After returning that review iMac 5K to Apple last week, with the expected tinge of sadness, I’ve been living with a second-best configuration, my aging late 2009 iMac. Only it’s been outfitted with an OWC 1TB solid state drive, so it runs a whole lot faster. In fact, the speedier drive makes up for a far amount of the speed advantage of the 5K iMac. Not completely, mind you, but having apps launch almost instantaneously is a huge advantage. SSDs continue to drop in price, and it won’t be long before a critical mass price of $200-250 is reached for the 1TB capacity. When that happens, traditional hard drives will soon thereafter be confined to heftier storage/archival requirements.
And to think I once paid $1,200 for a 100MB drive, but that was 25 years ago. Things have certainly moved in the right direction.
Now on this week’s episode of the The Tech Night Owl LIVE, we featured tech writer/editor Adam Engst, of TidBITS and Take Control Books, who discussed a variety of subjects with Gene. First up was the recent SSD upgrade of my old iMac, which involved a long, annoying installation process that started with plucking the display glass from the chassis with suction cups. This lead to a wider discussion about the difficulty or impossibility of installing upgrades on most Macs, along with the recent complaints about the supposed decline in Apple software quality.
You also heard from Bryan Chaffin, co-founder and co-publisher of The Mac Observer, who offered a pithy response to rumors that Apple is going to soon release a 12-inch MacBook Air with a single peripheral port. He also covered the complaints about serious bugs with OS X Yosemite and iOS 8, and, as our resident watch expert, delivered more of his feelings about the forthcoming Apple Watch.
As regular readers know, I think the complaints about the decline in Apple software quality are somewhat overblown. There have always been problems, but with Apple now in the forefront of tech companies, with a market cap to die for, it’s incumbent on them to straighten things out. So, for example, even though Apple’s iOS 8.0.1 failure wasn’t near as serious as some of the failed patches released by Microsoft, it was bad enough to merit intense press coverage. Even if you compare that broken update to the top 10 buggiest Microsoft patches of the year, it’s not enough.
Apple, you see, has the vertical ecosystem that should “just work.” It has never quite been that way, but Apple is now under more pressure than ever to get things right the very first time. Let’s see how the situation fares going forward, because too many things went wrong in 2014.
On this week’s episode of our other radio show, The Paracast: It’s all about out of the box thinking this week when Gene and Chris present one of our favorite guests, UFO researcher “Radio Misterioso” radio show, who returns to the Paracast to engage in a freewheeling recap of 2014’s top “paranormal” news stories and pontificate toward what may happen in 2015. This episode is being driven by events, where we talk about UFOs, the possibility of disclosure, whether traditional explanations, such as UFOs being spaceships, hold water, new science, Native American legends of sky people, and the impact of all these strange events on our modern culture.
Now Shipping! The Official Paracast T-Shirt! We’ve got swag! We’re taking orders direct from our Official Paracast Store, where you can place your order and pay with a major credit card or PayPal. The shirts come in white, 100% cotton, and feature The Paracast logo on the front. The rear emblem states: “Separating Signal From Noise.” We’ve also added a huge selection of additional special custom-imprinted merchandise for fans of our show.
When I first got online, I didn’t pay much thought to whether the server was a Mac, a PC, or a dedicated Linux server. The main reason was that, in those days, Mac web servers were few and far between, and thus not very cost effective. At a time when I could only manage a few dollars a month to have my site hosted, I looked for hosts who had low prices with the promise of high performance.
I never once considered a Windows server, although they are still widely used. In large part, Linux owns the web. You see, Linux servers are plentiful, cheap, speedy, reliable and not subject to much in the way of malware. They are also predictable, and though management isn’t always as easy as I’d like, my sites rarely go offline.
Now some manage web services with the command line, just as you can do in OS X. While I have some level of command line experience, I am mostly a dabbler in such things. Of course, I’m quite good at copying and pasting an appropriate command, and that largely keeps me out of trouble. For day-to-day use on my Linux servers, I mostly use cPanel, which is published by a Houston-based company and powers sites run by some of the largest — and smallest — web hosts. It has a fairly decent graphical interface, and if you stay in your comfort zone, you can manage your sites without much difficulty.
In passing, many cPanel support people actually do their thing on Macs. They are also prompt and extremely helpful when you run into problems. Of course, you have to manage a server, or a virtual private server (which puts several separate “instances” of a server on a single box) to get access to their support system. Otherwise, you have to deal with your web host.
In any case, I had not actually considered putting my sites on a Mac up till now for the the reasons stated above, except for one brief period noted below. But nothing is forever.
So this weekend, I decided to take a huge plunge. It wasn’t a casual choice. Some weeks back, I read a short article about an Atlanta-based host, MacStadium, which, as the name implies, specializes in Macs. They provide dedicated web servers for lease, or you can place, or colocate, one of your own Macs in their datacenter, which will connect the box to the Internet backbone. While they have recently begun to deploy the super fancy and super compact — and super expensive — Apple Mac Pro, their main stock in trade has been the super small Mac mini.
Did I say Mac mini? Bear with me, gentle reader.
Today’s Mac mini sells for a starting price of $499, but some web hosts have found them ideal for low-cost server farms. They aren’t as robust as those huge and costly blade servers. They are most often used by small businesses who want a fast and inexpensive way to get their sites online. For the size, you get reasonably speedy performance and if you equip one of them with the right combination of storage devices, such as SSDs, you might find a cheap way to get a larger site online.
But what about my sites?
Early on, my first radio show, The Tech Night Owl LIVE, was hosted on an Apple Xserve (discontinued some years later), but I moved away from that setup when I quit a small online network where the show was established and went out on my own. Their Xserve was actually acquired via trade-out deal with an Apple dealer, so the only cost was a modest monthly fee to colocate the server at a datacenter.
While I got in touch with Jason Michaud from MacStadium, and we discussed a potential marketing tie-in that would allow me to use one of their servers. I was offered two options. One was a souped up Mac mini, with a quad-core Intel i7 processor (this configuration is no longer offered by Apple), a 500GB SSD and 16GB RAM, plus an external 1GB backup drive connected to the machine’s USB 3.0 port. The second option was a traditional blade server with two multicore Intel Xeon processors, somewhat similar to my most recent setup.
Since I am sometimes tempted to live dangerously, I impulsively chose the former, and thus, as of this weekend, most of our sites are now hosted on a tiny Mac mini, a computer that weighs less than three pounds.
Now there had to be compromises. Moving all my sites, including databases and email, to an OS X Server environment would be an involved undertaking. If I opted to return to a cPanel environment, using one of the Linux distributions, CentOS, I’d have to go through the entire mess again in reverse, and that was just taking this a little too far.
So Jason suggested a virtual machine. The server would be configured with a VMware ESXi Hypervisor, which would, in turn, manage a CentOS/cPanel virtual machine. The setup is somewhat similar to running VMware Fusion or Parallels Desktop on your Mac. But there is no apparent performance disadvantage, since I’m not running high-powered games. In short, the performance level is the same as a raw Mac mini would offer with the latest version of OS X Server.
It took a little extra effort to configure such a beast. But cPanel makes it easy to migrate your sites from one box to another, particularly if both are running cPanel, and it took only a few hours to move my sites over. The transfer process was near-seamless, and I only had to do a few minor configuration changes to get everything running.
The end result? I’ll leave it to the reader to decide.
I did run some site measurement tools, such as Host-Tracker.com, to monitor the load speed of my sites at different measurement stations around the world. The stats were very similar to the same sites running on dual six-core Xeons. The Mac mini is hooked up to a gigabit Ethernet port at MacStadium’s datacenter, and uploads and downloads are quite speedy.
Now you might criticize my decision as cheating. From my standpoint, nothing has actually changed except for the hardware. But that’s not quite correct. What surprises me is that the tiny Mac mini operates with a much lower system load than a traditional Linux blade server. A large part of that may be due to the fact that the mini has an SSD, whereas my other server uses a pair of regular hard drives connected in a RAID configuration. Running cooler also means that the Mac mini will continue to offer reliable performance.
On the downside, a Mac mini has no redundant parts. Quality web servers have duplicate power supplies, for example, so one can be put into service if the first dies. If the Mac mini fails, the drive and/or an external backup drive will have to be restored on another box, which would put my sites offline for perhaps as long as several hours. If you’re inclined to acquire a similar setup, don’t forget that Apple is no longer offering quad-core CPUs on a Mac mini. They should, of course, but that’s another story, and it means that MacStadium is quickly running out of 2012 configurations. As a practical matter, I wonder how many of the usual web apps and scripts really need more than two cores to run efficiently, so it may not matter so much after all. I mean, having two six-core Xeons didn’t offer any measurable performance advantage.
If you’re tempted, a setup similar to mine, while it lasts, is $174 per month with unlimited bandwidth on a gigabit port. It can tolerate huge amounts of traffic. If you are interested in going the Mac Pro route, prepare to spend twice that figure or much more, depending on your choice of hardware.
All MacStadium’s configurations promise “Active DoS & DDoS Protection,” which means that Internet criminals are not going to find it easy to bring down your site. While I’ve only encountered DDoS invasions on very rare occasions, they are nonetheless annoying enough not to want to repeat such an episode. Basically, they involve flooding a server with bogus requests until it just cries “uncle,” or whatever technical term you choose.
Meantime, despite the compromises, having my sites on a Mac is a refreshing change. Maybe some day I will consider whether I should attempt to transfer them to OS X Server, but it does appear that Apple isn’t really that concerned about that sort of business. An OS X Server installation is mostly designed for smaller installations in the business and educational markets. By simplifying the interface, and removing key features that are now confined to the command line, Apple seems to have given up on the enterprise for such a product.
But Apple could do more to bolster the case for a Mac mini. It makes no sense whatever to kill the quad-core upgrades. For that matter, it makes even less sense to make it impossible to upgrade RAM. Was that the cost of shaving $100 from the purchase price? But I don’t pretend to have any secret insights into Apple’s mindset and/or product strategy about such products.
THE FINAL WORD
The Tech Night Owl Newsletter is a weekly information service of Making The Impossible, Inc.
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