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Six Colors

by Jason Snell & Dan Moren

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By Jason Snell

The endless uses for an always-on Mac

My Mac mini server, as seen remotely through Screens.

Last year, while listening to the Connected podcast, I was struck by something Stephen Hackett said:

The opportunities are endless with an always-on Mac.

Yes, this. This exactly. I’ve had a Mac running as a server in my house for more than 20 years now, and I have zero regrets. As I detailed five years ago, the specific uses for my always-on Mac have changed numerous times over the decades, but the various Macs that have served the purpose have always made themselves useful.

I have friends who run network-attached storage devices in their houses, but they’ve never really been my style. You can attach storage to a Mac just as easily. Also, those storage keep getting smarter, but they’re using their own (usually unix-based) operating systems.

I’d rather just keep using a Mac, for a few reasons: It’s the operating system I’m the most familiar with. The Mac’s unix heritage means it will run most of the same software that’s available for those network-attached devices. And it lets me put Mac apps in the mix, most of which will never run on a random storage device.

After the tragic death of my Drobo in 2020, I bought an OWC Thunderbolt RAID and the replacement has been flawless. I’ve got 24TB of available storage hanging off a 2018 Intel Mac mini.

Here’s what that Mac mini currently does:

  • File server for all my archived work files, including large podcast and video files.
  • Time Machine server for all my local Macs.
  • Backing up everything to Backblaze.
  • Running WeatherCat weather-station server.
  • Running a bunch of recurring python scripts to query Apple’s WeatherKit, parse WeatherCat’s data files, and generate a bunch of charts for my home weather station page.
  • Running a web server to serve that page and a few other random pages.
  • Running Hazel to clean up, compress, and archive files that I’ve dropped on the server.
  • Running Plex, which is serving all sorts of video files I’ve bought or pulled off of old DVDs and Blu-Rays.
  • Running Channels, recording TV stations and acting as a home DVR.
  • Running Homebridge to add incompatible home devices to the Home app.
  • Being constantly available as a Mac I can connect to and use via Screens. This is especially useful when I’m on an iPad and don’t have a Mac handy.

The applications change as my needs change, but the flexibility of having an always-on Mac has always served me well. And just knowing that the Mac is there is helpful when I’m considering solutions to various technical problems—because I know that if I can get something running on my Mac, I can keep it running all the time to solve the problem. (I’ve started upgrading some of my automations on my server to use Shortcuts rather than AppleScript or shell scripts. It begins…)

One of these days I’ll probably upgrade my Mac mini to an Apple silicon model, which will certainly reduce the amount of power it consumes. I dream of replacing my spinning hard drives with fast, silent SSDs, but SSD storage large enough to cover my entire archive is still out of reach, for now.

But I think it’s very unlikely I’ll ever stop having a Mac server in my house. The possibilities remain endless.

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