Mac Mini With Snow Leopard Server

Ever since the Mac mini was first released, people have been using Apple's diminutive Mac desktop as a server. At 6.5 inches square and 2 inches high, it bears just the sort of compact computing power you want to stick in a closet or under a desk and use as an all-purpose receptacle for all your stuff.

Well, wouldn't you know it--someone at Apple was paying attention to those of us who have been praising the Mac mini as a good server. Because in October Apple announced a new configuration of Mac mini designed specifically to be a server. The new $999 Mac mini with Snow Leopard Server is a fantastic product for workgroups, small businesses, and even schools to use. But for some other common uses, you might be better off buying a regular old Mac mini instead.

What's in the box

The Mac mini server is largely the same Mac that Apple sells in a $799 non-server configuration ( Macworld rated 4 out of 5 mice ). The two models both have a dual-core 2.53GHz Core 2 Duo processor, 4GB of RAM, a gigabit ethernet port, FireWire 800, and five USB 2.0 ports.

Besides the $200 price difference, what separates the two models comes down to storage and software. The Mac mini server lacks the built-in SuperDrive of the standard model--even the familiar slot in the front of the case is gone, making the front of this Mac mini notably different from all the Mac minis that have come before. Apple has replaced the optical drive with a second internal Serial ATA hard drive. The result is a system with 1 terabyte of internal storage (on two 500GB 5400-rpm laptop drives) compared to a single 320GB hard drive in the non-server model.

The other big difference is the operating system that the Mac mini server runs: it's Snow Leopard Server ( Macworld rated 4.5 out of 5 mice ), which Apple sells separately for $499. The inclusion of Mac OS X Server 10.6 makes the Mac mini server a fantastic deal for anyone who's planning to deploy a Mac running Mac OS X Server; unless you're in the market for Xserves, the Mac mini server is just too good a deal to pass up.

Without getting into the details of Snow Leopard Server (see our review for that), let's just say that it's got an impressive array of features, including an iCal server, address book server for workgroups, file sharing (including a Time Machine server), a podcast-production automation system, a complete Web server including built-in wiki and blog software, and a whole lot more.

It's also important to note what Snow Leopard Server isn't: a home-media server. In the aftermath of Apple's announcement, I saw a lot of comments that the Mac mini server would make a perfect media server. Don't believe it. Yes, the Mac mini server will run iTunes, and you can plug it into your HDTV, and you can run Boxee on it. But so will the $599 Mac mini running plain old Snow Leopard. Unless you're going to take advantage of Snow Leopard Server's Web- and file-serving functionality, it's overkill.

Storage matters

The Mac mini server offers a storage configuration that's unique among Mac models: two laptop hard drives inside a single enclosure. Yes, there's probably enough room inside that Mac mini to squeeze a single full-sized 1TB drive, but that would have required some major re-engineering of the Mini's guts; instead, Apple just slid a second laptop drive into the spot where the optical drive would have gone.

This leads to some drawbacks, because 2.5-inch drives designed for laptops aren't nearly as fast as the 3.5-inch drives found in desktop models. And based on my personal experience, they're not necessarily as reliable, either.

That said, it's great to have one terabyte of storage in the Mac mini server. The question is, what's the best way to format the drives? You could keep them as two separate volumes, installing the operating system on one while saving the other for file storage. You could load all your files on the first volume and use the second one as a Time Machine drive, though I expect it would fill up fast. The safety conscious might want to format the drives in RAID 0, so that one drive perfectly mirrors the content on the other, protecting against a drive crash. Or you can RAID the drives together to create a single 1 TB volume-although by doing so you increase your risk, because you can lose all your data if either drive dies.

When I asked Apple what the best drive configuration for the Mac mini server, the response was a resounding "yes." In other words, all those options are fine, depending on what you want to do. Personally, I'd probably opt to meld the drives together as a single 1TB RAID volume, and then buy a big external FireWire 800 drive to use as a Time Machine backup. But there's no right answer.

Accessorize

When you think servers, accessories aren't the first product category to come to mind, but there are a few to talk about when it comes to the Mac mini server. First is its included accessory: a mini-DVI-to-DVI adapter. The Mac mini server also supports the Mini DisplayPort connection, just as all current Mac mini models do, but if you want to connect it via that port you're on your own.

Then there's the matter of loading software on the Mac that doesn't offer an optical drive. Not surprisingly, this is ground already trod by the MacBook Air, and the Mac mini server uses that to full effect. Not only does the Mac Mini server support the same CD/DVD sharing functionality introduced for the Air-it can read data CDs or DVDs inserted in the drive of a Mac or PC on your local network as if the drive were its own-but it also supports the $99 MacBook Air Superdrive.

Finally, the Mac Mini server supports the $29 Apple USB Ethernet Adapter, which gives the server added networking flexibility. For example, you could connect its built-in gigabit ethernet port to a local network, for high-speed file sharing, and route all traffic from the outside world separately through a separate IP address running on the USB Ethernet Adapter.

Is it powerful enough?

The big question about such a little computer is, can it handle the strain of being a server? In my experience with the Mac mini, the answer is undeniably yes. The internal hard drives aren't the speediest, but if that's an issue, it's one that can be remedied with speed external storage via the FireWire 800 port. The Intel Core 2 Duo processor is plenty fast to serve up Web pages, wikis, blogs, and more, all while backing up local data via Time Machine and acting as a file server.

We didn't run our Speedmark tests on this model because our tests are designed to evaluate Macs being used by regular people, not as servers. From our tests of the 2.53GHz Mac mini, it's clear that the Mac mini server is hardly the fastest Mac around. But today's Macs are pretty fast creatures, and I'm confident that the Mac mini has enough horsepower to handle the job it's designed for: being a workgroup server and serving the contents of a few Web sites and blogs.

Macworld's buying advice

For most home users, the Mac mini with Snow Leopard Server is not a wise choice. Few home users are crazy enough to serve their Web site and blogs off of their home DSL or cable connection, and most don't need the workgroup tools that are the main focus of Snow Leopard Server. Mac users who want to set up a basic home server to store their media files might be better off with a regular Mac mini or a network-attached storage device such as a Time Capsule.

Likewise, if you're looking to attach a Mac to an HDTV to play back music and videos, I'd recommend saving $400 and buying the low-end Mac mini (which can also play and rip CDs and DVDs via its optical drive) and, optionally, a fat external hard drive. That said, if you're desperate for a home theater Mac with as much internal storage as possible and don't care about the extra cost or lack of an optical drive, the Mac mini server will certainly perform well in such a role.

If you want to run a Mac OS X-based server and take advantage of Snow Leopard Server's impressive skills as a file, Web, backup, and workgroup server, you'll find no better value than the Mac mini server. It's appropriate for small businesses, small workgroups in larger enterprises, and educational environments. Isn't it nice that Apple has finally realized that it had a great server under its nose this whole time?

[Jason Snell is Macworld's editorial director.]

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