Six Colors
Six Colors

by Jason Snell & Dan Moren

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By Jason Snell

The life of a server

Welcome to the second issue of the Six Colors Magazine. I’m writing this column from my iPad Pro, sitting in bed watching the rain pour down outside. One of the advantages of working at home is that I can make the commute without setting a foot on the floor—but one of the disadvantages is that the entirety of my work is always a device away.

The largest item in this month’s magazine is my summary of your responses to the 2015 Apple Report Card survey I sent out late last month. It’s the mirror version of the story I posted on Six Colors earlier this month, but this time it contains the ratings and voices of you subscribers, rather than the two dozen pundits in the original story. Thanks to all the subscribers who participated in the survey!

Over the New Years holiday, I spent an hour working on a project I detailed on Six Colors—upgrading the drive in my home server. At some point I’ll write more details about the server for the site, but every time I mention the tech I use at home, I am surprised at the curiosity of readers, so I thought I’d share a little bit more about the story here.

My server is a 2011 Mac mini, bought to replace an older model—I’ve been using a Mac mini a server for a very long time now, and used older Macs (including a couple of Power Mac G3s) to do the job before that. My motivations for running a home server have changed over the years. It’s like my server has had many careers (and many enclosures) over the years, always changing and growing and adapting to my needs at the time.

I started running a home server as a way to test Mac OS X Server. I used it to host for all my web and email services. Over a slow DSL line. (It was probably a terrible idea.)

Over time, my server needs have changed. With the exception of things like my home weather station, I’ve moved web services off to a dedicated server. My email is entirely off-site as well. Today, the server’s jobs are these:

  • Attach to a huge disk, namely a Drobo 5D array
  • Act as file server so I can use that disk from my iMac to store old podcast files and stuff
  • Run WeatherCat to talk to my weather station and generate all the data and webpages I want, and even fire off alerts to IFTTT to change the color of my light bulbs.
  • Run Plex to serve my local video files to my TiVo Roamio and fourth-generation Apple TV
  • Run Logitech Media Server for my rapidly aging collection of Squeezebox music players
  • Run Sonos Server for the new Sonos music players I’m testing to replace my Squeezeboxes
  • Act as a Time Machine server for my iMac. (Yes, I bought the OS X Server add-on.)
  • Run CrashPlan to back up all the data on the Drobo
  • Run iTunes so I can access my iTunes library from other devices, especially handy when my Internet connection is slow or down

I’m probably forgetting something. It does a lot of little jobs.

If I were starting from zero today, I’d seriously consider buying a NAS—a network-attached storage device, essentially a computer and hard drive array in one—rather than a Mac mini with a giant attached hard drive. These days, NAS devices can do most of the media serving and backup tasks that a Mac mini can do. But still, I’m much more comfortable with administering a Mac. And I’d rather not leave my 5K iMac running at all times in order to serve the rest of my household, so a second Mac it is.

I’ve been frustrated with how slow the Mac mini was for the last few years. The bottom line is, spinning hard drives are slow, and the drive in this Mac mini wasn’t particularly fast to begin with. These days, there is no single upgrade you can do to a Mac to make it run faster than swapping out a spinning hard drive with an SSD.

In the end, I added the SSD rather than just swapping it in for the existing hard drive. My Mac mini model has room for two hard drives, and so I bought a kit from iFixit that allowed me to add the SSD as a second drive. Then I formatted the drives together as a sort of do-it-yourself Fusion Drive.

Fusion Drive is an Apple concept—it fuses a fast SSD and a slow spinning disc together into a single volume, and then the operating system puts your most commonly used files on the SSD and your less-used, larger files on the spinning disc. It’s a clever idea, and it works pretty well. (You can get links to the instructions I used, and the products I bought, from the original Six Colors story.)

In the end, my Mac mini was completely transformed. I can’t say it’s for everyone, but it works for me and I’m glad I have it! Doing the upgrade was harrowing, but in the end, it was a lot cheaper than buying a new Mac mini equipped with an SSD or a Fusion Drive.

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