Mac mini Home Server

I recently replaced my Drobo NAS with a Mac mini. The initial impetus for this came from the fact that my Drobo was running low on space. All of the drive bays were full, so I couldn’t just throw another drive into the machine. This was not an insurmountable problem; these were mostly old 3tb drives, so I could have just replaced a couple of them with newer, larger drives and had plenty of space. However, it got me thinking about what I wanted out of a NAS and whether the Drobo was really the best way to fill that need.

The Drobo/home server fills a couple of roles for me. Primarily, it’s a big pot of storage where I can throw large files that I don’t need to access frequently and take up a lot of room on the primary drives of my computers. It also stores my Plex and iTunes media libraries, making them available over the network to any device in the house.

For the most part, the Drobo has served me well over the past six years, but there are definitely some downsides to using a NAS rather than having direct access to your data from a computer. Network shares aren’t always mounted when you want them to be.1 Certain things are much slower or less reliable when doing them over the network.2

For quite a while I’d assumed that when I eventually replaced my Drobo, I’d get a Synology NAS. However, I realized that many of my issues were with network attached storage in general, rather than the Drobo in particular. While a Mac mini was more expensive than a Synology, I could also reuse some external hard drives I already had on hand rather than having to buy new drives to populate the Synology, meaning a Mac mini would actually be a bit cheaper up front.

Hardware

I had been planning to initially try this out with an old mid-2011 Mac mini, but the old mini gave up the ghost just as I was getting started with this project. So I went ahead and bought one of the new 2018 minis.

For the home server role, I probably could have gotten by just fine with the base model. However, one of the great things about the Mac mini is how flexible it is. My 2011 mini has, at various times, been my main home desktop, a headless server, and a secondary desktop machine at work. I thought the base model might be too limited if I even wanted to use it as a desktop. In order to future proof this machine a bit I bought the higher-end configuration with a 6-core i5 processor and a 256GB hard drive. I did stick with the stock 8GB of RAM, but that can be upgraded in the future (albeit with some difficulty).

It’s not really very consequential in the grand scheme of things, but I do like the space gray color. I think it suits the mini rather well.

Display

The mini runs headless, without a display attached.3 As a server, it trundles along without my intervention most of the time, but I do need to get on it occasionally. I’m using Jump Desktop4 to provide remote access. It allows me to log in to the mini from anywhere using an application on my iMac or iPad.

However, the most common way for me to access the mini when I’m at home is using Luna Display. Luna is a hardware dongle that plugs into your Mac and lets you use an iPad as an external display. While the original use case mostly focused around using the iPad as a second display for a laptop to get more screen real estate the release of the 2018 Mac mini created a lot of interest in using Luna and the iPad as the primary display. This is how I’m using it. Unlike Jump Desktop, this only works when I’m on my home network. However, Luna is a lot faster, less laggy, and has better resolution than a remote desktop app. It really is like having a screen plugged right into the mini.

Luna Display also allows you to use the touchscreen to manipulate the macOS interface on the mini. This is a two-edged sword. While it’s convenient, it also makes clear why Apple has resisted adding a touchscreen to Mac laptops. Many of the touch targets are just way too small.5 The Apple Pencil helps with this since it’s a lot more accurate than my big fat fingers. I’ll often grab it off the top of the iPad when I need to minimize a window (don’t want to accidentally hit the red button instead of the yellow button) or another similarly precise task. Scrolling and right-clicking are a bit troublesome as well. However, the most significant limitation is probably that with Luna display you can only enter text on the remote computer if you’re running an external keyboard. It won’t bring up the software keyboard on the iPad. My iPad Pro spends so much time I the Smart Keyboard Folio that this isn’t really an issue for me.

Software

I gave serious thought to running the mini very stripped down as far as software goes, but in the end, I decided to install my usual suite of apps. A big reason for this is, so I have the option to use Jump Desktop on my iPad to log in remotely when I’m on the road without a laptop. Having this option is a nice safety blanket that makes it easier to leave the laptop at home and go iPad only when I travel. It also means that if my iMac were to go down the mini is all set up to take over right away as my primary desktop.

Backup

One of the critical tasks for a home server is keeping everything backed up. A real advantage of the Mac mini over Drobo is that Backblaze will back up directly attached external hard drives but not network drives.6 A disadvantage is that I no longer have the built-in redundancy in the event of a drive failure that the Drobo provides. Instead, my data gets backed up from my two main external drives to another pair of external drives every night. Combined with weekly backups to “shelf” hard drives that don’t stay connected to my machine, I’m feeling pretty good about my backup.7

Printing

I’ve taken this opportunity to move my printer into the spare room where the mini lives. I print seldom enough that I don’t really need to have the printer within arms’ reach all the time. It’s shared over the network so I can still print from my iMac, and using Printer Pro I can send stuff to it from my iPad as well.8

Concluding Thoughts

I’m very happy with my decision to ditch the Drobo and use a Mac mini as my home server. Having my data on a machine that I can log into directly rather than just a network share makes lots of things simpler and faster. It gives me options that I just didn’t have with a Drobo, particularly when it comes to remote access.

The new mini is a very slick machine. It’s been fast and responsive and has handled the fairly heavy load copying data off my Drobo and doing initial backups to cloud services. I’m really glad that Apple decided to update the mini and keep it in the lineup.


  1. Especially a problem for things like scheduled backups that happen when I’m not sitting in front of the computer ↩︎
  2. iMazing backups of iOS devices seem to work much better when the destination is on a local drive than a network share, for instance. ↩︎
  3. I used the USB-C to VGA adapter I bought for my iPad to temporarily connect the mini to an old display to get things up and running. ↩︎
  4. I also tried out Screens, but ended up settling on Jump Desktop for my remote access needs. ↩︎
  5. Jump Desktop for iOS has some affordances for this, including different mouse pointer modes and support for specific models of Bluetooth mice. ↩︎
  6. I had a workaround for this (clone the Drobo to an external drive attached to the iMac), but it was kind of kludgy and meant the data on the Drobo only got backed up to the cloud once a week. ↩︎
  7. Much more on my backup strategy can be found here. ↩︎
  8. My printer predates AirPrint. ↩︎