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We are a bootstrapped web start up. We have a LAMP web application that we expect relatively low to mid traffic because users need an account to log in. Our current approach is to colocate two servers, a web and mysql database server. We are planning to use Ubuntu Server 9.04.

We have shopped around for dedicated servers but the price range from $900 to $1500 per month, therefore we are exploring the colocation approach. We are considering purchasing two Mac Minis (2.0GHz Intel Core 2 Duo 2 Gb RAM) because we are familiar with the machines are the prices are relatively inexpensive.

What are the pros and cons of using these 'non-server' grade machines? We would install Ubuntu Sever and attach firewire external hard drives.

Any advice on how to set up 'good-and-economic' web/database servers is welcomed.

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What is the next logical step? Providers will offer an iPhone colocation solution ;-) –  splattne Jun 30 '09 at 7:38
    
I would check out Liquid Web for dedicated hosting, good prices, really good support. –  Paul Sheldrake Mar 14 '10 at 23:54

11 Answers 11

up vote 13 down vote accepted

Pros of using a Mac Mini as a server

None

Cons of using a Mac Mini as a server

  • No redundancy
  • No rackability
  • No hardware battery-backed RAID
  • Not serviceable
  • Non-ECC memory
  • Crap cooling
  • Not built for load
  • Not scalable
  • Poor support under non-Mac operating systems

What, then?

There are many, many places where you can get dedicated servers for $200 or less per month.

M5 Hosting, for one, has an excellent reputation and offers many systems for very little money.

If that's still too much, buy a few virtual servers (linode.com, rootbsd.com, many others around) and use those until you can afford the dedicated servers.

But don't buy rackspace and fill it with Mac Minis. You will hate yourself forever after.

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The No RAID point is no longer entirely relevant. A Mac mini can come with 2 drives. You can setup a software RAID. –  Zoredache Apr 21 '10 at 16:37
    
Adjusted the answer accordingly. –  sh-beta Apr 24 '12 at 19:23

Mac mini are not the fastest computer around and have no redundancy. They take up very little space, don't use a lot of electricity, and are not very expensive.

They may be an option to start with, but at some point you'll probably need to consider switching to a faster system.

It seems like storage may be the biggest bottle-neck, but that could be addressed by some kind of external or shared storage.

I know macminicolo.net is specifically aiming at colocating mac mini hardware.

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If storage is an issue, terabyte 3.5" SATA drives in hot-swap brackets can fit in a variety of popular rackmount machines, with decent RAID controllers. I do see storage overcharged for in certain colocation or virtual server situations, but if you're managing the hardware, you can definitely find something that's reasonable for a datacenter but also allows for significant storage. I don't mind storage as an unstated requirement, as it allows answers to help a variety of people, but the original question would be better answered if the huge gap in requirement understanding was narrowed. –  carlito Jun 29 '09 at 23:52

What co-located options were you looking at that were comparable in spec to a mac mini at that price? Either way you should be able to purchase 1U servers for a similar price to a mac mini.

Sure, you could run on them, but I'd look to get proper hardware, you should be able to do it on the same budget.

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I've been shopping around for 1U servers and you can pick up some in the 500 $ range. –  msanford Jun 29 '09 at 23:50

Before I say anything about Mac Mini's, I want to mention that you can rent a dedicated, fully managed server for around $200 a month (fully managed doesn't mean they touch the software or O/S; it just means if something goes wrong with the hardware or the network, on-site engineers will fix it immediately; an invaluable service!). I've been using LiquidWeb (Google it) for my dedicated servers for years now. They fully own their entire data center and their support is superb.

If you're intent on using Mac Mini's, they will work just fine as little servers. In fact, there's a company who exclusively hosts Mac Mini's in a data center in Nevada (Google 'Mac Mini Colocation'). You configure the Mac Mini, ship it to them, and they hook it up. You get to own your hardware and have it hosted in a secure data center environment with lots of bandwidth. Of course doing this would also mean you no longer have physical access to the hardware.

Con's of using a Mac Mini: From what it sounds like you're trying to do, the con's of using 'non-server-grade' machines from a hardware perspective are not many. More importantly, however, will be the reliability and bandwidth of your Internet connection and future migration of your application to a data center and/or better hardware when your application begins to demand it. While building your own server and hosting it yourself will save you money, it won't save you time or headaches down the road (and hosting is really dirt cheap, especially VPSes; see below)

Other options you should consider with regards to cost (if you haven't already), are Virtual Private Servers (two companies I've heard great stuff about are SliceHost and Linode). You get a slice of a server and only pay for the memory, disk space, and bandwidth that you actually need (and VPS 'hardware' can be upgraded with a single click). You get root access and can choose what O/S you want installed.

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While the cost of Mac Mini's may seem attractive, and you say you want to buy them because you're familiar with the machines, the biggest issue I see is what you mentioned, they are non-server-grade computers. The hard drives and other components are not going to be as reliable as a server will.

On top of that, I don't see why you would buy a Mac because you know the machine, but then install unbuntu server on it. Wouldn't you just shop around for the cheapest server you can get and install ubuntu server on it? I think that will end up being cheaper than the Mac Mini's will.

Oh man, Raam Dev answered while I was typing this and it's a great response!

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You should be able to find rental servers for far less than $900, something around $100, but that might depend on where you are located.

MacMinis are absolute low end systems when it comes to servers, especially for database applications, as you only get 2.5" disks in them, and only one, leaving no room for raid sets.

Therefore, I would suggest looking around for systems better suited for this application.

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High-end servers now come with 2.5" disks. I had some HP DL380 G5s with 8 2.5" disks, outperforming a 24-CPU Sparc + EMC CX500 SAN solution. –  carlito Jun 29 '09 at 23:47
    
magnetic 2.5" disks, or are ultra fast SSD? –  Magnetic_dud Jun 30 '09 at 0:10

Is the plan to colocate a Mac Mini with external hard drives? This really makes no sense. They're not efficient in terms of rack space. Remote management is probably nonexistent, or at least weak considering comparable solutions. Who's going to handle hardware, who's going to handle remote console access? Honestly any colo provider should at least give you an "are you sure you wan to do this" if you ask for that. Or a cost breakdown that makes it clear you're paying for wasted rackspace.

You probably want a virtual server, e.g. a VMWare or Xen instance, if a Mac Mini could do the job.

You should explain in detail the $900-$1500/month cost. It implies significant unstated requirements, such as bandwidth or storage. Depending on what these requirements are, advice might vary significantly. For example, if it's storage, you'll get overcharged by someone else handling the hardware - but you want something rack-efficient and maintainable, not a Mac Mini. If it's bandwidth, the discussion might involve separating the bandwidth requirements from the hardware requirements, and finding ways to meet the bandwidth requirements cost-effectively.

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Excuse me, with ibm blade servers with dual xeon running on ebay for 90 euro, why you would use an ultra-slow computer, with a notebook cpu, a slow 5400rpm notebook hdd, and no raid support?

What you will get with $900? An 8-core xeon with 16gb ram? I don't think with $900, they will rent you a mac mini...

If you want a similar machine, you can rent a £39 server from ovh.co.uk, that's way better

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I have a been happily running a web server using a mac mini for a number of months now. This was an upgrade from an really old system running Ubuntu. I'm using OS X's built in apache server which is slick, and there's plenty of tuts out there on how to set it up. Although i would agree with posts above that you should be able to build a pretty decent server for less than buying a mac mini, i had and a mini laying around hence my choice.

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You can get dedicated Mac Mini or Apple TV hosting Mythic Beasts. The small size and low power consumption make either of those options attractive. Obviously, there's enough people who think this is a good idea for a company to be able to offer that kind of hosting.

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If you are a bootstrapped web start-up, I would recommend leasing a virtual private server (VPS) instead of buying hardware. I've used Slicehost for the past 2.5 years with no problems. Their 256 slice costs $20/month and provides 256MB RAM, 10GB storage, and 100GB monthly bandwidth. For an additional $5/month you can get backups as well, although for my customer facing website, I just backup the data to my MacBook. I also use a 256 slice with OpenVPN to server as our company's intranet and host our web-based accounting package, which is currently LedgerSMB. Both of these slices are running Ubuntu 9.04 with Apache, PostgreSQL, and Perl/CGI.

Some of the advantages of Slicehost are that they:

  1. Handle the bandwidth issues;
  2. Allow you to upgrade to a larger slice at any time;
  3. Do not have any contracts or setup fees---no contracts cannot be overlooked as I'd prefer to not buy hardware or enter into annual contracts with co-lo and bandwidth providers only to have the business tank; and
  4. Are owned by Rackspace, so you can always upgrade to a dedicated server if that's more your needs or you can augment the VPS storage using one of their cloud storage solutions or Amazon's S3 Simple Storage Service.

If you really want to go the co-lo Mac Mini route, I would recommend the Mac Mini with Snow Leopard Server released earlier this week. Instead of an optical drive, it offers two 500GB SATA drives, so that you can run RAID 1. However, as other people have commented, the Mac Mini and a VPS or other leased server are in different categories to some extent.

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