Server upgrade

NSLU2 and external harddisk
Linksys NLSU2 and external hard disk

We’ve been using a Linksys NLSU2 server to connect a couple of external disk drives to our network so that we can make backups to the hard disks and also run mt-daapd to broadcast our iTunes library of music by WLAN to the lounge. The NLSU2 runs an underclocked Intel processer, whose speed can be doubled to the orginal design speed (266 MHz) by removing a resistor, which we had done. The NSLU2 is great value for money. You can buy them new for around 90 Euro and because they run Linux, there is a huge range of software that can be run on them. However, even un-underclocked, it is a little sluggish: the bottleneck on backups is not the network connection or the USB interface to the hard disks, but the processor; and when using it as a music server, the response time to deliver a list of artists or albums is a little slow.

So last week I decided to find a used Mac mini on eBay and ended up buying a 7 month-old 1.25 GHz G4 Mac mini with 1 GB memory for 361 Euro:

Mac mini installed in the office
Mac mini and USB hard disk

We’re running it “headless” (without a screen, keyboard or mouse attached), which is a snap using OSXvnc installed on the Mac mini and Chicken of the VNC on our Macs (both products are free). VNC allows you to log on to the remote computer from your usual desktop machine and run it using the screen, mouse and keyboard of the desktop PC to control it. I believe that OSXvnc is not actually required on the server, as the Apple Remote Desktop server software, which is part of OS X, also supports VNC clients, but I’d already set up OSXvnc before I found out.

Apart from installing VNC, the only other steps required to set up a headless OS X server are to change the energy saver control panel settings so that it doesn’t go to sleep. And I have set the disks to spin down if they aren’t accessed for 30 minutes – something you can’t do on the NSLU2 and which is probably better for the drives, since especially the 2.5″ laptop drive in the Mac mini isn’t designed for 24/7 running.

So far we’re very pleased with the Mac mini – it’s totally silent, since managing the disks never generates enough load that the internal fan comes on, and the disk response times are much snappier – running a backup to the server disks using Retrospect was running at about 130 MB/min on the NSLU2 and runs at around 225 MB/min via the Mac mini. Another advantage is that we no longer need to be careful when naming files, not to use characters which are OK for OS X, but which Linux doesn’t like (We also use Synchronize! X Plus to replicate data from our working directories to the networked disks).

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