The new-form-factor Mac Mini gets its server version, is it better than building a PC server of your own?
The new Mac mini has a cousin - a server version, shorn of the DVD drive but with a second hard disk on the inside of that improbably tiny, but surprisingly heavy, alloy case. This model follows on from the server version of the old form-factor Mac mini.
The obvious question, then as now, is why buy a Mac server when it's so easy and much cheaper to assemble a pile of PC components to do the same job? The mini won't persuade everyone, but it brings a good few features that lend it appeal.
The first is the sheer density of computing power. Around ten of the old Mac minis fitted into the footprint of one 1U server, and the new version makes it even easier to pack them into a tight space: it has no separate power supply brick, nor DVD drive, and it can run sitting flat or on one edge. The included SD slot can take a 32GB card, and is bootable (although Apple would prefer you didn't use that as an everyday system drive - "for emergencies" is how the company put it to us).
You can use the two 500GB internal laptop-type hard drives as a plain pair of disks, or a mirror, or a stripe. Apple claims that lots of users of the preceding model didn't opt for an old-school RAID configuration, but instead used Time Machine to back up the boot disk to the secondary disk.
By rights, a platform such as this - whether you use OS X Server or find a way to put something else on the machine - should help to completely redefine a whole chunk of the market. Look around at the rackmount boxes running in your server room and ask if there's any job they do that wouldn't fit in a Mac mini server. While a 2.66GHz Core 2 Duo is no match for Intel's latest Xeons when it comes to sheer processing muscle, and 4GB of plain DDR3 RAM seems positively miserly, it's more than enough computing power to run services such as wikis, mail servers and web servers for a 25-strong team (depending, as ever, on usage).
The other benefit of the Mac mini is that it runs on about a tenth the watts in a twentieth of the physical space of a conventional rack: we measured 11W in idle and 85W when thrashed. Despite the mains transformer being inside the alloy box, and it being the height of summer, the plume of warmish air emanating from the mini's rear never became distressed. This is in stark contrast to the old Mac mini, which can be readily found in a rack "manually" by the hot squirt of air.
This leads to our only criticism of the new form factor over the old: with several Mac minis sitting on a rack, with its power buttons at the rear, you'll discover the new machine's designer power button is set flush with the case around it. If you do need to work blind in true rackmount or hidden install style, getting leads in or out unseen, then you'll often find yourself hitting the button and putting the machine into sleep mode by default.
Apple's answer to this is to talk about remote control utilities: there's a client install CD bundled with the server - if you have a Mac - and you can use SSH for cross-platform, lights-out operation. For those who need more gigabytes, Apple says you should look at Promise's external RAID array devices, which are re-sold by Apple itself. The Promise SmartStor DS4600 with four 1TB disks adds $1099 to the price, while the four 2TB disks version is $1749.
Like many players in the SATA storage marketplace, Apple is happy to say that you can hook up "a wide range" of USB or FireWire 800 connected devices, but is equally keen to point out that consumer SATA drives can fail. For this reason, Apple is much more comfortable if you stick with drives flashed with Apple firmware, or sold as tested by Apple itself.
There's no update to OS X Server for the new Mac mini - although the minute we plugged in the review unit, it downloaded over 700MB of patches - but it's worth noting the updates from Apple's other products. Apple iOS4 has new extensions that make use of the contact and calendaring services in OS X Server: Apple maintains that the cheapest way to hook up your iPhone users to your corporate data services is to sit an OS X server on the edge of the datacenter. There's also added functionality for managing Airport Base Stations, plus all the standard parts of OS X Server such as user-editable blog sites and wikis out of the box.
To upgrade the Mac mini to the state where businesses should depend on it, though, you'll need to upgrade the warranty. As standard you receive a one-year, return-to-base warranty; for an extra $229, that's upgraded to three years' cover and on-site repair. The price lifts to 1628, and that leads to the Mac mini's biggest problem: it's expensive compared to the entry-level servers on offer from the likes of Dell and HP.