Apple – Mac mini with Snow Leopard Server review

Network server
Photo of Apple – Mac mini with Snow Leopard Server

As all Dr Who fans know, the Tardis time machine is a lot bigger on the inside than out. A seemingly impossible feat that Apple appears to have replicated with its tiny Mac mini which can be had not just for desktop use, but as a server too.

Aimed at small businesses with limited technical resources, the Mac mini with Snow Leopard Server is designed to be easy to both setup and manage. Despite which, it delivers a shed-load of useful features and functionality, including the ability to share files and printers plus host in-house web and email servers and state-of-the-art wiki and blogging tools.

The hardware is based on the deceptively small Mac mini desktop released in June. Housed in a sleek “unibody” enclosure, carved from a single block of aluminium, it’s superbly designed and smaller than ever, yet still has room for an integrated power supply rather than the external AC brick required on the previous model. It’s also incredibly quiet and cool running, making the mini server easy to tuck away, safe from prying eyes. Given its good looks, however, style conscious owners may prefer to take the risk and keep it on show regardless.

On the inside the Intel Core 2 Duo processor found in the desktop mini is uprated from 2.4GHz to 2.66Ghz and the memory doubled to 4GB, with the option of doubling again to 8GB on the server model. A hatch in the base makes this a lot easier (on the previous model you had to prise the case open with a knife), added to which memory upgrades are now officially sanctioned and won’t invalidate the warranty.

There’s no DVD slot (an external CD/DVD drive can be attached if needed) and instead of a single 320GB SATA hard disk you get a pair of 500GB drives with a faster 7,200rpm spin speed. This is something Apple achieves by using 2.5-inch notebook drives which, although not heavy-duty server hardware, should be man enough to handle the needs of most small businesses.

Upgrades to the internal disks aren’t officially supported, Apple recommending external drives when extra capacity is needed. These can be attached using four USB 2.0 ports round at the rear or the much faster FireWire 800 port alongside. On the downside, FireWire storage isn’t particularly common, but a 4TB Promise RAID unit (the SmartStor DS4600) can be bought from Apple for £699 inc. VAT.

Networking is well catered for with both a Gigabit Ethernet interface and an 802.11n AirPort Extreme controller. A Bluetooth 2.1 interface is similarly built in, plus an SD slot able to accommodate the latest extended capacity SDXC cards.

On the software front there’s a 64-bit implementation of MAC OS X 10.6 (Snow Leopard) pre-installed on one of the disks, together with a number of add-on services and applications to turn it into a small business server. To this end file and printer sharing come as standard, with support for both Apple Mac and Windows (SMB) clients. Windows Active Directory can be used for authentication if wanted, and you can even use the Mac mini as Windows domain controller.

For email there’s an integrated SMTP server for use with standard IMAP/POP3 clients or a browser. However, if you’re expecting a swish web-based mail client you’ll be very disappointed, Apple persisting with the seriously outmoded SquirrelMail client which really lets the side down.

Elsewhere it’s a better story, with an easy to manage Web server, complete with customisable wiki/blogging applications. Address book, calendaring and chat servers are similarly included, along with support for Apple Time Machine backups and VPN remote access. You can also configure the Mac mini server as an Internet gateway, for which a second network port is required, with a USB Ethernet adapter (£20 inc. VAT) available if you don’t want to do this using WiFi.

Setup took just a few minutes. It can be done remotely if wanted, although we attached a local screen, keyboard and mouse and unplugged them again once we’d finished. Any later management can then be done over the network, in our case using VNC remote control software from a Windows PC.

A tool called Server Preferences looks after day to day management, from which we found it easy to perform common tasks such as create and modify users, define groups, configure access to the various server applications and so on. However, we did have to resort to the more advanced Server Admin tool on occasion and, for really complex tasks, the command line is often the only option.

Client setup is a little more involved too. Designed to work best with Mac clients, the apps on the Mac mini server are automatically configured when a new Mac user logs on. Windows users, however, have to be manually configured, although a web portal can be used to access the core applications from a browser, regardless of platform.

Overall we were impressed with the Tardis-like Mac mini server, which delivers big box capabilities in a device little bigger than a router. OK, it’s not the fastest server on the planet, but it’s quick enough for a good many small businesses. Neither is it particularly expandable, but that’s not a major issue either, as it’s pretty well specified to start with and you can always plug in external storage. It’s probably of more interest to Mac than Windows shops but, either way, it’s remarkably affordable, particularly in larger organisations, where an unlimited user licence means you pay the same regardless of the number involved.

Company: Apple

Contact: 0800 039 1212

By cramming in extra hardware and tweaking the OS, Apple has managed the seemingly impossible, turning its tiny Mac mini into a respectable small business server, complete with file and print sharing, email, web, wiki and blogging tools. It works best in a Mac environment but Windows support is there if needed and, if you stick to the basics, it's very easy to manage. On the downside, Windows-based servers offer more functionality, but can work out a lot more expensive, Apple's Mac mini shipping with an unlimited user licence, so once you've bought it there's no more to pay.