Scott Caldarelli shares some of his insights about setting up a Mac Mini Server, a stable and inexpensive way to allow your organization’s computers to share files, schedules, and projects, even when some colleagues are not in the office.
Happy (Tech.) Friday. In my last story, I briefly mentioned the Mac Mini Server as a good option for the small business or for any not-for-profit that wants to keep costs as low as possible while still utilizing the many capabilities of a server.
The Mac Mini Server is priced at $999 and comes standard with Apple’s own Snow Leopard Server operating system and software. There is only one version of Snow Leopard Server – the unlimited client version. This convenience alone is a great cost savings over a Windows server and client licenses. What that means is, once you have your server set, you don’t have to worry about buying a new user license if you’re adding someone to your organization. You simply add the new user to the server’s list of names and passwords.
I would also like to address an issue that is sometimes superficially stated if you go straight to an Apple retail store to purchase a Mini Server. Typically, someone will go into an Apple store and the usually helpful folks will tell them, “Oh sure. All you really have to do is plug it in and you’re ready to go.” Unfortunately, that’s not quite true. You need to have a plan to implement what you want the server to do, a structure for your network, and make some other decisions ahead of time. However, once it’s set up, the Mac mini server can be a valuable resource for your organization.
The Mac Mini Server can handle all sorts of tasks for you. It can do simple file sharing to both Macs and Windows-based PCs. The Mac uses a file protocol known as AFP, or the Apple File Protocol. Windows uses a protocol known as SMB, or Server Message Block. Snow Leopard Server can dish up both for a mixed computing environment. If you only have Macs in your organization, and don’t need Windows machines to access your files, you can simply SMB services turned off. Although the Mac Mini Server can speak both, you’ll get better performance out of using solely AFP on the Mac.
Two of the main services you can use on the Mac Mini Server are Open Directory and DNS. Open Directory is the Mac’s similar function to. Open Directory provides authentication for clients connecting to the server and maintains the data about which users have access.
DNS is the Domain Name System. This system is essentially a translator. When you type www.apple.com into your web browser, the DNS server listed in your Network System Preferences will look up an IP address, go to that site and present the page to you. The benefit to having a DNS server on your own organization’s network is that your Internet Service Provider’s (ISP’s) DNS servers don’t have any idea about your local network. So, printers, network storage, anything in your office that has an IP/network address needs a directory of sorts to tell everyone where to find it. The Mac Mini Server will do this for you.
The Mini can also be a print server for your office. We’ve all seen print servers, but the takeaway of a print server is that you print a document and the server queues it up, and then watches over it until it prints and it’ll tell you if anything goes wrong. As soon as your computer hands over the print job to the server, your computer is less encumbered, and can go back to concentrating on the application that you are using.
Another important service the Mac Mini Server can perform is VPN (Virtual Private Network). This allows you to connect securely to your office network from anywhere you’ve got an internet connection. You can then have access to all the local files as if you were in the office.
As for many of the applications that are standard to all stand-alone Macs, their convenience on the Mac Mini Server can be mixed: Address Book is OK, but you’re better served with alternate software installed on the server for this purpose. iCal is better, but not my much. The alternatives usually include both Calendar and Contacts, which I’ll explore later. There is a pretty robust mail server built into Snow Leopard Server, but if you want to have your mail in house, you’ll want to buy a second server and some dedicated mail storage, as well as a great backup solution for it.
To round out some of the built-in features, Software Update allows the server to download all the updates from Apple. Your local machines can then get them from the server in your office, saving your bandwidth/internet connection for your work. You can also use the mini as a web server, to have direct control over the files that make up your organization’s stunning new website.
I’ll discuss alternatives to some of the built-in software and services in my next entry.
Guest blogger Scott Caldarelli writes frequently about technology and IT consultation at scottcaldarelliconsulting.com.