Apple Mac mini with Snow Leopard Server (Mid 2010) review
The Mac mini as a server is an odd concept. They don’t look like servers. They don’t have redundant power supplies or ethernet ports. 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 the Mac mini with Snow Leopard Server is a 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 7,200-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: no optical drive, no redundant power supplies or ethernet ports. Those things aren’t as off-putting as they may seem. If you have to have an optical drive, you can get the Apple MacBook Air SuperDrive (£65), although with NetBoot (Apple’s technology that enables Macs to boot from a network, rather than a local hard disk), that’s no longer necessary. If you simply must have dual ethernet ports, you can again, borrow from the MacBook Air, and use the Apple USB Ethernet Adapter (£19).
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 is “rather a lot.” The first use that springs to mind is as an Open Directory server. A directory server gets a lot of use but doesn’t have high-CPU needs. LDAP & Kerberos lookups won’t stress it 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.
If you’re talking about any one service, such as Wikis, Chat, Calendaring, internal websites, light Podcast Producer work, Mobile Access Server, even email, 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 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.
As far as redundancy goes, “get two, they’re small” works here. The base cost of a Mac mini server is £929. The base cost of a Mac Pro is twice as much at £1,999. The base cost of an Xserve, £2,451.
Incidentally, there is quite a large discrepancy between the price of the Mac mini server in the US and the UK. In the US it costs $999 before tax, before VAT the UK Mac mini costs £790.64. At today’s exchange rate $999 is £637.82, so that’s a substantial difference of £152.
Pricing issues aside, comparing the Mac mini to the Xserve 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 boxes is overkill. If your company has a thousand employees and you need a mail cluster talking to a SAN the Mac mini server won’t be your server of choice. But for a company of 15 that need a basic, simple server for light storage, some email, and basic user management, the Mac mini server is a great fit, and you don’t have to justify spending a few thousand.
When we talked to Apple about the Mac mini server, they said that when they introduced the previous generation of Mac mini server, it was an experiment. They had a lot of requests for such a thing, but they weren’t sure if people would really buy a Mac mini designed as a server. It turned out to be 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.
John C. Welch is IT Director for The Zimmerman Agency, and a long-time Mac IT pundit.
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. For companies that need to add dedicated/single service servers, they 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.