Best Mac Mini for cheapest server

Discussion in 'Mac mini' started by Muldert, Aug 14, 2014.

  1. Muldert macrumors member

    Apr 1, 2012
    As a photo- and videographer I need a lot of backup. I currently have a 2tb Time Capsule which works well for computer back-ups, but not so well for storage.

    I decided to build a server, as absolutely cheap as possible. I have drives already; heres my plan: i want a Mac Mini, store it in a closet upstairs and connect 4 self-powered drives to it. With software I want to make a RAID-5 or 1. There is no ethernet, only wifi. And I want to be able to acces the Mini via screen sharing.

    What is the minimum of Mac Mini I need, the cheapest option? Are there things Im overlooking?
  2. boast macrumors 65816


    Nov 12, 2007
    Phoenix, USA
    I think going with the cheapest mac mini 2011. But then using a thunderbolt exclosure for the raid since the 2011 only had usb 2.0. But i dont see any cheap 2011 mac minis, they seem to cost the same as a brand new mac mini on sale.
  3. rwong48 macrumors newbie

    Aug 14, 2014
    San Jose, CA
    We're using the cheapest Late 2012 mini in our office with 2x4TB USB 3.0 drives in RAID 1 (OS X software version, of course). Dual-core is fast enough, but 4GB RAM is not, so we upgraded it to 2x8GB RAM.

    I strongly recommend Ethernet, however, especially for photo/video purposes..
  4. Muldert thread starter macrumors member

    Apr 1, 2012
    No thunderbolt is way overkill for me. USB 2 would suffice just fine - wifi on the first floor is slower than that anyway.
  5. Truthfulie macrumors regular

    Dec 18, 2013
    I feel like spending your money on Mac Mini isn't ideal if your main purpose is to build an affordable back up file server.Not only that, HFS+ doesn't offer data protection from other file systems used in server OS. My recommendation is to build a FreeNAS server and use ZFS so your archive is protected from corruption. If you don't plan to do any media streaming or transcoding, you won't need a fancy CPU. Spend your money on ECC RAMs and NAS grade HDDs.
  6. dimme macrumors 65816

    Feb 14, 2007
    SF, CA
    I am running a 2009 mini server for photo backup and lightroom and USB 2 is killing me. I really want to upgrade to USB 3
  7. Muldert thread starter macrumors member

    Apr 1, 2012
    Thank you for your insight. I can get a (very) old desktop for free. I believe it still has IDE instead of SATA internally, but it does have USB 2.0 Would such an old pc suffice for these needs?

    What effect do these things have on server experience:
    1. CPU
    2. GPU
    3. RAM
    4. USB 3.0 - considering I don't use ethernet, do I need this?
  8. Truthfulie macrumors regular

    Dec 18, 2013
    CPU doesn't do much from file server. GPU also is irrelevant since you won't be hooking up a monitor to it. RAM does have some impact if you are using file system such as ZFS. Ideally, you want to have your HDDs connected with SATA not anything external. How is your budget and how big of storage do you need? Building an FreeNAS system on a budget isn't hard at all.
  9. blanka macrumors 68000

    Jul 30, 2012
    Skip mac: get a ASROCK Q1900 board. It is passive (total silent), it is as fast as a core2duo 3Ghz (beating 2010 and earlier minis), it only costs 70 bucks, and it has 2x SATA 300 and 2x SATA 600, so you could run 2xSSD in raid 0 together with 2x4TB for storage for example.
    I asume you run small 2.5 inch USB powered drives now. With this, you can run regular 3,5 inch drives directly powered by and inside the case. Much cleaner and reliable.

    Run it on Linux, Debian for example. There is also nice bundle packages like
    Oh, and REALLY REALLY TRY TO WIRE THE PLACE. With video's Gigabit Ethernet TOTALLY KILLS wifi. Full duplex with jumbo frames... geeze... I can pump a 10GB file over in little over 2 minutes.
  10. Neodym macrumors 68000


    Jul 5, 2002
    Setting up your own server (like FreeNAS) is complex and requires time and detail knowledge. Furthermore you'll need quite some CPU power and especially Ram, so an old, IDE-based PC may not be sufficient.

    Going with a Mac mini is much simpler, but financially overkill in this situation (unless you want to do significantly more than simply store large amounts of data). If you prefer the mini approach nevertheless, a RAID-1 would not help with four drives, as you would have 4 identical drives, thus getting only 25% of the theoretical capacity.

    You could take 2 drives each, RAID them together in RAID-1 and then take both packages and RAID them in a RAID-0 (that's a RAID-10 setup). Still only 50% of the capacity.

    Doing a RAID-5 in software was not feasible for a long time, due to the immense parity calculations that come with it - even if OSX would support it (which I'm not sure about), the mini would probably be overtaxed with it.

    Thus I'd recommend a standard NAS box. It is basically plug-and-play, cheaper, consumes less power and produces less clutter (each external drive on a Mac mini would have its own power cable and plug).

    Possible candidates for your scenario would be e.g. the Synology 213air with integrated WLAN (only 2 drives, though, so max. 12TB capacity) or a 4-bay Synology DS4xx with external WLAN-to-ethernet adapter (e.g. Apple's Airport express or the last-gen Airport Extreme, which is currently available cheaper than the Express).

    Whatever you go for - don't forget to factor in the need for a proper backup strategy (2nd box, Cloud backup etc.), as a RAID setup alone is usually not considered sufficient. It costs more than going without it, but losing all your data may be priceless...
  11. Truthfulie macrumors regular

    Dec 18, 2013
    Setting up a server may take time and effort at first (though something like FreeNAS is fairly simple), but I think it is more rewarding and costs effective in the long run. Most pre-built NAS boxes get rather pricy as the capacity increase and some low end models simply cannot expand with additional unit either.

    If OP wants RAID5, he will need at least four bays box since there are no three bay boxes. Synology with four bays will run about three to four hundred dollars, diskless. It will cost another four to five hundred to fill it, totaling eight to nine hundred. With that money, you can build a system that large drive cage. Not only that he can freely any parts of the system as his needs change over time. Not to mention building one's own will yield better price to performance ratio, ending up with higher powered machine for the same price.

    I do agree, you do need to think about the secondary back up if you value your data. Consider cloud solution and offsite (simply offsite if you aren't comfortable with cloud for privacy reasons).
  12. Neodym macrumors 68000


    Jul 5, 2002
    Note sure about that. I've been tinkering with computers for decades now and I don't find it rewarding (anymore) to fiddle around with low-level stuff. Did this in the past and had fun doing it as a hobby, but by now I'd consider it a waste of my rare spare time to setup a tool that I could purchase pre-built. One of the reasons why I considered building myself a FreeNAS, but did away with the idea pretty quickly.

    Even more so, if you're making money off using computer hardware (OP sounds to be a professional photo-/videographer) your time is far too expensive to invest it into financially "unproductive" work like setting up some computer/FreeNAS system.

    Don't get me wrong - if you're rewarded by this kind of work that's great! It's just not for everyone.

    Umm - not sure if I can follow you on the last sentence. But the cost for the drives is the same for both a NAS box and a FreeNAS approach, so they're out of the equation.

    Thus it's

    • three to four hundred dollars for a plug-and-play NAS box
    • vs. two to three hundred (optimistically calculated, probably rather four hundred as well) for a FreeNAS-suitable hardware _plus_ the time to understand it, gather the components, put it together, set it up, test and maintain it
    • (vs. four to five hundred dollars for a Mac mini plus higher costs for external drives vs. the internal ones for a NAS box).
    And I didn't even factor in the higher electricity cost for a universal-PC-based FreeNAS vs a dedicated NAS box, both running 24/7.

    Granted - the lower range boxes have no expandability, but you can put up to 12TB into a 2-bay-box like the 213air already. With e.g. the 2-bay Synology 713 you can later on add an expansion box with another 5 bays. Or you simply purchase another "small" box, plug it in and are ready to go.

    And if you want to go _really_ big you can go for the Synology 15xx series (the even bigger 18xx and 24xx series are overkill for SoHo use), which allows for two expansion boxes, providing a total of 15 bays - that's up to 90TB of storage... :eek: I'm not aware of any PC housing coming even close to offering that many bays...

    Definitely faster and less hassle compared to changing and adjusting a complex PC-based NAS imho (maybe I'm just not techie enough, anymore - but I guess so is the OP).

    That is only if you don't factor in the time you need to work yourself into the necessary knowledge levels and the time required until all is configured, set up and running.
  13. Truthfulie macrumors regular

    Dec 18, 2013
    All valid points on loosing time and effort, but since OP specifically did ask for low budget option, I figured he is more concerned with bang for the buck than connivence and ease of use.

    What I meant about the cost was mainly based on the fact that pre-built NAS solutions usually have low powered components inside, thus more costly when compared to what you get when you build it yourself.

    As for the power consumption, I suppose it really depend on where you live. If you live in a place where electric bills are rather expensive, I guess it is a problem. But I find myself, in States, that to be very insignificant addition to my monthly bill. Besides, you can also get ultra low powered parts for DIY solution.
  14. ColdCase macrumors 68030

    Feb 10, 2008
    2TB is not a lot of storage now days.

    You should think about a Time capsule, especially if you are going use the box as TimeMachine storage. TC, AEBS, MacOS servers are approved, others you can make work but there are risks. You can hang USB drives off the TC for extra storage. Its wireless and designed for this purpose. The USB drives will have slow access... but you sat USB2 is good enough anyway. You can sometimes find them refurbed.

    If all you want is storage, then a simple NAS product is your best bet. A server makes more sense when you also need a media server, other services, or want to use it as a time machine backup repository and a Time capsule is not satisfactory. Or if you want some expansion/scalability without starting from scratch. You can also buy 4TB network drives currently, these are cheap and act like a NAS. I think some of them are wireless, otherwise you can use power line adapter to get signal from your router to the drives.

    Why then RAID5, or any RAID for that matter? One would use RAID5 for performance but you say USB2 is good enough? Thats not really consistent. Recovering from a failed 2-4TB USB drive in a RAID5 array is slow in best cases, would probably take years via separate USB2 drives :).

    Think about buying two network drives or a low end two bay Synology NA or a TC. If necessary, use a powerline adapter to get ethernet from your router to the NAS box. If using a NAS or TC, hang a USB drive or two off of it.

    If you go the mini route, which is a good one, think seriously about a TB enclosure for performance and reliability. You will be much more satisfied. Quality empty 4bay TB enclosures are selling for $430 now days.

    I was where you were a couple years ago, thinking all I wanted was a NAS type box. I eventually ended up with a mini server as the NAS box couldn't cut it. I tinkered around with USB drives for awhile but found TB to be so much better. (I still use some USB for backup... well I also have some FW drives that still work)

    Building a NAS from scratch can be fun, but time is money. Nothing wrong with choosing an alternative that just works out of the box.
  15. WilliamG macrumors G3

    Mar 29, 2008
    Why do you say "of course" in regards to your RAID 1 software being Apple's? I highly, HIGHLY recommend SoftRAID if you haven't used it. It's in another league from the very, VERY barebones OS X RAID software which doesn't give you any indication of RAID failures like SoftRAID does. Of course you have to pay for it, but when it comes to data, you can't be too safe.
  16. mcnallym macrumors 6502a

    Oct 28, 2008
    I'd second buying a Synlogy NAS box for this. You can use them with Time Machine from your Mac and they are designed for sitting there doing file transfer all day long.

    Simply manage it via the DSM software and a lot less hassle then spending time doing the building and configuring and maintaining a server yourself.
  17. ChrisA macrumors G4

    Jan 5, 2006
    Redondo Beach, California
    If the goal is a low cost file server then why use a Mac Mini? It is a really bad option for a physical point of view also with all those external drives.

    If you must build out your own server
    By a PC chassis with enough drive bays and other parts and run FreeNAS
    It will perform better, it is MUCH more reliable and and has more features.
    FeeNAS has features and performance enough to run a medium size office but might be overkill for home use unless you have several computers to backup and want unlimited expansion ability.

    That said, Synology makes exactly what you need for a good price and you don't have to build it.

    I can't see any reason at all to buy a new Mini for use as a file server. It's expensive, has ZERO room for internal stooge and performance is not as good as other options.
  18. rwong48 macrumors newbie

    Aug 14, 2014
    San Jose, CA
    Sorry I'm not too experienced with OS X (I'm a Windows+Linux guy) and had to set up something really simple for our office, which seemed to fit what OP was asking for.

    I wasn't even aware of alternative RAIDs for OS X, so thanks for that!

    Seems like (to no surprise) the true answer lies in storage solutions that don't use a Mac mini. I'm personally using Windows 8 with Storage Spaces on a HP ProLiant G7 N54L, although I can't say that that works for OP..
  19. WilliamG macrumors G3

    Mar 29, 2008

    There's nothing wrong with using a Mac mini as a start point for this sort of thing. :)

    RAID is a tricky one. There are pros and cons to software vs hardware, but for the average user I'd argue that software RAID is a much safer option. The problem with hardware RAID is exactly that - it's hardware. If the hardware craps out you've lost everything until you can get the same hardware again, which can be really expensive. The benefit of software is that it's "malleable," so upgrades and fixes come more frequently then e.g. buying some enclosure that does it all.

    OWC actually now sells an enclosure with software RAID (SoftRAID 5), which is pretty neat.

    Up until this point, I had been using Western Digital Studio RAID enclosures (which up until the Thunderbolt versions had been hardware RAID), but when I switched to larger disks, I went with SoftRAID 5. Not saying it's cheap at $129, but Apple's software RAID is really, really not very good, and hasn't been updated in over 5 years now. SoftRAID 5 actually just added RAID 0+1 and RAID 5, which really pushed me over the edge to buy it.

    Gaaaa, I sound like a SoftRAID shill now. :D

    Whatever you use, remember that RAID is NOT a substitute for good backups. Make sure you have an actual backup somewhere else.
  20. pxbr macrumors member

    Oct 31, 2012
  21. Ray2 macrumors 6502a

    Jul 8, 2014
    Are you looking for a project or a fast and reliable storage solution? 4 bus driven usb2 drives don't give me a warm feeling. Wifi, in a closet upstairs, may be incredibly slow if you plan to work in some of those files. Does not sound like your storage needs are high, what's wrong with a cable to your workstation? The mini is just another source of maintenance.

    As a matter of record, I have a mini on the far side of my house, 11 tb of storage, connected via gigabit ethernet. I also have fw800 drives connected to my workstation where I do photography and video. The difference between accessing files on the mini over the network and the connected drives is like night and day. Assuming the mini is on 24/7 and the drives are not asleep when you need to access them.
  22. alphaod macrumors Core


    Feb 9, 2008
    Spend like $300 and build a cheaper server (without drives). Then invest in quality drives and a good RAID controller.

    I spent about $300 for an Core i3 processor, 4GB of RAM and a cheap 32GB SSD for booting.

    For my drives I have seven 2TB WD RE4 drives with an Areca ARC-1880ix controller with battery backup in RAID 6.

    Yes basically I spent $300 on the computer part and like $2000 in hard drives and controller.

    You can mix and match your HDD and controller choices, but a Mac mini isn't the way to go. The initial cost is very high and you don't even need most of the functionality of the Mac mini.

    That said I do use a Mac mini as a HTPC and in this regard it works very well.

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