Three rea­sons to run your own Mac server

Dan Moren re­veals why run­ning a server isn’t as scary as you think. Here are three rea­sons why you should con­sider it, too

Macworld - - Contents -

When it comes to tech­nol­ogy, the word ‘server’ might bring to mind, for some, a ware­house-sized room not un­like the end of Raiders of the Lost Ark, but with fewer crates and more racks of com­put­ers. For oth­ers it

might be the cause of sweaty palms and glazed-over eyes. But servers don’t need to be mys­te­ri­ous or scary – af­ter all, a server is just a com­puter that serves up in­for­ma­tion (and/or ser­vices) that can be ac­cessed by other com­put­ers. Sure, it can get more com­plex than that, but it can also be a fairly sim­ple and in­valu­able tool.

I run a Mac mini server on my home net­work for a hand­ful of rea­sons that are mun­dane, but all of which help at least pro­vide some peace of mind, es­pe­cially when I’m not in the house.

The por­tal

One of the pri­mary uses of my Mac mini is as a por­tal into my home net­work. When I’m away from the house, or on a busi­ness trip or hol­i­day, this means I can not only ac­cess the data on my home ma­chines, but even see and con­trol them.

I main­tain sev­eral dif­fer­ent ser­vices to let me ac­cess my home ma­chines. Most ba­sic is the Se­cure Shell (SSH) com­mand-line in­ter­face (OS X calls it Re­mote Lo­gin in the Shar­ing sys­tem pref­er­ences pane) and its as­so­ci­ated Se­cure FTP (SFTP) file trans­fer ser­vice. These ser­vices al­low me to quickly in­ter­act with my home ma­chine as well as down­load files to what­ever Mac or iOS de­vice I hap­pen to have with me at the time.

I’ve also taken the some­what more com­plex step of set­ting up OS X Server to host a Vir­tual Pri­vate Net­work (VPN) – an en­crypted tun­nel that lets me se­curely route my data and my in­ter­net con­nec­tion back through my home net­work. In some cases it might be slow, but it does help pro­tect my data when I’m us­ing a spu­ri­ous Wi-Fi net­work.

Some­times I want to check on an app that’s run­ning on one of my Macs, and for that use Screens (£22.99 from the Mac App Store). If you know your way around a lit­tle fire­wall trick­ery, you can use OS X’s built-in screen shar­ing. (Be­fore I started us­ing Screens, I some­times used to screen share into my Mac mini, and then screen share from there into my iMac, since my iMac wasn’t di­rectly ac­ces­si­ble.) Be­yond the abil­ity to ac­cess pro­grams on the re­mote Mac, I’ve also availed my­self of an­other ben­e­fit: if you have a desk­top Mac that’s turned on and has a FaceTime cam­era, you can re­motely launch Photo Booth to take a look around your home while you’re, say, on hol­i­day.

The me­dia

In this day and age, what self-re­spect­ing server doesn’t serve up me­dia? I have a full copy of my

iTunes Li­brary on my Mac mini, and in those cases where iCloud Mu­sic Li­brary is un­der the weather, I can use iTunes Home Shar­ing to stream from my mini to my iOS de­vices and Macs alike. It also lets me ac­cess some types of me­dia that iTunes doesn’t store in the cloud by de­fault, such as au­dio­books.

My non-iTunes con­tent, mostly video, is stored in Plex (, a home me­dia server with apps for the Mac, iOS, Ap­ple TV, and a few of those other plat­forms, too. You can stream video (and mu­sic and pho­tos, if you so pre­fer) from your Plex server to those other de­vices, whether it’s the Ap­ple TV con­nected to the big TV in your liv­ing room or your iPhone when you’re trav­el­ling half­way around the world, as long as you have a us­able in­ter­net con­nec­tion.

The vault

Most im­por­tantly, my Mac mini is my vault. That’s where I ar­chive all my doc­u­ments, store the

down­loaded copies of my iTunes and Pho­tos li­braries, and keep any other data that’s not in the cloud. I use Su­perDu­per! (shirt­ to cre­ate a nightly clone of the en­tire server, and have on­line backup via CrashPlan, just to be on the safe side. With three Macs in the house (server in­cluded), it can be a pain try­ing to make sure that files don’t get lost in the shuf­fle. To sim­plify mat­ters, I gen­er­ally con­sider my server to be the ‘canon­i­cal’ ver­sions of my files.

In truth, I could stand to be more vig­i­lant about mak­ing sure that I shut­tle files onto the mini more reg­u­larly. Since I do most of my day-to-day work on the iMac, I gen­er­ally only re­mem­ber to move files from there ev­ery once in a while. (Crit­i­cal files that I’m work­ing on all the time on a va­ri­ety of dif­fer­ent de­vices live in­stead in Drop­box or iCloud Drive.) But many of the files on that mini go back a long way, in some cases all the way back to the very ear­li­est doc­u­ments I cre­ated on my orig­i­nal Macs.

Ser­vice in­cluded

In many cases, a lot of these server-based tech­nolo­gies are be­ing ob­vi­ated by ser­vices that run in the cloud and han­dle com­mon tasks like file stor­age or stream­ing me­dia. Cloud ser­vices are just fine – I use plenty of them – but in some cases, they’re sim­ply not the right fit. The one ma­jor ad­van­tage to run­ning your own server is that you have con­trol over ev­ery­thing, from soup to nuts. That can have its down­sides too – when some­thing goes wrong, you’re usu­ally the one who has to fix it, but some­times there’s just no sub­sti­tute for do­ing it your­self.

You ac­cess Plex’s set­tings in a web browser, too

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