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Working with the new Apple Mac mini Server and Snow Leopard Server

It's always nice when, as a Mac consultant, I can play with the latest hardware and software and get paid to do it. Last week was no exception, and when I received a call from a new client who wanted assistance with a Mac mini Server, I jumped at the chance. Since the introduction of the Mac mini in early 2005, I've been using "regular" Mac minis as servers, and they've worked flawlessly. I had two servers of my own at Macminicolo.net for quite some time, and Brian Stucki, the owner of that Mac mini colocation firm, noted in a discussion a few years ago that the failure rate on the mini hardware is phenomenally low. I've set up Mac minis with Mac OS X Server for architectural firms, PR companies, design firms, non-profits, and a number of other companies that needed centralized control of digital assets, but didn't want to spend a lot of money to do so. Usually after setting up these servers, I rarely, if ever, need to go back and fix anything.

Unboxing the server (sorry, no unboxing movies this time...) unveiled a plastic-wrapped mini Server and the traditional power brick, along with a small box containing Mac OS X 10.6 Server and assorted manuals. While I didn't check for the usual Apple stickers, I did find the server software serial number cards that are essential during the setup process.

There was a bit of a holdup when I discovered that the server came with a mini-DVI to DVI adapter, while I had brought my old VGA display with me. Fortunately, one of the employees on-site had a monitor that was quickly pressed into service, and after plugging in the keyboard, mouse and power, the server quickly booted up.

Apple is marketing the Mac mini Server as "Easy to set up. Easy to run," and they're right on -- to a point.
With Snow Leopard Server pre-installed on the server, the installation process is a piece of cake for even non-administrators. There's a new Server Assistant application that requests information that's required to set up some of the services on the box, and it has built-in help icons that provide enough good info that most server newbies will be able set up basic services in a few minutes.

The server itself is no big deal; it's just a Mac mini that's missing an optical drive and gaining a second 500 GB hard drive. My client wanted to a 1 TB external drive that she already owned, and unfortunately it had a FireWire 400 cable that wouldn't work with the FireWire 800 port on the Mac mini Server. A quick trip to a local store provided the correct adapter, and the drive was added to the server.

I'm not sure if it's the lack of an optical drive that is causing this, but the Mac mini Server seems to run cooler than regular Mac minis. After running for a few hours, the server felt cool to the touch, even on the top where traditional Mac minis seem to be warm sometimes. With 4 GB of RAM built-in and a 2.53 GHz Intel Core 2 Duo CPU, the mini Server seems very snappy in most operations. While Apple doesn't provide a RAM upgrade path, third-party memory provider OWC offers upgrades to 8 GB of RAM.

My client was amazed at how quiet the Mac mini Server is. That's one of the reasons that I think it's going to be a huge success in small office environments. It's tiny, it can sit "headless" on a shelf or desktop providing services to a workgroup, and it makes so little noise that it's a good thing there's that tiny white LED on the front to let you know it's running.

In many cases, the lack of an internal optical drive isn't going to cause too much of an issue. After all, you can share an optical drive on another Mac and install software over a network. If you're installing any large applications on the machine, you're going to wish that you had the optional MacBook Air SuperDrive. Since I use a MacBook Air as my work machine, I had one of the drives available, and it's a good thing...

Remember my comment earlier about Apple's marketing approach to the Mac mini Server being "right on -- to a point?" Well, during the setup process with Server Assistant, I answered the necessary questions to the best of my knowledge and using additional information from my client. Setting up users, groups, and file sharing was no problem, but when we tried to get iCal Server 2 (calendar sharing) working, things began to fall apart. I know from experience that whenever iCal Server decides to fall apart, it's usually a DNS issue, so I checked to see if all of the DNS entries were correct. They weren't, and when I tried to fix them, the machine locked up. A restart didn't improve the situation, so I reinstalled the OS from scratch using the Snow Leopard Server DVD. I could have done a remote installation of OS X Server from another machine, but since I had all of the necessary parts and pieces (monitor, keyboard, mouse, optical drive) on hand, I figured it was just as easy to do the installation right at the server.

This time, things seemed to work better, but my client was confused that it was taking some time to set up the server for services such as iCal Server and VPN. Once I showed her the OS X Server 10.6 Administration manuals for some of the services (available for download free here), she understood. And while iCal Server is relatively easy to get up and running, configuring the client Macs to access the server is beyond what many users are willing to do. It's that way for many of the services that make up Mac OS X Server, and that's why there are about 72 MB of administration PDFs available from Apple.

Apple should make it clear that for basic file and print services, as well as for using the server for network-wide Time Machine backups, most people who are familiar with the Mac will have no issues setting up the Mac mini Server. But they should put a caveat on all marketing materials that states that configuring many other services may be beyond the capabilities of users who haven't had the opportunity to work on servers for years.

During a presentation on the Mac mini Server that I gave at the 29th Street Apple Store in Boulder, CO this morning, I mentioned to several potential buyers that they should take a look at the server documentation before determining if they have the necessary skills to set up some of the services. If they don't, then the Apple Consultant Network is a great resource for finding a local Mac consultant who has the certifications and training for setting up the server.

The people I was presenting to this morning were all potential switchers -- some were wanting to switch their offices from a Windows server to Mac OS X Server, while one man was using an old server running Red Hat Linux for web hosting. If Apple is getting as much attention about this tiny server as this morning's presentation indicated, Snow Leopard Server and the Mac mini Server hardware may be big sellers in the small to medium sized business market.

It's always nice when, as a Mac consultant, I can play with the latest hardware and software and get paid to do it. Last week was no...