Enticing rumours

Tony Williams
13 November, 2008
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Two rumours currently bouncing about have piqued my interest. The one that interests my credit card company is that AT&T in ths US are considering “tethering” – allowing the iPhone to provide networking via 3G to other computers in its wireless network. It may take a little while for that facility to be available here in Australia but it will happen. I expect my data usage to go up a fair bit when I can attach my MacBook to the ‘net via the iPhone and Optus will charge my credit card for every gigabyte.

The most likely to affect us here in Australia first is that the Mac mini may be getting an update. A lot of people have discounted the Mac mini but if you are looking for a home server then the low price and low footprint of a Mini should make it an excellent choice.

It’s only when you take a close look at the specs that uncertainty settles in — is it the 2.0 GHz maximum speed, the low 2GB of maximum memory or the low 160GB maximum size of the hard drive that stops you from buying one? Perhaps it’s the graphics on the motherboard that grabs a chunk of that RAM rather than having its own. Is it that the mini is the last computer sold by Apple that doesn’t support the higher speed 802.11n wireless spec? Certainly the Gigabit Ethernet (unlike the Apple TV) is fast enough.

There’s a great deal of room to improve this machine. I have a lot of trouble recommending a home server for Mac folks as the mini is close to the right price and small size but for $500 more you can get an iMac with a faster processor, faster wireless, twice the hard disk space and a Firewire 800 port for quicker access to the external drives you’re likely to add to a server for more storage and backup. Of course a Mac Pro or XServe are ideal servers for small to medium business but overkill for home. 

As a result in my home network I have commodity PC running Linux that I use as network storage and web server, to which all the Macs are capable of talking using SMB via Samba. The Mac mini used to run OS X Server, but now even that task has been taken over by a virtual machine on the new iMac. VMWare Fusion has no trouble on my 4Gb iMac running OS X inside a Virtual Machine. One thing I did notice with this setup is that I needed to connect the iMac via Ethernet to the switch; an Airport connection would cause havoc if shared between OS X Server in the VM and the host iMac.

If Apple improve the specs on the mini so that it had more RAM and faster wireless then I could easily advise you to buy one rather than an Airport Extreme base station and a commodity PC to act as the centre of your home network. Frankly, you don’t need OS X Server for a small home network. The only extra facility you might appreciate is a home calendar server — and if you don’t mind Google knowing what you are doing, then its calendar service will do the job well.

By the way, if you do use an Airport Extreme base station or a Mac to create a high speed 802.11n network then just one slower device will drop the entire network back to that standard. What I have done to stop this problem is to have my Extreme create one wireless network and my router create another. The Extreme also acts as a Gigabit Ethernet switch with the commodity PC and my iMac both connected to it; most (if not all) ADSL routers only support 100Mbps Ethernet and 802.11g.

Now all the traffic between my high speed wireless net, my iMac and my home server go through the faster network based on the Extreme base station and only internet traffic and traffic for the slower wireless network (my partner’s Acer laptop and my iPhone) goes through the ADSL router. Streaming video to the Apple TV and music to the Airport Express is much nicer through the higher speed 802.11n.

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