Can use the MacBook Air’s Optical Drive and USB Ethernet Adaptor.
Only one power supply
Only one ethernet port
No optical drive
Replacing drives somewhat tedious
As a longtime a fan of utility servers and “the right tool for the job”, I’m still amused at how odd the idea of a Mac mini as a server can be. They don’t look like servers. They don’t have redundant power supplies or ethernet ports. Up until the current generation of mini, they still had AC power bricks! What kind of server has a brick? Heck, the server version of the Mac mini doesn’t even have an optical drive.
However, in spite of all the things it doesn’t have, if you keep your expectations correct, the Mac mini with Snow Leopard Server is a highly useful box that’s perfect as a utility server, or a do-it-all SOHO box. It doesn’t require a rack, it doesn’t take up a lot of space, and doesn’t use a lot of power (around 10 watts at idle, according to Apple).
What you do get is a small form factor that ships with a 2.66GHz Intel Core 2 Duo CPU, 4GB of RAM, (upgradeable to 8GB), dual 500GB 7200-rpm hard drives, one gigabit ethernet port, a FireWire 800 port, HDMI out, Mini DisplayPort, four USB 2.0 ports, an SD card slot with SDXC card support, and a nVidia GeForce 320M graphics processor with 256MB of DDR3 SDRAM. It’s not a Mac Pro, it’s not an Xserve, but it’s not useless, either.
What you don’t get are some things considered requirements for a server. There’s no optical drive, no redundant power supplies, and no extra ethernet ports. Those things aren’t as off-putting as they may seem. If you must have an optical drive, you can get the Apple MacBook Air SuperDrive ($99), although with technology like NetBoot, that’s no longer as necessary as it once was. If you simply must have dual ethernet ports, you can again, borrow from the MacBook Air, and use the Apple USB Ethernet Adapter ($29). Apple says both the optical drive and ethernet adapter for the Air are supported by the Mac mini server, although you’re obviously not going to get the same speed from a USB ethernet adapter as you are from gigabit ethernet.
One handy feature of the Mac mini server: since it supports large-capacity SD cards, you can install an OS on one and boot from it. Apple was clear that you don’t want to use an SD card as the normal boot device on these servers—they’re not designed for that. But as an emergency backup or to reinstall the OS on the Mac mini server, an SD card will work rather nicely.
However, the question is, what is a server with little redundancy in its design useful for? Well, if you think about redundancy in terms of the entire box and not components in the box, the answer to that question is “rather a lot.” The first thing that springs to my mind is as an Open Directory server. While a directory server gets a lot of use, it’s not terribly high-CPU needs. LDAP & Kerberos lookups are typically not going to stress a server too much. You also tend to build redundancy into Open Directory setups via having separate Master and Replica servers anyway. Storage needs for such servers are minimal, (even a large Open Directory entry is still going to only run about 1MB in size), so you don’t need a lot of storage space. The Mac mini server is a great fit for this, and my conversations with Apple representatives confirmed this. (They confirmed it enough that I’m planning on getting a couple of Mac mini servers to be my next Open Directory replicas.)
Really, if you’re talking about any one service, such as Wikis, Chat, Calendaring, internal Websites, light Podcast Producer work, Mobile Access Server, even e-mail, the Mac mini server is going to be able to handle those needs rather well for up to around 200 or so users per computer. The biggest limitation of the Mac mini server tends to be storage. You only get 500GB in a mirrored configuration, or two 500GB drives as standalone volumes. If you need it to be a file server for a graphics design firm or video editors, you’re going to run into storage issues pretty quickly, and with only one built-in ethernet port, the Mac mini server is not the most ideal candidate to talk to a SAN or NAS setup. (However, if you’re considering a SAN or NAS back end, I’d posit that you’re probably moving past the Mac mini server’s sweet spot, at least for that task.)
As far as redundancy goes, “get two, they’re small” works here. The base cost of a Mac mini server is $999. The base cost of a Mac Pro: $2500. The base cost of an Xserve: $3000. So, for the cost of a single traditional server, you can get two or three Mac mini servers. Admittedly, each one of those boxes is going to do more, but they’re not going to do more sitting quietly on a shelf in an office. They also throw off a lot more heat and need a lot more electricity.
But comparing them that way is missing the point. The Mac mini server is not designed to replace a Mac Pro or Xserve. They’re designed for cases where either of those two boxes are simply overkill, or where you just don’t have a sever room or anything close to that. Have a company with a thousand users and you need a mail cluster talking to a SAN? No, the Mac mini server is not going to be your server of choice. Have a company with 15 users and you just need a basic, simple server that can take care of light storage, some e-mail, some basic user management? The Mac mini server is a great fit. Need a utility server that’s only going to do one thing, and you can’t justify spending three thousand or more for that task? The Mac mini server is a great fit. Need a test server, and don’t want to spend a ton of money on it? The Mac mini server rocks. Need a server for a small satellite office? The Mac mini server’s great for that.
I’m not the only person that thinks so. When I talked to Apple representatives about the Mac mini server, they said that when Apple introduced the previous generation of Mac mini server (), it was kind of an experiment. There were a lot of requests for such a thing, but Apple wasn’t sure if people would really buy a Mac mini designed as a server. It turned out to be solidly popular. The sales on it were and continue to be strong, so now it’s no longer an experiment. It’s considered a “real” enough server that by default, it boots 64-bit, not 32.
Macworld’s buying advice
The Mac mini with Snow Leopard Server is an outstanding small utility server for the lower end of the SMB market, able to handle a couple hundred users for almost any single service, (Mail, Chat, Open Directory, etc.) with aplomb. It’s also a good “do it all” server for smaller networks with up to 25 users or so. It does all this without needing a lot of power, cooling, or being overly noisy.
Companies that need to add dedicated/single service servers can easily grab two or three Mac mini servers for the cost of a single larger Mac server, and achieve redundancy that way. For a small company looking to add its first dedicated server without breaking the bank, the Mac mini server is a good fit there as well.
The lack of multiple network ports, power supplies, or the optical drive having to be a separate unit, (and therefore an additional expense) can be off-putting to some, even though there are some workarounds to all but the power supply issue. The only real knock against the Mac mini server is that if you have to replace a hard drive, that’s going to be a bit more tedious than it would be in a Mac Pro or Xserve. Other than that, for the target audience, it’s as close to perfect, for the price, as you’re going to get from Apple.
[John C. Welch is IT Director for The Zimmerman Agency, and a long-time Mac IT pundit.]