Home server for a mostly Mac household
August 20, 2019 6:05 AM   Subscribe

I’ve waxed poetic about my 2009 Mac Pro, which has been a workhorse for years. Recently, it’s been something of a home sever, including as a Plex server. It’s getting less reliable and may need to be replaced. Most likely Mac would be a Mini, but there’s the Apple premium and the Mini hasn’t been updated in about a year (I’m well aware it was not updated for years before that). Should I get Mini, or look at a small PC desktop?

I'm far from a power user on the Mac, but I know how they work. I have never owned a PC, but have always used them at work (but never administered or configured). I don’t want to spend a lot of time figuring out PC stuff, but I don’t know whether they’re easier to deal with than I’m imagining. Apples (har) and oranges, but I’ve been using a Surface Pro 4 for work, and it’s been better than either the iPad or my MacBook, except for the terrible battery life.

If a Mini, I’d probably wait until either the machines are refreshed or refurbished Minis appear in the Apple store again.

Other than the cross platform plex server and web apps, there isn’t a platform specific program I need for either Mac or PC, though of course I have lots of Mac software already.
posted by Admiral Haddock to Computers & Internet (10 answers total) 7 users marked this as a favorite
My preferred solution is to throw data (Time Machine backups, Plex library, archive of personal photos, etc.) on a Synology NAS (I'd recommend a model with 4+ drive bays so you can capitalize on RAID-5 to protect against drive failure), then use another device for actually handling server roles. In my case, I have a Mac Mini doing some things (mostly transcoding video to h.265 for long-term storage), and some VMware ESXi hosts that run virtual machines doing other things (Plex server, OpenVPN server, virtual desktop, etc.). All the 'server' systems just mount directories stored on the Synology over a NAS protocol (NFS, SMB/CIFS, AFP).

It's worth noting that Synology devices themselves can run a number of useful software packages (and many models can run Docker containers), including Plex. However, I elect not to run Plex on my Synology as it's cheaper (and more flexible) to offload transcoding to Plex running on an external system, rather than purchasing one of the higher-end Synology models with enough CPU power to handle high-quality transcodes.
posted by BrandonW at 6:22 AM on August 20, 2019 [2 favorites]

Are you looking for a server that everyone can use, or your own day-to-day system?

For a server, I would consider a NAS by Synology (or one of their competitors): these can run a large selection of server-type software for everyone to take advantage of, and most of those packages have a friendly GUI. (ObDisc: I run a Synology that's pretty long in the tooth. I am a Unix sysadmin at my day job, and wanted both the possibility of total control without the obligation of constant tinkering.)

The current Synology units can all run Plex Media Server and can act as a Time Machine target. Just get a four-drive unit, buy some Western Digital 10TB external drives (and rip the bare HDs out of their cases: search the web for "shuck 10TB WD red") and have two pair..

For your own daily driver, it sounds like a Mac would be your best choice. The Mac Pros are pretty pricey, and the Minis are fine for ordinary use.
posted by wenestvedt at 6:25 AM on August 20, 2019 [1 favorite]

Response by poster: I already have a Synology, though just a two-bay option that’s running as a file server. It doesn’t have my media files on it, but it’s also one of the older models with a wimpier processor that wasn’t intended as a plex server.
posted by Admiral Haddock at 6:29 AM on August 20, 2019 [1 favorite]

Have you looked at running some variant of Linux on the Mac Pro? I've been able to coax additional life out of some of my Macs by switching them to Linux, after Apple drops support for the OS -- heck, my '06 MacBook (a 32-bit machine) runs the latest version of Linux Mint.

If you play your cards right, you might be able to squeeze a little more time out of your Mac Pro, maybe until Apple updates the minis again -- of course, we have no idea when that would be.
posted by vitout at 7:01 AM on August 20, 2019 [1 favorite]

About a year ago I went from using an old 2009 Core 2 Duo Mini as a Plex server to a QNAP TS-473 and have been super happy with it so far. However: There's a premium there, too, for the "managed" aspect. Treating it as a normal Linux box has its quirks and annoyances.

Depending on your simultaneous transcoding needs I think you could definitely get by with a Mini instead.
posted by supercres at 8:46 AM on August 20, 2019

When you say PC are you imagining Windows or Linux? I switched from a Mini to Linux running on a small form factor PC (an Intel NUC) and am quite happy. Mostly because I much prefer Linux to MacOS. If you're running Windows the calculation is a little different.

Either way you'll be surprised that the "Apple premium" is lower than you thought. The 2018 Mac Mini refresh was not bad, although before then things had gotten dire. One challenge you'll find is buying a small PC to use as your server. Intel NUCs are designed for some minor assembly required. You can get fully build SFF PCs but they come at a premium.
posted by Nelson at 9:24 AM on August 20, 2019 [1 favorite]

Marco Arment uses the 2018 Mac mini for your use case. You might find his review helpful.
posted by caek at 12:21 PM on August 20, 2019 [2 favorites]

Hi, Apple user since the Apple ][+ and owner of a (struggling-to-hang-on) independent Apple reseller, one of America's oldest. Thus, this may make me biased . . . against Apple, because nothing makes you sour on Apple faster than doing business with them on a regular basis.

Anyway, I mention that to establish that my answer is coming with geek bona-fides attached; I've historically been a Windows hater (as all good Apple fans who stuck with them in the '90s should be), but have grown out of that (and hey, the world has changed) and can see the many strong arguments for Windows 10, Surface, etc. I've also run my share of Linux and FreePBX boxes over the years, some for fun, some for work.

For the longest time, I was a huge booster of OS X Server (now known as macOS Server, to the extent that it still exists), but as Apple killed off the Xserve and progressively weakened Server, I realized that if Apple doesn't give a crap, why should I?

I put in a QNAP NAS a couple of years ago kind of as an afterthought, just something to try out for fun. But goddamn if it isn't a wonderful solution for damn near anything I throw at it. It's a wonderful Plex server, but it also does amazing work as the whole house's Time Machine backup source (including occasional visits from my parents and sister; their backups just "catch up" whenever they're in town). I think that once Apple killed Server and the Time Capsule devices, they stopped trying to make Time Machine so hostile to non-Apple kit.

Plus, if you look at the software library available for these NAS devices (they have their own App Stores), hell, there really isn't anything you can't do with these little boxes.

Everything is browser-driven (though you can SSH in and poke around the modified Linux environment if you want), and if you RAID it, it's damn near indestructible.

Disclaimer: I mention QNAP here, and they certainly do rock, but I've heard fantastic things about Synology and other brands as well.

It's a brave new world, and you don't need to be tied to Everything Apple anymore. And I'm loving it.
posted by CommonSense at 4:55 PM on August 20, 2019

Just a small point: don't run that Mac Pro as a server if you can help it - that thing is not the most awful power gobbler you can find, but it's probably gobbles north of 100w at idle (mine is dual processor with a lot of RAM, and it sits north of 140W). If you've got the money a QNAP or Synology NAS box with suitable processor would do. If you've got the patience and money, a Mac Mini would do. My preferred answer would be a Dell r620 8 bay with a single e5-2630l v2 chip, 2-4 sticks of ddr3l ram, and sufficient shucked 5tb disks (a r720 with 3.5" disks is an option, but liable to be substantially more power hungry) from Amazon or Costco running Linux.
posted by wotsac at 8:47 PM on August 20, 2019

The 2018 mac mini once again shows apple's utter ripoff disdain for power users by soldering down the storage. No replaceable HD! You can't even claim "space" as an excuse for this.

Apple is no longer a computing company. they are a media company who rents you shit and breaks stuff on a frequent basis and requires you to update on their schedule.
posted by lalochezia at 7:17 AM on August 21, 2019

« Older "Mantequilla" in New Zealand?   |   Best hot-weather dashcam Newer »
This thread is closed to new comments.