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You are here: MacNN Forums > News > Mac News > MacNN late summer project part one: In defense of an OS X home server

MacNN late summer project part one: In defense of an OS X home server
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Aug 7, 2015, 01:16 PM
There are network attached storage (NAS) devices that can transcode media. There are others that can control and record security cameras. Yet others will sync with others like it, keeping two remote locations up to speed with data. However, for my money, I've gone with an OS X (client) home server for a very long time, and a Mac OS 9 one before that. Yeah, if you're counting, that's a really long time. Why have I kept on, and why should you start one? Read on.

Historically speaking

Once upon a time, I had a spare PowerMac 6500. Maybe it was a Performa -- that specific is lost to me. This was just-pre MP3 explosion, but I still was generating a lot of data that I'd prefer not lurk constantly on my PowerBook 3400 first, then original PowerBook G3. What to do?

Left over from a client's job was a 15GB IDE hard drive. I could have tossed it in the Beige G3 desktop we had at the house, but I was forbidden from tinkering with the machine still under Apple warranty by the primary user -- the spouse. So, into the Ethernet-equipped 6500 it went.

Children of the revolution

Just having this 15GB available at a whim revolutionized how we did things in the house. Important files got shunted to it, which then got burned on its CD-ROM burner that I acquired. The zip drive got removed, and a spare 2GB SCSI drive got tossed in there to maximize the storage.

MP3 files exploded, and we started ripping the family's massive CD collection (in a stunningly low bit rate) and marveled at having them all at our disposal. Ultimately, we took the monitor away, and controlled it with Apple Network Assistant, then Apple Remote Desktop.

Time is the predator...

Then, in about the winter of 2002, things started getting old. The 6500 didn't boot one day, so the project to move the home server to the Beige G3 accelerated. At the same time, the G3 shifted to OS X. All of a sudden, I had an array of PCI slots at my beck and call for USB, or what have you. Storage was cheaper than ever, too.

Time marched on. The G4 tower that was the family's main Mac was replaced with a G4 iMac, so the G4 tower became the server. Did you know that with the right trays, removal of the optical drive, and a PCI ATA card, you can get six hard drives inside with no power issues? This whole process has carved through G4 towers, a brief dalliance in the Hackintosh community, a re-cored Mac Pro (1,1) loaded with eight SATA drives a few years ago, culminating in a 2012 quad-core i7 Mac mini with an external storage tower with three drives right now.

But... why?

Music is streamed all over the house, and has been for 10 years. We started ripping our DVDs when we shifted the tower to the G4, and connected a G4 Mac mini to a SD TV, just in time for the Apple TV to arrive after the first HD television came into the house. We've got three kids, and literally hundreds of GB of family photos -- including some pictures more than 50 years ago now scanned and cleaned up.

Along the way, I've messed around with a Nicecast radio station for friends (Beats zero?), a Minecraft server, Unreal Tournament Classic well past its golden years, and encoding media of all sorts for playback on an Apple TV, with exactly zero impact on my "production" equipment. We now run Time Machine backups from this machine, media streaming from iTunes 12.1 and some other apps, and also provide a proxy Wi-Fi network for the kids, with very strict access controls. Cloud storage the wave of the future? Please. I've had a personal cloud for well more than a decade.

Most of the hardware I've used along the way has been part of the "upgrade cascade." Instead of a relation getting the old gear, I've moved it to a server. So, through all 16 years of this project, I think I've spent about $1000, and only on storage, inexpensive software solutions, and funky cabling throughout the years. Not too shabby.

Okay, I'm sold. I'll go get a Mac mini. Now what?

Not so fast, champ! A few consecutive days next week, starting on Tuesday, we'll go over requirements, why old hardware you've got in your house now may be sufficient, and software that I like to run.

I will say this now, though. This project is not for those afraid of tinkering or improvising solutions for things. If you've ever thought that mounting a Mac mini with velcro to the underside of a cabinet might be fun -- this is for you! If zip-tying a drive in place until you find just the right bracket or similar solutions improvised in the heat of mortal combat with a pile of plastic and silicon scare you to death, stick with a NAS. Spousal approval is an issue sometimes, as well.

If this still all sounds good, let's rock -- just starting next week.
( Last edited by NewsPoster; Aug 7, 2015 at 01:16 PM. )
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Aug 7, 2015, 02:59 PM
This is a nice article. Thanks. I think it's important for people to understand that for most home media serving purposes the actual performance needed is minimal. For example; at one location I'm running Snow Leopard on an old CoreDuo Mac Mini with only 2gb of ram and the original slow internal HDD, with the iTunes media library stored on a large external USB drive. This is perfectly capable of serving 1080p movies to my Apple TV with zero delay. Using third-party software it can also serve to my PS3 as well, again with no perceivable delay. Very small investment, and serves the purposes in that location every bit as well as anything I could purchase today would. (Only disadvantage to a system this old is that I fully expect Apple to, any day now, put a road-block in place to prevent me from accessing it from my Apple TV. Kind of a shame that I no longer trust anything Apple does. *Sigh*)
Mike Wuerthele
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Aug 7, 2015, 03:04 PM
Yeah, we're going to cover CPU demands versus data movement in day two, I think.
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Aug 7, 2015, 03:06 PM
Web pages, Security Spy for home video camera system/security, Music (and more through iTunes), Plex and more all all served from my Mac mini (to which I attached a 4 drive bay USB 3 box for some things, and through filesharing a more robust FreeNAS box which has ZFS raid (2 drive redundancy done with 6 hard drives total for just over 11 TB of available storage)

The most important element of any home server is at least a small UPS with USB connection so the computer gets a chance to shutdown nicely in the event of a power failure (and possibly run the entire time without shutting down if the power failure or brownout is short enough)
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Aug 8, 2015, 04:30 AM
I just put an SSD in my Core2Duo mac mini server and its like a brand new machine. Best way by far to rejuvenate an older machine.
Mike Wuerthele
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Aug 8, 2015, 06:46 AM
Moonmonkey - I agree, but this brief series isn't about that so much. Strictly speaking, a home server doesn't need one, but I do confess mine has one.
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Aug 8, 2015, 10:30 AM
We just spent 5 weeks touring Europe with the grandkids. I was able to access live TV from my EyeTV at home, recorded EyeTV shows from Plex, and also from Plex, I could view any of the movies I had saved on my Raid 5 12TB Thunderbolt 2 array. I have 5Mbps upload from home, and a similar download speed on the road was enough.
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Aug 8, 2015, 06:42 PM
I have an early 2006 CoreDuo Mac Mini in my comm closet running as our home media server. It's not even 64-bit. Yet I run a Plex media server on it with an external TB drive that has gigs of my DVDs that I ripped. I believe that Plex Server encodes on the fly for its clients, and the Mini can do this lickety split, no problem...
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