Mac mini with OS X Server will serve you well

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First, let’s clear something up about the Mac mini introduced by Apple in October that’s configured to be a server. This $999 Mac mini with Snow Leopard Server (Get Best Current Price) is not an enterprise-grade server, or even a big business server. It’s not going to manage thousands of users, or massive data needs, or be the only email server for GE. This is not a “big” server. So let’s not judge it as such.

Instead, the Mac mini with Snow Leopard Server really is—besides a really awkward name—a fantastic little server for a little more than $1,000 (once you add in tax and a few options) that can be surprisingly useful to those who set their expectations realistically. Yes, it uses 2.5-inch laptop drives. No, it doesn’t have dual Gigabit Ethernet ports. It doesn’t have a hardware RAID card. It doesn’t have expansion slots. Heck, you have to use an external drive just to use optical media.

And to that, I would say, “What’s your point?” Look, no one is telling users to throw out their rackmount servers in favor of this particular mini. (Well, no one sane is.) Used correctly, however, the new Mac mini configuration is a heck of a box.

Take a business that has outgrown the “home” part of SOHO—five to ten users, mostly iWork/Microsoft Office documents, some PDFs. They want a file server that’s small, quiet, unobtrusive, easy to manage, and doesn’t cost more than three month’s rent. The mini is perfect. You set it up with the 500GB drives as a RAID 1 or mirror for some redundancy, and, with maybe an hour or so of a consultant’s time, you’ve got a little file server. Total cost? Less than $1500, and that’s including the consultant. And it takes up less room than a stack of CDs.

Deciding that you need more calendaring or e-mail than you’re going to get from a free hosted service? Again, for a smallish business—say, up to 50 users with light e-mail needs—the mini server is a great option. Again, including enough consultant to get it up and running, you can have a small groupware server for that same $1500 or so. Need to take backups more seriously? Go buy a FireWire RAID stack from Promise Technology, Drobo, or whomever, stick it on the mini, turn on Time Machine services on that server, and you now have about 8TB of storage for your backups.

Do you have an Xserve or a Mac Pro that’s getting overloaded? Deciding that you need to split off some of the services? While the mini wouldn’t be good for heavy lifting—databases, Java application services, and so on—for things like Web, wikis, blogs, e-mail/groupware, or even running Mac OS X 10.6 Server’s new Mobile Access Server, the mini’s a great choice, and you can get three mini servers for the cost of a single low-end Mac Pro with Mac OS X Server. The minis will take up less room, run quieter, and allow you to split your services up. Thanks to the way Mac OS X Server works, you could actually have all your minis set up as replicas of each other, but with different services turned off. One bites the dust? Restore from backup to one of the other machines and you’re back up and running while you get the mini repaired or replaced.

If you compare this new mini to the Xserve, it’s more like four or five minis for the price of an Xserve, especially if you have to buy the rack to put the Xserve in. True, the mini doesn’t have redundant anything other than hard drives, but, if you have five, just keep one as a spare. With a good backup plan, you can swap out a dead one within an hour or two. Multiple machines is a good kind of redundancy, and I guarantee that your facility costs for five minis will be less than one Xserve.

Even if you are in a big company, the mini is a good fit. Need a test server that’s actual hardware, not just a virtual machine? A grand and you’re good. Want to test out new services for a small group before rolling them out on production hardware? A grand and you’re good. Need to add a server or two in a branch office that doesn’t have a server room? A grand or two and you’re good.

The Mac mini with Snow Leopard Server isn’t a full on substitute for an Xserve or a Mac Pro. But just like the Quad-Core iMac gives people who need more power, more options, the Mac mini with Mac OS X 10.6 Server gives small businesses who need a smallish server more options.

[John C. Welch is IT Director for The Zimmerman Agency, and a long-time Mac IT pundit.]

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