If your business has been using Macs for a number of years, there is a good chance you bought an Xserve, a Mac Pro Server or a Mac Mini Server at some point in the past.
Your server might have been supplied with a large data storage device, such as a Western Digital, LaCie or G-Technology RAID.
Most commonly, you probably used the macOS Server for storing and sharing files between multiple users in your company. However, it might have handled user authentication with Open Directory, hosting a website or intranet, or sharing calendars and contacts. In more recent times you might be using Profile Manager as a mobile device management (MDM) tool, to configure and control large numbers of Macs, iPhones and iPads in your business.
Whatever the purpose, many of our newer clients come to us with an ageing and increasingly unreliable Mac Mini or Mac Pro Server. They are wondering quite what to do about replacing or retiring it.
The majority of macOS servers are stuck running an old OS version, typically macOS 10.11 El Capitan or 10.12 Sierra. Later macOS versions can only run a much-simplified Server App. These can lose a lot of the earlier functionality your organisation might have relied upon.
As your Mac workstations continue to receive updates and move further away from your Server’s OS version, something usually has to be done. The old macOS server may also be slowing down or suffering permissions issue. So, what to do?
In-House Servers vs. Cloud Storage
Generally speaking you have two fundamental options:
- Continue storing your own data in-house using your own hardware
- Use cloud services, which means outsourcing your data storage (and associated complications) to somebody else
Both have advantages and disadvantages, regardless of which manufacturer or cloud storage provider you use:
Buy the necessary equipment as one large lump sum, but no monthly ongoing costs.
Pay every month for rental of storage space with a cloud service provider.
You have to shoulder the cost to repair the hardware or storage drives if anything fails.
Zero hardware maintenance costs.
You must maintain the server and storage yourself, including routine checks and minor troubleshooting.
Zero maintenance requirements, handled by the cloud storage provider.
Very large files e.g video and heavy graphical work will perform better if stored on an in-house server.
Cloud storage would not typically support live editing of large files. You would have to download them, work on them and send them back to the cloud again.
You are 100% responsible for backing up the data. And also providing any redundancy in case a primary server or storage system fails. You also need to work out how to backup your data offsite in case of fire, theft or flood.
Cloud provider will usually have various backup and file recovery systems in place automatically and it’s inherently stored offsite. But you still have a degree of responsibility in case of user error, or a major unforeseen data loss event.
Local servers are usually available even if your internet connection is offline.
Requires a good, reliable internet connection at most times to work effectively.
Cloud storage benefits
On the whole, cloud storage is less hassle and probably saves time in the long run. Often, cloud services will include unique features aiding collaboration and remote working. Whether it saves money is a matter for debate, as you have to factor in the time cost of maintaining your own hardware, while also being unable to predict the likelihood and cost of any hardware failures.
In-house servers have the potential to save you substantial amounts of money in the long run if they do not go wrong. But you usually have to buy double what you need for backup and redundancy purposes, unless you’re happy to live without a server for a period of time during a repair. On the other hand, house servers may end up costing more in the long run compared with cloud services. Particularly if you have to fix them repeatedly partway through their life cycle, with the associated costs of ongoing routine maintenance, repair and lost productivity.
For the majority of small to medium sized enterprises (SMEs), cloud services are often the best choice, or a mix of the two. Although there is an ongoing cost to cloud services, the monthly outlay is low enough to not impact cashflow too heavily. Subscriptions can also flex up and down directly with the success of the organisation and staffing levels, and you always benefit from the latest updates and technologies.
My Mac Server is unreliable or slow, what should I do?
The first thing we check with an old Mac server is the backup situation.
The longer the server has been operating without any direct maintenance, the higher the chance of the backup being out-of-date. Many backup software packages require manual intervention and checking, despite being ‘fully automated’. One minor problem can cause the whole backup to stop working until repaired. But many of these servers run ‘headless’ – that is, without a monitor – so any errors are rarely picked up unless somebody routinely checks them. If you’re using:
- Time Machine
…all of these are prone to failure or requiring routine maintenance to keep them running smoothly.
Once we have the backup situation fixed and working, now we can consider our options for replacing or retiring the server.
What is the best replacement for macOS Server App Mail, Calendar and Contacts?
The latest versions of the macOS Server App do not offer email, calendar sharing or contact sharing services. They used to offer the open-standard CalDAV and CardDAV sharing protocols for calendar and contact, but no more. Likewise, the email service is long-gone. You admittedly have to be slightly mad to run your own email server these days, unless you are a particularly large organisation, due to the high risk of being targeted by spammers and fraudsters.
Without a doubt we would recommend moving email, calendar and contact sharing services to Microsoft 365 nowadays. It’s a global standard in many respects and highly compatible with the latest macOS, iOS (iPhone) and iPadOS.
It’s possible to migrate your email service and data without any downtime. Contacts are usually quite easy to migrate too. Calendar data is more tricky but it can be done, or you can manually transcribe any future events and then start afresh on the new system.
If you don’t trust anybody else with your data and prefer to keep it in-house, running your own in-house Synology server can offer all of these services, in the same way that your Mac Server used to (more below).
What should I use for Mac file sharing?
You can still share files using any Mac on your network, it doesn’t have to be a server. In fact the Server App now simply mirrors the settings under System Preferences > Sharing > File Sharing, which is where you would go if you didn’t have the Server App installed.
With this in mind, it remains perfectly viable to continue sharing files on your business network from any Mac. This can be done with or without attached extra storage capacity.
We usually recommend a dedicated Mac which only exists for file sharing, rather than using a staff member’s workstation. This is because computers which are in regular use and routinely opening and closing apps are more likely to crash or suffer performance slowdowns on any given day.
There are limitations to sharing from a Mac, however. Most notably, a lack of RAID support, which is a system of linking multiple hard drives together to make a highly resilient, fast and high-capacity storage system.
You would therefore need an external drive for this, or a separate, dedicated network-attached storage system (NAS).
Most organisations who require in-house servers would usually opt for a RAID system to maintain uptime and performance. Our recommendation is always a Synology Diskstation. This is a standalone server and storage system all-in-one. It has an excellent user-friendly web based management system and very flexible configuration options for most requirements. They scale very well from small businesses up to very large video and graphic production houses. Even better they are cross-platform, so will work with Windows PCs and Linux devices, too.
What about FileMaker?
Many Mac Server owners will have FileMaker running as a bespoke database solution for their business.
It is now possible to have FileMaker themselves host your data for you. So there is no longer the need to maintain and back up an in-house server for most FileMaker databases.
So, if you are looking to lessen your hardware burden and maintenance costs, this might be a way to solve the final problem of retiring the old Mac server hardware, while still being able to run FileMaker in a multi-user setup.
This has been a broad overview exploring a small handful of cloud and in-house server considerations when looking to replace your old Apple Mac mini, xServe or Mac Pro server.
For most small businesses, having cloud-hosted email and file sharing in Microsoft 365 is a great solution, even if you’re an exclusively Mac-based organisation. However, for the security conscious, Synology have some great solutions for hosting your own data or setting up a hybrid of the two, for the best of both worlds.
If you’re still unsure about what to do about your existing Apple macOS Server set then please contact us for further support.