Mac mini with Lion Server ideal for SOHO and SMB
The Mac mini server is not a big enterprise server. It's targeted at the small office/home office (SOHO) market and small and medium businesses (SMB). As such, it does not have redundant power supplies, hot-swappable components, and other features found in enterprise servers. (Then again, for the same price as Apple's discontinued Xserve enterprise server with the proper specifications, you can buy several Mac mini servers to get redundancy. Apple does offer a Mac Pro with Lion Server if you want the heavy-duty hardware.)
Apple upgraded the Mac mini server's processor to an 2GHz Intel quad-core Core i7, which is a major upgrade in CPU power from the 2.66GHz Intel Core 2 Duo in the 2010 model. Apple also increased the overall memory bandwidth; the Mac mini server uses 1333MHz DDR3 RAM, an improvement on the 1066MHz DDR3 RAM in the 2010 model. The new processor and faster system bus add up to a box that can handle rather serious data-transfer speeds when configured properly.
I tested the $999 standard configuration model of the Mac mini server with 4GB of RAM and a pair of 7200-rpm 500GB hard drives. Let's compare this unit to a build-to-order (BTO) 2011 Mac mini with Lion Server equipped with 8GB of RAM and a pair of 256GB solid-state drives (SSDs) for $2199. In my limited testing, I performed file transfers of a 2.4GB disk image over a gigabit ethernet network, using a 17-inch 2.2GHz Core i7 MacBook Pro with a 5400-rpm hard drive.
The network results aren't a surprise, since all tests are done on the same network. It's easy to see that network bandwidth is more of a limit on a Mac mini server than internal memory/bus bandwidth or the storage devices.
The BTO Mac mini server's internal transfer speed shows a significant jump in performance--almost double--for just over twice the cost of the standard configuration model. Reboots during updates happened so fast that at first I wasn't sure they'd actually happened. Just for fun, I started pinging the server, and then I rebooted it. At most, I'd drop two packets. SSDs are fast but not cheap, and many folks may not want to pay the $1000 for them, though the performance increase is large enough to make the overall value pretty darned good.
The other major change with the Mac mini server is the new Thunderbolt port that replaces the Mini DisplayPort. (The Mac mini still has a FireWire 800 port, four USB 2.0 ports, an HDMI port, and an SDXC slot.) Not only is Thunderbolt much faster than FireWire 800, it's an adaptable bus, even outside of using it for a display. For example, you can use a SANLink Thunderbolt to Fibre Channel adapter from Promise, and plug the Mac mini server into a Fibre Channel network that you'd use for, say, Xsan and StorNext, or to use the Mac mini server with existing Fibre Channel storage. So now, you can have a Mac mini server hooked up to high-speed storage either directly through Thunderbolt or through a Thunderbolt adapter like the SANLink, and still have the gigabit ethernet port free, which means that server and storage communication isn't affected by other network traffic. It's a nice step in the right direction.
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