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Saturday, October 24, 2009, 02:00 pm PT (05:00 pm ET)

Inside Apple's new Mac mini Server

While Appleinsider predicted the arrival of a new dual-drive, optical-free Mac mini, Apple managed keep secret its plans to introduce a new Mac mini server bundle up to its relatively subtle launch this week. Now the company faces the task of publicizing its availability as it works to enter a market it hasn't excelled at in the past.

The new Mac mini server offering isn't just optimized to run Mac OS X Snow Leopard Server, but now actually comes bundled with Apple's server operating system software. Previously, home and small business users who wanted to try Snow Leopard Server needed to shell out $500 for the retail box version or opt for an Xserve bundle, which starts at $3000 and requires either a server rack or a sizably awkward 17"x30" of free space.

Prior to Snow Leopard, the unlimited user version of Mac OS X Server cost $999; that's what the unlimited user version now costs with the Mac mini server thrown in for free. The server version of the new Mac mini drops the optical drive to make room for two 500GB, 5400 RPM 2.5" (laptop style) SATA hard drives. It also supplies a capable 2.53GHz Core 2 Duo processor and 4GB of fast 1066 MHz DDR3 RAM (expandable to 8GB). This is all fit into the same 6.5" square, 2" high Mac mini enclosure, which weighs in at just 2.9 pounds.

Compared to the conventional, high end model of the revamped Mac mini lineup, you get three times the disk storage (without a built-in optical drive) for just $200 more. So essentially, Apple is now giving away Snow Leopard Server in the Mac mini server bundle just as the company always has on the Xserve. For the first time ever, this provides Apple with an entry-level server to position at the home server niche and relatively sizable small business market.

Mac vs generic PC in the mini server category

Compared to other small form factor PC servers, the Mac mini server supplies a far more powerful processor than the low-powered Atom or Celeron found in many mini computers such as the $350 Asus Eee Box (which is not sold as a server nor really designed to perform like one). That machine also supplies slower DDR2 RAM, lacks the Mac mini's FireWire 800 for fast external expansion, and hard drives top out at 180 GB.

Most importantly however, low cost small PCs typically ship with Windows XP Home in order to cut costs. That means to do "server" things, you'll have to spend at least $460 on Amazon's "Microsoft Small Business Server Standard 2003 R2 32-bit for System Builders," which includes a five user license. Licensing for additional users costs between $50 to $60 each, or can be purchased in blocks of five for $150.

Small Business Server Standard combines a copy of Windows Server 2003 with a version of Exchange Server (for calendaring, contacts and email messaging); Microsoft's Internet Information Services (web server); Windows SharePoint Services (for collaboration); Routing and Remote Access Service (for dialup access, VPN, routing, and NAT services); Windows Server Update Services (for update management across the network); and a fax server.

Microsoft's "Small Business" bundle is designed to serve small office needs without encroaching on the company's larger server business, where it makes its money. For this reason, the Small Business bundle is restricted in various ways. You can only run one instance of it on the same domain (so you can't buy and set up multiple Small Business Servers to run on the same network); it's limited from joining other domains (such as your larger corporate directories); it can only support a maximum of 75 users; and some features are artificially limited in various ways, such as the Exchange database being fixed to no larger than 18GB. That means if you have 20 users, each person's mailbox and calendar would have to be less than 1GB. The 2003 version is also limited to running 32-bit apps only and to using 4GB of RAM.

If you opt for the latest 2008 version of Small Business Server Standard, you have to shell out at least $760 for the first five users, but it allows you to run 64-bit apps and use up to 64GB RAM. Of course, all 64-bit editions of Windows require 64-bit hardware, so SBS 2008 won't run on a low end Atom, Celeron, or Core Duo processors used in most small form factor PCs.

SBS 2008 still imposes the same bundle restrictions however (along with some new ones, such as not being able to use it directly connected to the Internet as a router without an external firewall), so for unlimited, unrestricted use you'd need the full version of Windows Server, Exchange, and SharePoint, which immediately prices you out of the mini server category, as even the licensing for five users begins at a steep $5,900 and quickly inches up to $20,000 for a single server supporting 100 users.

In comparison, the version of Mac OS X Snow Leopard Server bundled on the Mac mini is the same as you'd get at retail or on an Xserve. Like Microsoft's Small Business Server package, Snow Leopard Server bundles both core server features (DNS, DHCP, directory services, and file and print sharing services with support for Macs, Windows, and other Unix/Linux clients); calendar, chat and email services (with mobile push messaging and calendaring support); web and web-based wiki, blog, and calendar collaboration features; routing, firewall, RADIUS, and VPN services; and client machine backups, software update, and group policy management features.

Mac OS X Server also supplies some unique features of its own, including Podcast Producer for automating video editing workflows from capture to delivery; Xgrid distributed processing; QuickTime Streaming Server for broadcasting media streams; and NetBoot/NetInstall for supporting diskless workstations and remote imaging client machines. The product is not restricted to a certain number of users, and any number of Mac mini servers can be set up on the same network, participate in any number of directory domains, and services can consume as much disk space as the hardware allows. Key services are also 64-bit across the board in Snow Leopard Server.

In contrast, Microsoft's lower cost appliance offering, called Windows Home Server, only offers basic file, web, backup, and media streaming services, not all the things a small office user would want to do.

mosxs vs sbs


On page 2 of 3: Apple's fledgling small server business.