the Apache Web server. This means you can tap into the features and performance of this powerful open-source Unix server, which many of the major Web sites use. WebTen also features site caching to improve performance, a Web-based mail server and client, FTP and DNS servers, a search engine, and the PHP scripting language for making dynamic Web content. Despite its Unix-based power, WebTen remains a Mac application, with support for AppleScript, WebStar plug-ins, and more.

Finally, Apple's AppleShare IP ($450 for a ten-client license; 800/692-7753, www.apple.com/appleshareip/ ) provides a suite of services along with Web serving, including an FTP server, file sharing for Macs and Windows machines, an e-mail server, and a print server.

The most common choice is probably WebStar. WebTen is popular with people who want the ultimate in performance and have some Unix experience. AppleShare IP is best if you need its local file- and print-serving capabilities as well as Web and e-mail serving.

Utility Software To run your server without a monitor, mouse, and keyboard, you'll need to control it remotely with either Netopia's $140 Timbuktu Pro (510/ 814-5000, www.netopia.com ) or the free, but somewhat flaky, VNC, from AT&T Laboratories Cambridge ( www.uk.research.att.com/vnc/ ). Timbuktu Pro comes in a twin-pack--one copy to run on your server, one to run on the remote machine --and offers niceties such as drag-and-drop file transfer.

Karl Pottie's $22 Keep It Up ( www.vl-brabant.be/mac/kiu.html ) is a useful shareware utility with which you can monitor your server remotely, launch and quit applications, restart the machine on a regular schedule or whenever programs crash, and receive e-mail alerts of low memory or disk space.

Configure Your Mac

Once you've arranged for the proper Internet connection and gathered all the hardware and software you need, it's time to install and configure your software.

Reformat and Install First you'll need the Mac OS CD-ROM, preferably version 8.1 or 8.6. If you have the CD-ROM for only 8.0 or 8.5, you can download free updates to 8.1 or 8.6 from Apple's Software Updates Web site ( asu.info.apple.com ).

Since you may have no idea of the state of your old Mac's hard disk, I strongly recommend booting from the Mac OS CD-ROM and using Apple's Drive Setup to do a low-level reformat (see " Reformat Your Hard Disk ")--you'll want to know sooner rather than later if the drive is dead.

After reformatting, install the Mac OS. It's best to do an Easy Install and let the installer give you everything. Afterward, use Extensions Manager to turn off unnecessary extensions and control panels that can take up memory and contribute to instability. If you're not sure what to turn off, consult either Dan Frakes's $15 InformInit ( www.informinit.com ) or Teng Chou Ming's $20 Extension Overload ( www.extensionoverload.com ).

Finally, install the Web-server software you've chosen, along with any utilities you've decided to use.

Ready, Set, Go Starting up your Web server is easy--all you need to do is specify your Web-site folder (the location will vary depending upon which software you're using), copy HTML files and associated GIF or JPEG graphics to the Web-site folder, and launch your Web-server program. Be careful to put only files you want to serve to the public in the Web-site folder--you wouldn't want to publish any personal information by mistake.

All that's left is testing. Try accessing your Web site from another Mac on your network as well as from a computer outside the network. Be sure your ISP has updated any domain-name servers (if looking up your domain name fails, try the IP number). A final tip: Keep an eye open for log files filling up the disk on busy servers.

It's easy to miss a minor step, so if your site doesn't come up, don't panic--just retrace your steps.

The Last Word

It's easy and fun to set up your own Web server on an older Mac, and it can save you money--compared with paying a Web-hosting service. So bring that Mac down off the shelf and give it some dignity in its old age by letting it perform a useful task for which it's eminently well suited.

Contributing Editor ADAM C. ENGST is the publisher of TidBits, president of the Info-Mac Network, and author of numerous books and articles about Macs and the Internet.

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