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Apple Mac Mini Server

Review A small business server for Macheads
Fri Sep 10 2010, 11:03

Product Apple Mac Mini Server
Specifications Machined aluminium 'unibody' casing with integrated power supply, 2.66GHz Intel Core 2 Duo processor, 4GB DDR3 SDRAM user upgradeable to 8GB, two 2.5-inch 500GB 7,200rpm Hitachi SATA hard disks, Nvidia GeForce 320M video controller, mini display port and HDMI connector with HDMI-to-DVI adapter, one Gigabit Ethernet port, integrated 802.11n Airport Extreme wireless adapter, four USB 2.0 ports, FireWire 800 port, SD card slot, integrated speaker, combined optical digital audio input/output, pre-installed Apple Mac OSX 10.6 Snow Leopard Server
Price £929

THE FIRST PRODUCT that springs to mind when it comes to network servers might not be Apple's Mac Mini. However, a server implementation of the popular Mac desktop is available, and it's not just for Apple aficionados.

The Mac Mini Server with the Mac OS 10.6 Snow Leopard OS has support for Windows as well as Mac clients, plus built-in web-based applications that anyone can use to collaborate and share information.

macmini-server-rearFirst impressions are that the Mac Mini can't possibly be a server. Smaller than most notebooks, it's almost identical to the latest Mac Mini desktop launched in June. That's because the same sleek 'unibody' casing is used to house both, machined out of a single block of aluminium and now with an integrated power supply rather than bulky AC 'brick'.

One obvious difference, however, is the lack of a DVD slot. Apple has ditched the optical drive to enable a second hard disk to be fitted inside.

There are other differences on the inside too, starting with the Intel Core 2 Duo processor which gets tweaked from 2.4GHz to 2.66GHz. Similarly, instead of just 2GB of memory, the server comes with 4GB, while both Minis can now be upgraded to 8GB in total using standard SODIMM modules.

Moreover, a new circular hatch in the bottom of the unit makes this relatively easy, and there's no need to prise the casing open with a knife as on the previous model.

The disks are also accessible through this hatch, and Apple has opted for 2.5-inch drives to fit the format. But don't get too excited, as notebook quality SATA disks are used here, rather than real server grade SAS drives, to keep the price down.

On the plus side, you do get two, with a capacity of 500GB each compared to a single 320GB disk on the desktop model. Spin speed is also upped from 5,400rpm to 7,200rpm.

The end result is a storage capacity of 1TB. Not a huge amount, but enough for a lot of small business networks. More than that, nearly all the space can be used for file sharing and email inboxes as well as to support the built-in web server and other applications.

Additional external storage can be added, the only disappointment being the lack of an eSata interface. Instead you have to use USB which is slower, or FireWire which isn't always implemented by drive vendors.

We cabled our Mac Mini server to the LAN using Gigabit Ethernet but, with only one port provided, a USB adapter is needed to enable the Mac to be used as an Internet gateway.

We tried Apple's own which sells for just under £20 and it just worked with no need for any setup. It is only 10/100Mbit/s, but that's not really an issue for Internet connectivity. An 802.11n AirPort Extreme adapter is built in, which can also be used for Internet access and local client connectivity.

Although delivered with OS X pre-installed, you do have to run through a few setup steps before clients can connect to the Mac Mini Server. There are a couple of options here. One is remote setup using tools provided on a CD-ROM, the other is to connect a screen, keyboard and mouse and set up the mini directly. It's the same procedure either way, local setup proving marginally easier in our case as the remote tools can only be run on a Mac.

Setup took less than 10 minutes. There's a mini video port to attach a Mac monitor and an HDMI port for use with TVs and monitors that support it, plus an HDMI-to-DVI adapter which we used to connect a standard PC display.

Likewise, we simply plugged in an ordinary USB keyboard and mouse to configure our server, after which they were all unplugged and VNC was running on a Windows PC used to remotely manage the Mac Mini Server over the LAN.

Setup and subsequent management tasks are well within the scope of a confident Mac or PC user, and the install process is kicked off by a simple Server Assistant tool that starts automatically on power up.

mac-mini-server-prefsThis does little more than ask what options you want to use, with a graphical Server Preferences tool to add users, define groups, configure printers and so on. This covers most of the day-to-day management bases, and there's a separate Server Admin tool for more advanced tasks.

In terms of features the core 64-bit Snow Leopard software comes ready to share files using Apple Mac and Windows protocols, and shared folders are created automatically when new users are added or groups created.

An SMTP email server with push notification and server-side rules processing is also built in which can be used with standard email clients or from a browser. However, we found the web client, based on Squirrelmail, very disappointing. It has a very old-fashioned and cumbersome interface that's miles behind the swish front ends of the other applications.

CardDAV address book and iCAL calendaring servers are among those other applications, plus a web server complete with integrated wiki/blogging applications. All come ready for immediate use, and we found them all very user friendly with lots of customisation options and a nice portal front end for user access.

A tool to help create podcasts is another option, as is VPN remote access, a chat server and support for Apple Time Machine backups. Of course, just about everything on the server is designed to work best with Mac clients, and services such as file, address book and calendar sharing were automatically configured the first time we connected. However, most can be made to work with Windows and, when using a browser, the platform doesn't really matter.

We liked the Mac mini a lot. It's not only small and easy to locate, but very quiet, efficient and cool running even with the new integrated power supply. At first glance it seems a little pricey, but the most obvious competition has to be Microsoft's Small Business Server, which can work out a lot more expensive.

To get some idea of how the Mac Mini compares on pricing we priced up a Dell PowerEdge T110 which, although not an exact match, came pretty close with a single Core i3 processor, 4GB RAM and two 500GB hard disks. List price was around £840, less than the Mac, but that was without software.

Adding Windows Small Business Server with just five user licences shot the price to over £1,600. Additional users would push it even higher, whereas the Apple server comes with an unlimited user licence which means the price you see is what you pay, regardless of client numbers.

Pricewise, then, the Mac Mini Server has a lot going for it compared to a server running Microsoft Windows, plus it's a complete solution with a good bundle of useful features and functionality built in as standard. It's also very easy to get up and running, although not entirely perfect.

Try to move beyond the core features and applications, for example, and management can get a lot more complex. Moreover, when things go wrong, as they did a couple of times during our tests, troubleshooting and fixing problems can be hard work, and very technical.

That said, the Mac Mini Server with Snow Leopard is a good product and definitely worth considering alongside other, more conventional, server platforms. Its main appeal will be to small businesses, predominantly those with Mac desktops, but Windows shops shouldn't dismiss it and could well find that it's all they really need.

In Short
Likely to appeal most to Apple shops, the Mac Mini Server with Snow Leopard is a complete server solution that meets most small business needs. It can also be used with Windows and, with no client access licences needed, beats Windows Small Business Server alternatives in terms of cost. A good looker, the Mac Mini Server is easy to deploy. However, expansion is limited and the ease of use claims don't always pan out, especially when things go wrong, when technical skills are quite definitely needed. µ

The Good
Small, efficient and quiet, unlimited user licence, user upgradeable RAM, cross-platform file sharing, bundled email, address book, calendaring and web servers, wiki and blogging tools.

The Bad
Limited expansion options, no eSATA interface for external storage, old-fashioned webmail client.

The Ugly

Bartender's Score



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