In 2005, the first business to offer colocated
Mac Minis inside a data center made its debut, provoking criticism of everything
from how the Mini was cooled to the underlying business model. Since then, more than half a dozen facilities are either hosting their own Mac Minis for rent, or offering colocation services for individual consumers and businesses. And although you may not find the Mini being used for high-performance computing, plenty of customers are finding them to be a cost-effective, dependable solution for Web hosting and other tasks. While some vendors declined to give out reliability information, those who did claimed a surprisingly small number of failures. This week, Colocation America became perhaps the seventh company to begin offering Mac Mini colo facilities: others include MacMiniColo.net, which claims to be the first in the space; and Macminivault, Macstadium, HostMyApple, and Mythic-Beasts, which also advertise Mac Mini hosting services. Prices start at anywhere from $35 per month (Colocation America) to $49 per month.
Why the Mac Mini?
Years before the industry began talking about low-power, low-cost ARM based machines, Apple debuted the Xserve, flipping from PowerPC processors to the Intel Xeon architecture in 2006. Apple killed the Xserve in January 2011, when it recommended users switch to a version of the Mac Mini preloaded with OS X Server. The Mac Mini shipped "headless" (i.e., without a display) and priced between $599 and $799, depending on the configuration—potentially attractive to those with modest needs, in terms of price and power. "I think the biggest selling point is that people can have a full, dedicated machine, only accessible to them, but at a lower price than a 1U server," said Brian Stucki, the owner of Macminicolo.net, adding that "lower price" includes both the hardware as well as the price of a monthly hosted service. "Now that the machines have [Intel] quad-core i7s, SSD options, and up to 16GB of RAM, they're getting very powerful for most needs.” Hosting companies have turned to Mac Pros and other Cupertino products, including—in the case of Macminivault—an Apple TV Web server
. But consistency has remained a strong selling point for the Mini. "We thought about applying it to other hardware, but if Dell makes a small little machine, you don't know that they'll be making that, in that form factor, six months down the road, or what they're going to do, or how they're going to refresh it," Jon Schwenn, a network engineer for CyberLynk Networks (which owns Macminivault) said in an interview. "We've had three model years of Minis that have stayed externally, physically identical." While the hosting companies don't sniff inside their customer boxes, customers have told Macminicolo's Stucki that they're using them for all sorts of things: providing Mail, iCal, and the Websites for small businesses; databases, like Filemaker or Daylite; as a VPN server for those who want an IP address in the United States; build servers for Xcode; and general personal servers for Plex media streaming and other fun projects. Some even use it for Windows, Schwenn said. Schwenn himself turned to the Mini when the hardware he was using to host bulletin board forums in 2004 and 2005 began running out of steam, and he found that his colocation provider would host the Mini for a much smaller fee. “When I started working for a data center, I was able to put it all together where we could have a high volume of servers, Mac Minis, in a cabinet, where all the pieces started falling into place," he said.
On one hand, the Mini’s performance is far less than enterprise big iron. But for many, its hardware is enough: Schwenn has seen customers push out 200 Mbytes per second, sustained. "The neat thing about it is that it scales by machine," he said. “So if one machine doesn't have enough power for you, or if you need to scale up, because of I/O or network or redundancies, then you just add another machine. And I have customers with dozens of machines, or more than that. I just say that if you do happen to hit a roadblock, you just add another one."
The Mac Mini is one of the few Apple products left with a spinning hard drive in its standard configuration; most of the company’s products have migrated to flash-based SSDs. But hosting companies suggested to SlashDataCenter that the Mini has been surprisingly reliable. Out of roughly 650 Mac Minis, Schwenn said that he's returned two "barely" DOA Minis to Apple for issues such as USB ports failing to work, plus a handful of hard drive failures and third-party memory failures, in the two years his company has been in business. "I'd say the biggest worry is that it runs on 2.5in drives," Stucki said. "But, those have been come more reliable lately, and especially in stationary machines like a server." While Stucki doesn’t have current reliability figures, he tracked them until two years ago
, when Macminicolo.net placed 1,278 Minis in its data center; only 11 that needed hardware repair, and the average lifespan was nearly three years. Zero Ethernet ports failed. Initially, some wondered if the Minis could be placed side-to-side, where heat and possible vibration from the spinning disks could hurt performance. The colo operators say those fears have proven unfounded. Macminicolo.net runs out of SwitchNAP in Las Vegas, using shelving to house its Minis. "They're awesome on power, cooling and connection so we haven't had to do anything in particular," Stucki said. "The unibody Mac minis got rid of the huge, external power brick so they run cooler, and with significantly less power usage. The hardware of the Macmini has been very, very reliable." Macminivault stores about 500 Minis across a pair of cabinets, with some fans installed to promote proper airflow. What's the future of the Mini? Replacing the hard drive with an SSD is possible, meaning that the Mini will likely shrink in size and power. Given the low-performance of the Apple TV experiment, swapping an ARM chip for Intel seems unlikely, however. One thing seems clear—as the industry fiddles with lower-cost hardware to handle specialized workloads, the Mini could establish its own niche in the data center. Image: Macminicolo.net