Faster Websites at Lower Cost, With a Mac Mini Server

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If you’re running a dedicated server, and it’s older than two or three years, you owe it to yourself to take a look at what’s been happening in the hosting landscape lately. You might be surprised to find just how much a Mac Mini server can do for you, and how it compares in terms of price and performance.

On Price vs. Performance, Mac Mini Wins Hands-Down

When I did some checking recently on costs for traditional dedicated servers, I was astonished to discover that virtually any change to something newer than the 8-core Xeon dedicated server I had been using for the last few years was going to increase my hosting costs significantly. And any major bumps up in capability — say, to a solid state drive or more RAM — would result in nearly doubling my hosting costs. By contrast, I could move from the managed WHM/cPanel server to a self-managed Mac Mini server with several times more RAM, several times more processing power, several times more hard drive space, plus a solid state drive…all for about the same outlay for the first year. By purchasing the machine outright in that first year (rather than perpetually renting it and paying cPanel license fees each month) and housing it in a colocation facility, I could drop the direct costs of running the server by about two-thirds for each subsequent year.

It seemed too good to be true, so I started by renting a Mac Mini server for a few days to get some hands-on experience with the environment and to do some benchmarking. I was not disappointed: the server turned out to be every bit as good as it seemed on paper.

So the Mac Mini winds up costing around the same for the first year, much much less in the second and subsequent years, and in terms of performance it runs rings around the 8-core Xeon we were running before. What’s not to like?

What About Support?

Interestingly, despite moving from a managed hosting service to a self-managed server, I’ve also found — so far, anyway — that my support costs are drastically lower. How could that possibly be? My former hosting company, once known for ‘heroic’ support, seems to have been on a nearly monotonic downtrend during my almost 7 years with them (through several different hosting plans) . I don’t mean in terms of company growth; on the contrary, they’re growing like gangbusters. Rather, I mean in terms of non-trivial technical support — the sort of stuff that requires actually doing something as a system administrator — provided per unit of time spent liaising. Per unit of my own time spent engaging with them, I was seeing fewer and fewer results and experiencing more and more stress and frustration. That metric of results per unit of my time has been radically reset by moving away from a “fully managed” service.

How Can Any of This Be True? Isn’t Hosting Getting Cheaper?

From what I can tell, cheap web hosting continues to get cheaper, but mid-level-ish hosting on a dedicated server — the kind you might be using if you’re running your entire business online, handling enough traffic to earn a living, perhaps running dozens or scores of different sites — is actually getting more expensive. Or to put this a different way, if you’re running a site where you can get by with cheap shared hosting, you are probably benefitting fully from the progress of technology and Moore’s Law; your costs for delivering a basic, lowish traffic site or two are likely to be gradually decreasing over time. But if you need something with a bit more oomph, and if server- and configuration-dependent characteristics that directly affect the user experience, like time to first byte, really matter to you and your business, then continuously improving your website delivery just enough to keep up with what your competitors are doing is actually getting more expensive with each passing year.

As far as I can tell, this is despite the fact that hosting companies have continued to automate more and more of their operations and have continued to push cloud-based services — which of course enable hosting companies to wring more out of a given unit of computing power — with increasing enthusiasm. (It is also despite what I alluded to above, an apparently eroding commitment to providing other than trivial technical support.)

It’s About Hardware and Software

The price/performance comparison which led me to the Mac Mini as a server was based on both hardware and software. It’s the combination of the two that can make the Mac Mini running OS X Server a great option for a particular subset of people — especially people who are interested in simplifying the whole way they go about delivering websites (but who are nonetheless willing to learn a few new things and get their hands dirty from time to time) and whose principal focus is on the end users’ experience of a high-performance website.

It’s probably not well suited for people who enjoy navigating through a full WHM-style web-based GUI that gives direct access to every switch that can be tweaked on a server, who understand the full ramifications of each of those potential tweaks, and who like trying out those tweaks. There are many many people who fall into that category — hobbyists and professionals alike — and is not for them. It also won’t be suitable for those who have to have Nginx, since runs Apache. (Of course, all kinds of alternative software arrangements will work just fine on a Mini, including non-Mac OS X operating systems, and this may unlock even more of the performance potential of the machine. But my concern here is with the qualities of the overall package and the resulting performance in return for effort.)

Ironically, given that has been so widely panned as a “dumbed down” shadow of the former full Mac OS X Server, it is actually the simplicity of the Apple platform that makes it not too painful at all to change from a fully managed WHM/cPanel server to a Mac Mini server you manage yourself. Not only do you get the streamlined OS X Server, but you also get all that OS X itself has to offer — including hourly incremental backups via Time Machine and a mature native GUI whenever you might want it.

In making the move, I’ve been amazed at how much old code I’ve been able to throw out and stop maintaining just by embracing simplicity and doing things a little differently. I’ve been equally amazed at how much new functionality I’ve been able to add with relatively little effort. Yes, I am now doing far more with far less code and far less maintenance. Maybe I’ve just been in a mental rut from the last decade of WHM, not taking time to think about new ways of doing things — who knows? In any case, if you are willing to re-think how you do a few things, and if you specifically do want the opportunity to do some house cleaning and even throw out some of your existing code base where it’s no longer needed, the minimalist OS X Server could be just the ticket.

(And as for living without WHM and its immediate access to every knob, switch and accidental kill button ever baked into Linux… In my experience, a web-based GUI like WHM is a mess of high priority and frequently used functions mixed together with low priority and even downright dangerous ones; using it is like trying to heat your dinner in a microwave oven that includes a button to blow up your garage right next to the button to heat your food. Of course you can do it, but every step of the way design peculiarities will be staring back at you. Remember that you, the webmaster or server administrator, are not the target customer for a product like WHM/cPanel. No, you are not the customer at all. Hosting companies are the customer. What, you’ve never wondered why integrated billing and perfectly siloed multiple account administration functions are so mature on WHM? What matters for a commercial product like WHM/cPanel is not whether your life is being made easier as the server user, but whether hosting companies can be persuaded to roll it out. One way of doing that is to throw in absolutely everything that could possibly be thrown in. That makes for great charts differentiating your hosting company’s various offerings, and it makes it easy to tick the box whenever a potential customer — of the hosting company — asks “if I sign up with you, will I be able to tweak setting ABC?”)

On the hardware side of things, nobody will deny that the Mac Mini lacks a few things: there’s no industrial-strength power supply or hot-swappable drive bays, for example, and cheaper consumer-grade hard drives can be expected to fail sooner than server-grade drives. These are important factors — and if I personally wind up being bitten by a failed power supply or similar problem, I won’t be a happy bunny — but it’s important to keep these factors in perspective. It’s all part of a much bigger and more complicated picture.

For example, compared to normal rack-mounted servers the Mac Mini is both physically small and in a class of its own in terms of energy consumption; both translate directly into lower ongoing operating costs for you and the colocation facility housing it. Its consumer-grade components also make it significantly cheaper to purchase, other things being equal, as does the slower 5400-RPM hard drive in the 2012 iteration.

(Before you laugh about that hard drive, don’t forget that when it comes to raw performance, for a single-platter drive of a given diameter, the difference in areal density between a higher-capacity and a lower-capacity drive matters more than the difference in rotation speed for all but relatively closely-matched capacities. In other words, you can boost performance either by increasing the density of information on the platter or by spinning the platter more rapidly; other things being equal, a 33% improvement in rotational speed can be swamped by a bigger multiplier on density. That’s why the performance of, say, a cheap 1 TB 5400-RPM drive in a Mini can far exceed that of, say, a 250 GB 7200-RPM drive more commonly found in a traditional server. For best performance, of course, you’d want to relegate spinning drives to the role of backup anyway.)

It also includes a few niceties that are less common on typical rack-mounted servers, such as USB 3.0 ports positioned with enough space left over on a rack to plug in a high-capacity, high-speed flash drive. Presto: a fast bootable solid state backup that can be unplugged and used to start up a whole new server with your entire environment in place in a matter of seconds.

The upshot is that if you just want to get on with delivering high-performance websites — if you want access to some very basic configuration options via GUI, with a great deal of additional flexibility which you can tap into at the command line, rather than having absolutely everything squeezed into one GUI, and if you can live without some of the standard fare of server hardware — you may find that a Mac Mini with OS X Server is not only adequate to the task but actually brings some unique extras to the table.

All material on this site is carefully reviewed, but its accuracy cannot be guaranteed, and some suggestions offered here might just be silly ideas. For best results, please do your own checking and verifying. This specific article was last reviewed or updated by Greg on .

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