Mac mini Server

I’ve used old Mac’s as file servers for several years now. They are well-built machines that ship with a tightly integrated UNIX based operating system. Of all the consumer grade hardware/software out there, I think they are by far the best equipped for the task. They are expensive, but the quality is unmatched.

Apple today launched several product refreshes, but the one that really catches my eye is the Mac mini server. It’s pretty much just a Mac mini with the optical drive replaced with a second SATA 2.5″ hard drive and a copy of Snow Leopard server in place of the standard Mac OS X.

The hardware is pretty uneventful. People have been swapping drives in the Mac mini for years to add more storage as well as external drives. Software wise people have been using server products on the mini for some time. Nothing here is revolutionary. But marketing the product as a server is for a few reasons:

Home/Small Business Servers

Like I said, I’ve had a home server for years. It’s great for backing up and sharing files and printers. It can also be purposed for a myriad of other tasks. While you can set this all up on stock Mac OS X, tweaking it all is a little daunting as the Mac OS X UI only exposes the very basics. Mac OS X server has much deeper integration making it easier for people who don’t know what they are doing. I expect we’ll see some third party products that further expand the use of this in the home and small business market. I wouldn’t be surprised to even see some Home theater PC (HTPC) backend solutions. (MythTV anyone?)

Efficient Servers

The Mac Mini only consumes 16 watts when idle. It’s still a Core 2 Duo 2.53GHz CPU, and ships with 4 GB RAM. The place it suffers is disk I/O thanks to using 5400 RPM drives (It’s cost per GB isn’t that great either thanks to the 2.5″ drives). In previous models it wasn’t too difficult to swap the drive with 7200 RPM drives though I don’t know how the thermals will play out with dual HD’s. It may be possible to use software RAID, I’m not sure what sort of improvement in performance you could get since I don’t know the details of the motherboard. However, if you have a task that’s not IO bound, or you use a NAS via Gigabit Ethernet (or a Firewire/USB drive) it may not matter. That’s a pretty affordable low powered node in your grid. Even better if it could handle higher density RAM to get 8 GB into there via 2 x 4GB SO-DIMMs.

I presume Apple’s Xgrid will work too.

It’s an interesting move, and one that I think could be successful.

MWSF 2009 Predictions

I play this game every year. I’m having some trouble with predictions this year since Apple has been somewhat scatterbrained lately. Regardless, here’s my list for MacWorld 2009:

  • The usual pep-rally – iPhone App Store is a success, lots of iTunes music download, iPod touch sales strong, Mac sales solid. Users happy. (Probability: 100%)
  • iTunes DRM Free Content – More DRM Free Music. Much less likely is video. (Probability: 85%).
  • 17″ Unibody MacBook Pro – It’s missing from the lineup. (Probability: 85%).
  • iPhone OS 2.3 – Despite a lack of rumors on the iPhone OS 2.3 unlike previous versions which were more publicity tested I still think we will see an announcement on this front. Apple promised push notification back in September. It’s way overdue. If it’s not ready to ship today, I expect Apple will at least give a preview and a date. I also suspect at least one other headliner feature. I’m hoping for Copy&Paste. (Probability: 80%).
  • Steve Jobs Health – It’s the elephant in the room. I suspect whomever holds the keynote will mention it. Assuming Steve Jobs himself doesn’t mention it either by video conf. or in person. (Probability: 80%).
  • Mac OS X 10.6 Snow Leopard Preview – Apple will give us another taste of what’s to come. I also expect to see a release timeline at least down to a quarter, if not an exact date. My guess is it won’t go GM until at least WWDC. Demo is very possible. (Probability: 75%).
  • Revamped Mac Mini – The Mac Mini is overdue for a makeover. The case has been the same since 2005. The internals are getting old. I see a modest speed bump, a refreshed design and NVIDIA chipset. (Probability: 70%).
  • Updated iMac – The iMac is about a year old at this point and also still offers an ATI graphics chip in some models. I see that disappearing and NVIDIA taking over. This is in preparation for Snow Leopard who will want more GPU. (Probability: 68%).
  • iPhone Nano – I know 2 manufacturers claim to be making cases for it. I still suspect it won’t happen, at least with the iPhone OS we all know. I figure this because it will be hard to use the OS on a screen smaller than the iPhone. That said, Apple may be working on a slimmer cell phone focused more as a music player than an application platform. Think iPod + Phone. Rather than iPhone. (Probability: 51%).
  • Updated Apple TV – Mixed feelings on this. Until Apple has a vision for it, I’m not sure they will keep dumping R&D time into this product. (Probability: 50%).
  • Random Price Drops – Throughout the keynote, expect prices on low end of each product line to drop compared to current pricing. New slimmed down products to tickle the fancy of those in conservation mode due to the economy. (Probability: 85%).
  • iTouch Tablet – I think it will happen eventually, but I don’t expect an announcement soon. I think earliest is 3Q 2009 (TechCrunch suggests the same). More likely at some point in 2010. I think it will replace the MacBook Air and be a slim tablet style notebook borrowing heavily from the Air. I don’t think Apple has the cost-saving chops to produce an oversized iPod touch at a price consumers would go for. (Probability for MWSF: 20%).

There you have it. Those are my guesses. Now lets see what happens.

The Next Generation Of Computing

I got my current laptop in Oct 2005, though the model was released in spring/summer of that year. My Mac mini is an 1st Gen (G4 1.4GHz) from Jan 2005. Needless to say my hardware at home is getting close to the point of needing an upgrade. Due to my laptop being replaced unexpectedly I have two computers getting to that magic point at almost the same time. Not much I can do about that. I’ve been thinking about the next generation and what I want to do. Ideally I’d like to simplify my setup, and hopefully in that process get more bang for the buck. In some ways I think I will, in others I won’t.

My initial though is to eventually get a MacBook Pro once it’s truly 64bit and supports at least 8GB RAM. GPU accelerated video decoding would also be nice. I like my computers expandable and to last a while. In 3-4 years time I think I’ll want more than 3GB of RAM considering I think 2GB is the minimum today. Yes the hardware they ship today technically supports this, but Apple’s firmware doesn’t for reasons unknown. I’d also like one or more USB 3 ports, but we’ll see if that happens in the 2nd half of 2009 or not. I don’t think the lack of would be a deal killer though. I think it will take quite a while for USB 3.0 speeds to be necessary to the point of widespread adoption.

Laptops are great since they can be moved around which is handy from time to time (though I use my laptop more at my desk than anywhere else), but they do lack the power that I sometimes want. The Mac mini obviously never delivered what I really needed in that department. My thought is to build a desktop rig composed of a multi core CPU (whatever makes sense at the moment), min 4GB RAM, at least two SATA drives (primary/backup) and dual boot Windows and Linux. This beast would be pretty much for when I need some real horsepower. By building it myself I could invest a little wiser in a good case, power supply, etc. and upgrade this thing through several revisions for years to come rather than throw it all away after a few years. I can also target my $ towards components I care about.

My primary (day to day) computer would be the MacBook Pro and would likely have Parallels installed so I can run Windows if/when necessary (mainly since Quicken for Mac sucks last I checked and so I can test web pages in Windows). When I need to do something that laptops suck for due to small slow disks or just being slower, I would have the desktop rig available.

One of the downsides here is that while my current display is VGA/DVI, both of these systems would be DVI. I could either degrade the signal to VGA and use my current KVM, or upgrade to a DVI capable KVM switch which isn’t cheap (I haven’t seen less than $250 for something like a IOGEAR GCS1782). The DVI switches don’t support dual displays unless you drop some serious cash, so that’s pretty much out of the question. This adds to the complexity. Is building a KVM for DVI really that much more difficult to warrant the price difference? Or is it simply there aren’t enough in the market to drive the price down?

When should I start this? What system should I target first? Which should that system replace? Who the hell knows. I’m thinking later next year. It’s not so much a “plan” as an idea. I know I need to upgrade to more modern hardware since I won’t be able to run Mac OS X 10.6, and XP is getting to me. Both use 2.5″ ATA/100 drives which are becoming hard to find, and even when you find them are pretty small. Both are maxed out in RAM.

I’ll likely retire the Thinkpad to just for travel and other silliness, and perhaps save the G4 mac mini for some diabolical scheme. Apple even alludes to some of the possibilities on it’s site (see “Big Ideas” on the right rail of the Mac mini page).

It gets surprisingly complicated when you want it all and have it fit on your desk.

Mac OS X 10.5 Leopard

I got my copy of Mac OS X 10.5 earlier this week. Bought it from J&R (via Amazon) since it was $99 + shipping, less than Amazon itself was selling it for. For some reason both of them are able to undercut Apple (even with a corporate discount) which seemed odd. Here’s my rundown of the new OS during the first 24 hours.

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Third Party iPhone Apps

Apple is said to be wrestling with the idea of allowing third party apps. In reality they are deciding if they should aid developers. I think it’s pretty clear there will be hacks to get third party software on there. The question is if Apple will bless the efforts or not.

Come on Steve… release the SDK and let us have some fun and make your product even more useful. The availability of good software is what has kept the Palm Treo and every Windows Mobile device alive despite Blackberry fever.

It would be an interesting platform for a Mobile XULRunner via Mozilla’s mobile efforts.

Don’t forget. Part of the Mac mini’s success is that it is small enough to embed in all sorts of places. Apple has even taken advantage of that press by putting it on their Mac mini page (lower right “Big Ideas”). Hackable products sell. Just ask Linksys about the WRT54G.

Microsoft’s Playground

Beautiful tour of Microsoft’s Mac Lab. I think my favorite is the pic of all the Mac Mini’s. Every geek’s dream is to have a hardware collection that vast. I really love how they manage OS versions:

…On each machine we have two volumes: ChangeOS and Mac OS X. The Mac OS X volume is where we install the different versions of the OS. We boot to the ChangeOS volume to free up the Mac OS X volume for modification. When we trigger an automation run we specify the OS version and language. Each machine then reboots to the ChangeOS partition, caches the OS .dmg locally and uses the asr command line tool to restore the image. The tool that does this work is one I wrote (in AppleScript Studio no less!) called Lab Assistant. We have images of the Mac OS from 8.1 all the way up to 10.4.6 in all the languages our products support. …

Very cool stuff. I’d love if they would automate that into a nice little installer, similar to Apple’s new Boot Camp. Very cool stuff indeed.

2 failures in a week

Last week my private server had some corruption on the system partition. Seems to be related to the system log file from what I can figure out. I’ve got it back up and running, mostly. Though not 100%. If it was running something newer than 10.2 Jaguar, I’d likely be in better shape. Not much work, but because it’s 266MHz, it takes a year to do something as simple as upgrade perl. Despite that, the tough little box is still chugging away. Thanks to partitioning, and putting the drive in an external enclosure and hooking it up to my Mac Mini with Mac OS X 10.4, all user data is intact. That’s really what’s important.

Now today a Windows XP system decides to corrupt itself. Not quite done with evaluating the damage and repairs. I got it to boot, not sure what else is hiding under the murky waters of Windows XP. That’s the goal for tonight.

What did I learn? I really need to get some better backup systems working on these two computers. I’m sick of doing this.

Mac Mini 2.0

I have my G4 Mac Mini… but now it’s outdated because, it’s now available as a Intel powered Mac Mini. So cool in just about every way, except the Intel Integrated Graphics, which even Apple agrees is junk. I do like the audio in put (which was missing on the G4 version), and support for FrontRow. I wonder how many will be stacking them, so you can swap between the two architectures with a KVM switch.

Also saw a MacBook Pro the other day. Oh so very sexy. Very slick as usual.

Now what I really want to see (and have) is the replacement for the PowerMac. In my dreams it’s quad core, ships with 2GB RAM, dual SATA hard drives, and has a pretty similar design to the current PowerMac line. Oh yea, a 2nd media bay for another drive or accessory. I don’t like having a whole tower and 1 bay.

Apple’s Black Box

This is a rather interesting promotion. Think Secret has a decent rundown of what’s in the mystery boxes. These new units fix some really big issues with the mini (faster hard drive, more video ram in particular). That faster hard drive will make a big issue with performance on the mini. It’s a really cool system, I love it. My biggest complaint is 256MB’s of RAM it originally shipped with (now a better 512), and the 4200RPM hard drive.