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Beefeater: 6 months with a Mac mini

by Rob Friesel

This was originally titled “introducing Beefeater” back in February when we first brought the Mac mini into the fold but… Well, life and blogging has a funny way of getting away from you sometimes. Let us not digress:

Remember Malkovich? Poor Malkovich. Malkovich did finally crash its final crash, shitting the bed with epic and irrecoverable kernel panics. It seemed it was time to move on. So after much deliberation, we pulled the drive, recycled the iMac G5, and decided to replace it with a Mac mini server.

The Mac mini server was dubbed Beefeater.

Six months into the relationship, I’m willing to give the following “introducing Beefeater” sort of tale of… well, of getting settled in with that Mac mini server tucked under the television.

First things first, let’s get one little bit of prelude out of the way: if you didn’t know this already, a “Mac mini server” (at least at the time that I bought mine) was basically just a Mac mini but with 2 hard drives and no optical drive and Snow Leopard Server installed as the OS instead of Snow Leopard. And to review the marketing collateral, that sounds like “Snow Leopard plus the server stuff” not “something different than Snow Leopard that we are calling Snow Leopard Server”.1

Onward to the main course:

The first order of business upon getting this slim little puppy home is to get it out of the box and set it up. So I do what anyone in my position would do: I take it out of the box, plug it into the wall, plug it into the TV, and plug Malkovich’s Time Machine hard drive into it. Power on and… why doesn’t it give me the option to restore from the Time Machine drive? Clearly that is what I want to do. And with every other machine (e.g., when I cycle from one machine to another at work) this is exactly what I’ve done: out of the box, connect to the Time Machine drive, let it “migrate”, and comfortably resume where we left off.

But this isn’t happening here. And I can only assume it’s because “Snow Leopard Server” sees the “Snow Leopard Desktop” back-ups on the Time Machine drive and snubs it. As if it were saying I may be masquerading as a friendly little desktop machine but I am a server, you nit-wit! Thus… so much for Plan A in the world of data migration. But I am not afraid: we still have the 1 TB drive that we salvaged and a handy-dandy Voyager Q to make connecting things easy.

Forging ahead: since I cannot simply migrate my data, I will start by creating a “starter” admin account and then try to restore everything. So add admin and there we go. Log right on in and get the lay of the land. And the first thing I notice: …no iLife apps? Weren’t they supposed to be bundled as well? For a moment there, I begin to feel like Lando with Vader. This deal is getting worse all the time. Very well. No iLife–looks like we’ll be copying those across from the 1 TB drive as well.

Alrighty: let’s set up some users in the network/domain thingy.2 So we’ll create a family group and we’ll add a user account for me and a user account for A…. But this is all a bit different from how it goes on a “regular” OS X machine. But I think I have this one figured out.

Now that we have our user accounts, let’s unplug that Time Machine drive (since that is now apparently a lost cause) and swap in the Voyager Q with the Malkovich 1 TB drive dropped in. And… copy/paste/wait. 200+ GB later… the copying appears to be complete but strange things are happening. Some files open, some don’t; things go into the Trash but I can’t empty the trash… After a little quite a while it dawns on me to check “under the hood” as it were. What I find appears to be user ID collisions — I have a rob account with an ID of 501 and then another rob account with an ID of 1125. Ugh. We can call on chown to come to the rescue3 but that still seemed…

Well, the whole process thus far was a long way from “it just works”.

Granted, the username/user ID thing… I’ll own that one. That one is on me. What business did I have walking out of Small Dog Electronics with a Mac mini server anyway? I can hear them now: Who let this guy in here? “Headless”? File server? Do you even know what that means? I’ll bet you can’t even grow a beard.

Discouraged but not defeated, and heartened by the fact that files seem to now open, close, save, and delete — and all without needing to authenticate with Administrator Privileges — I decide that we have gotten far enough along to stick with it. We have files; we have music and photos and a decade’s worth of correspondence. We have our basics.

Now to tackle the last annoyance of Day One: Invest another hour there — half of it to be blamed on the TV4 and the other half to be blamed on the Mac’s inability to detect when an audio cable is plugged in.5

Sigh. Relax. We now have (almost) everything6 we had with Malkovich, and are consuming a fraction of the power. Life is acceptable. For now.

Fast forward a couple of months:

We’re not using Beefeater all that much; it’s certainly not our day-to-day machine. But we expected this. And it wasn’t like we were using Malkovich as our day-to-day machine anyway.

We wind up setting up a VNC server on Beefeater so that we can connect via the Finder’s built-in screen sharing to do most of our operations: check for and run Software Updates, “remote control” iTunes, load project files into Aperture for archiving, etc.

But what we missed from Malkovich and could never quite figure out: printing. On a regular Mac you just go into the Sharing preferences, turn on printer sharing, and you’re done. But that does not exist on Snow Leopard Server. Instead, printer administration has a separate manual (PDF) with baroque instructions that mash together all possible forks in your path and omit subtle but important things.7 Eventually, I gave up on trying to set up this queue and just plugged the printer into the Airport Extreme router.8

Where to from here? There is a part of me that is tempted to back up the data again and wipe the drives — put the plain ol’ regular desktop edition of Lion on there and just use the built in “lite” server software that’s just built in to every Mac. After the initial slog of old-fashioned copy-to-and-paste-from external hard drive data restoration, it might just simplify things sufficiently for me to stop fretting over it all. But I don’t know if my ego can take that.

  1. It’s possible that I was just “holding it wrong”, but I’d like to think that I’ve been doing this sort of thing long enough to know the difference. []
  2. Now is probably a good time to mention that I don’t really fancy myself a “sysadmin-y” type. I know my way around computers pretty well, and I make my living writing software, and I know about permissions and credentials and some of that fun stuff… but at this point in our tale, I think it’s safe for me to admit that I probably got myself in over my head. []
  3. And Finder’s “Get Info” also comes in handy for coercing the permissions into the right bucket. But watch out for the Trash; it did not much care to cooperate. []
  4. Who knew it needed to be set to “Natural” for the Mac menu bar to show up? []
  5. Apparently you need to go into the System Preferences and tell it to send the audio out through the cable or else you wind up with your several-weeks-worth-of-music-in-iTunes rocking a tinny little sound through a brushed aluminum membrane. []
  6. I say “almost” here mostly because my confidence is shaken, but also because the OS X Server platform really isn’t fit for human household consumption. There are a bunch of fancy apps that wrap the server functionality (i.e., Workgroup Manager, Server Preferences, Server Admin) but it’s hard to know where to go for what you want. Especially if what you want isn’t terribly complex and is otherwise handled by “a regular Mac” in just one little pref pane that lives in System Preferences. []
  7. At least, that was the impression I came away with after spending a couple hours with it. []
  8. Which is probably what I should have done all along? []

About Rob Friesel

Software engineer by day, science fiction writer by night. Author of The PhantomJS Cookbook and a short story in Please Do Not Remove. View all posts by Rob Friesel →

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