Apple's Mac Mini server 'ideal' for the small office

It's inexpensive and easy to set up and use

When Apple announced the server edition of its popular Mac Mini late in October, I was excited that the company was finally offering a low-cost small-business server at a terrific price point ($999) for both the hardware and an unlimited license of Mac OS X Snow Leopard Server.

I'm a big fan of Apple's server platform. Mac OS X Server is based around open standards and includes a range of enterprise-grade technologies that offer a host of powerful and flexible features: Open Directory (a scalable directory service based around OpenLDAP and Kerberos); established Internet hosting platforms like Apache, BIND for DNS hosting and Dovecot-based mail service; collaboration tools based on open standards like CalDAV and CardDAV; a range of deployment and client management tools; and powerful multiplatform file and print services. Best of all, it makes these features easily available to both experienced administrators, novices who have never set up a server before and everyone in between.

For small businesses with limited -- or, in some cases, no -- IT staff, having a flexible and robust server platform is important. So is easy setup, management and backup. I've talked previously about the two most recent iterations of Mac OS X Server (Leopard Server and Snow Leopard Server), which offer simplified management through an administration tool -- Server Preferences -- as well as Mac OS X Server's more robust GUI management utilities and various command-line tools.

Server Preferences, which is patterned after Mac OS X's System Preferences, combines the core functions of a typical small business or workgroup server in one place, whether it's file or printer sharing, e-mail and Web site hosting, server and client backup management, client autoconfiguration, VPN access or hosting Apple's suite of collaborative tools (including shared calendaring, shared contacts, and Apple's wiki and blog services). It's designed to be intuitive enough for any Mac user to manage.

The types of companies where Server Preferences and its simplified approach to administration shine -- small offices or workgroups with a limited number of workstations and users -- are exactly the market Apple has targeted with the Mac Mini server. They're the kind of shops where an Xserve or a Mac Pro functioning as server hardware would be complete overkill, both in terms of unused potential and cost.

Server preferences pane
Server Preferences combines the core functions of a typical small business or workgroup server in one place.

Over the past several years, I've worked with many of these types of small businesses. In the days before Leopard Server -- the predecessor to Snow Leopard Server -- and Server Preferences, I usually wound up installing a server and being on call for even the most routine tasks, like adding or deleting new users, adjusting access rights to services or file shares, and verifying backups. Once Leopard Server arrived in 2007, my direct involvement dropped, since companies finally had a familiar and easy-to-use means of handling these tasks.

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