Pros and Cons of Using a Mac Mini as a Lion Server

By John Rizzo

A Mac mini might be all the server (or servers) you need to run Lion. For a network or workgroup of about 5 to 15 client computers, a single Mac mini can handle file sharing, e-mail, web services, iCal Server, DNS (domain name server), and Open Directory with Kerberos authentication. For any one of these services, a recent mini model is good for 200 users, assuming access to appropriate storage.

Using Mac minis to run Lion Server has several advantages:

  • Mac minis are cheap. You can buy three or four for the price of a basic Mac Pro. The cost is low enough that a new mini might be worth springing for rather than using an older and slower Mac. If you find you’re later adding users to your network and outgrowing your Mac mini, you can add more minis for a small investment.

  • Mac minis are small. At just 1.4 inches high, you can easily mount a Mac mini on a wall or under a desk with some of the brackets made for that purpose or of your own design. You can even rack-mount Mac minis as you would other server hardware. The MX4 Rack Tray from Macessity ($60) holds four Mac minis and fits into a standard equipment rack.

  • Mac minis are quiet and energy efficient. Mac minis are very quiet, able to coexist nicely in a school library or office. They don’t use a lot of power or generate a lot of heat, so you won’t need to use a lot of energy for cooling.

    This tray holds four Mac minis in a standard network equipment rack.
    This tray holds four Mac minis in a standard network equipment rack.

Using Mac minis to run Lion Server has disadvantages as well:

  • Slower processor than other Macs: The Mac mini processor is the slowest of the four Mac models you’d consider for a server, which limits its uses. Current (and recent) models meet the 64-bit requirement of Lion Server, but earlier Mac mini models might not. Check your mini’s About This Mac window.

  • Only one Ethernet port: The Apple USB Ethernet Adapter fixes this issue, though it is slower. If multiple fast Ethernet ports are a necessity, get a Mac Pro.

  • Inconvenient drive replacement: Although the newer minis make adding RAM easy, replacing a drive is still a complicated affair. The best choice is to buy the server (dual-drive) version of the mini with the largest drives Apple offers.

Contrary to popular belief, the Mac mini is upgradeable. After you get into the box, you can replace the drive with a bigger, faster drive.