We are a small office of about 4 people, and we would like to have a 27-inch iMac (Core 2 Duo) setup as a server and workstation simultaneously, using Mac OS X Server.

This might seem like overkill (and stupidity at the same time), but here is the situation:

  • we want to convert our whole office to Mac, only one full-time PC left
  • we will not use its mail server
  • we might use its chat server
  • we want it setup to provide VPN
  • we are a small office so I don't see how the server can be overrun with too much traffic.

How difficult would it be to set it up in this way? I have a fairly advanced knowledge of Mac OS X but have never encountered Mac OS X Server. I think I would be able to set it up, but what are the probable pitfalls that might come up?

Has anyone else been in a similar situation?

// edit:

I forgot to mention that the Mac must be used as a file server, storing the files locally, but maybe on a separate partition?! (That's why we thought of an iMac because of the big HDD)

We have been using an external HDD on a Windows machine up until now, and have not had mentioned problems with it so far (crashes and lost data), so I really doubt that Mac would display these problems, especially with the upped specs and the better operating system.

Unfortunately our company can only afford one workstation now, so what do you guys think would be the best? Would an iMac suffice as a workstation/server for now?

// edit 2:

Also, we are based in South Africa, and Mac Minis with Snow Leopard Server are very hard to come by. They are not available online here and I gather they would have to be specially ordered through the Core Group (official Apple importers).


I would be much more tempted to buy a Mac mini as a dedicated server, you can hide it in a corner where it's less likely to be put to sleep/rebooted/stolen or messed up over time through normal use. Also they're available with OSX server from day one rather than having to buy the OS on its own. They do a dual disk version now too.

As for how hard they are to set up, well for file and print services they are ridiculously simple, the email and VPN services are simple as well, if you have a decent enough grasp of DNS. I've not personally setup any chat service so can't comment.

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    The reason we are getting the iMac is because I need to work on it as well, and I am sort of the Mac geek in the office, and often fix errors and problems in the office. I am also a web developer (which is actually my main profession), so I need this machine to work on. I have had my fair encounter with hosting setups as well, as I am also the technical support for the hosting side of the company, and the chat server was just a small-up for going to run the server on our side. Do you think this is good (but overkill) solution? – Anriëtte Myburgh Mar 23 '10 at 8:49
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    I would recommend to get both the MacMini as a server and the iMac as workstation. Workstation/server combos have a nasty tendency to crash in the most annoying moments. – Sven Mar 23 '10 at 9:39
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    I would second the recommendation of getting a separate mac mini, using a server as a workstation as well is asking for trouble. What if your trying to do something quite memory intensive and you end up stopping the rest of the office getting to there files? – Sam Cogan Mar 23 '10 at 10:24
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    You do not want to run your desktop as a server. If you are planning on using this for file services alone you will be taxing the disk on day one. Then if you need to reboot your workstation it will also take down all the services that are hosted on your machine which will also disrupt everyone else's time. Ultimately, it may be cheaper in the short run to setup your network like this but in the long run it will be cheaper to purchase an additional $1000 macmini. Also I recommend the Apple OS X Server page for documentation: apple.com/server/macosx/resources/documentation.html – Scott Keck-Warren Mar 23 '10 at 12:37
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    Ok, people, I think I convinced my boss to go for the Mac Mini Server option. Thanks all. – Anriëtte Myburgh Mar 31 '10 at 11:43

It is indeed hard to find much information on OS X Server. As far as I can tell, Mac OS X Server is essentially Mac OS X + some Unix software + some nice graphical interfaces to this software (located in Applications -> Utilities -> Server). To tell you the whole story: the User Migration assistant is the only piece of software that I could not find on OS X Server (and it apparently should not be used with OS X Server).

Administration tasks are much simpler with OS X Server than with OS X, at least for standard configurations.

I have been happily using OS X Server as a workstation over the last month. I can't see any difference with Mac OS X.

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I've used OSX Server for all of the things you listed. I usually test on Mac minis, and then deploy on Xserves (never on an iMac though). Regardless, I would not recommend using it as your day-to-day workstation.

However, I'm not sure you need OS X Server at all. You can use a regular iMac with OS X pre-installed. Get a big external hard drive and share it using regular file sharing over AFP. You didn't mention if you want to tie all your user accounts together with Open Directory. For an office of 4 people, I don't think you need to. You can easily just create accounts for each of them on your iMac, and they can all log in with AFP.

For your other services:

  • Openfire is a jabber (ie: iChat) server that can be run on regular Mac OS X. It is far better than the one included with OS X Server.
  • OpenVPN is similarly a far better VPN server than what is included with OS X Server. And Tunnelbrick is a GUI for setting it up!

Either of these servers could be installed on your iMac, or they can be installed on an old Linux machine. If you've got an old clunker that you can run Ubuntu on, that would be ideal.

I really like Mac OS X Server for a lot of things. Particularly for Open Directory, User/Computer/Preference management, and Portable/Network home directories. But for some services, the open-source offerings are simply better.

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You could probably make this work, however you would want to make sure that there were no software compatibility issues, for instance if you want to use CS4 it doesn't state explicitly on the adobe website that it will run on OSX Server.

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  • Shouldn't matter -- OS X Server has all the parts of OS X client, I doubt that vendors would complain. – Josh Mar 23 '10 at 12:44

Setting up a Mac server is a fairly simple affair if you just want simple services, however once you want something a bit complicated or unusual then it goes from a nice shiny GUI to hand editing plist/conf files.

In your case as @svenw & @Chopper3 mentions, get a Mac Mini server. You should never use a server as a workstation it will just cause no end of problems, it will get turned off, applications will crash, it may even get infected with malware - far from ideal for a server.

Also I'd agree with @Marko that using OS X Server as a workstation is also not great - most apps will run (as there isn't much difference from their point of view) but none will be supported.

I appreciate that having a server that sits in the corner and does not a lot is very frustrating from a financial point of view - perhaps a second hand Mac Pro or an Macbook Pro might be an alternative - the great Joel Spolsky himself claims to have used a laptop with a faulty screen as his first server!

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Our small office uses our MacOS X Server as both a server and a desktop, and it works just fine. We're running on a dual quad MacPro with a 23" Cinema display, and it loafs all of the time. A new 27: iMac shouldn't have any problem keeping up with the load.

We had been running the server on a MDD Dual G4, but had so many problem with Adobe CS and Microsoft office files on the network (which is unsupported) that it was just easier to put the server on our Mac Pro workstation. We run the web, lists, jabber, vpn, and and calendar server as well as AFP.

We have a total of 5 staff and 5 volunteers who use the services regularly, but virtually never simultaneously except for jabber and calendar services. For such low use, it didn't make any sense for us to spend an extra $1,000 on a dedicated server.

Our APF usage is low. Your mileage may vary.

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I'm sure the 27" iMac will serve four people just fine. Quad core and 8 GB of RAM will help, if your budget allows that.

One important thing: store your shared files in external disk, either FireWire or preferably mirroring NAS. Hard disk is commonly the bottleneck of any modern computer, so using the iMac's internal disk as a shared drive is not good idea and will definitely slow down things.

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Given the circumstances, I would just install XAMPP onto normal Mac OS X, then set up a simple script to automatically start it up when the computer boots. This allows a web server to run while causing zero interference with the user.

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  • How is that relevant to the question that was asked? There was no mention of the server needing to be a web server. – John Gardeniers Apr 8 '10 at 2:52

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