Mac mini or NAS?

I posted a question about running a Plex server and thanks to everyone who responded, it has opened a can of worms for me and my head is spinning!

I am looking to run the following key services:

  1. Plex server (~8TB)
  2. Time Machine server for two MBP (~4TB)
  3. Storage for photos (I am about to buy a 45 megapixel camera and will be storing files as RAW and do not want to clog up my MBP (~5TB)
  4. Not essential, but a web server would be nice

My options seem to be either a Mac mini or a NAS. A Mac mini attached to an external HDD seems expensive but will ensure everything works smoothly and easy to manage. My initial thoughts were to get a NAS but after reading Ivan Drucker’s article on TibBITS (14th January 2022) this is not as simple as I would have hoped e.g. robustness of Time Machine backups, speed of processor and external USB. The Western Digital My Cloud Home seemed easy to manage but has some shortfalls, do the Pro Series address these issues? I am comfortable with technology and happy to set up a NAS if it will deliver the services above and addresses the issues Ivan highlighted… Any thoughts/advice?

I would go with the mini for a couple of reasons…but it really boils down to just one…and that’s TM.

Time Machine to a network server basically doesn’t work right. I’ve been doing macOS and Apple II os before that since the early 80s…and was a Windows sysadmin for 20+ years…so I’m pretty computer savvy.

Wife and I have daily driver laptops and I setup both a mini (in our entertainment center) and an iMac (now Studio) that’s my photo processing platform and tried to setup Time Machine on the laptops with them as the destination. Tried both of them separately as well as together with alternating backups using both non admin and admin accounts for permissions…even tried setting up the destination permissions as Everyone Read/Write.

One laptop would work today and not the other…then tomorrow neither, the day after both, and the day after that the one that worked would fail and the other would work. Never the same error message twice.

Additionally…TM to a network drive doesn’t make Finder readable copies…it makes a .dmg file that it mounts and unmount as necessary.

After mucking about with this for several months…setup from scratch tried several times…my conclusion was that TM to network destinations basically doesn’t work.

My solution…CarbonCopyCloner. I use that anyway on all of our computers to run both full and incremental backups to various destinations and it just works. So…I setup CCC jobs for the laptops…and set the destination to Remote Macintosh and saved the credentials to the CCC keychain. Set them to run daily alternating between the two destinations. Enabled TM after plugging in a drive to the laptops that’s never actually plugged in…just did this so that TM would run by itself with no external destination so that hourly backups would be done to the local SSD…I realize that this isn’t as good as TM to another drive but it allows easy recovery from accidental file deletion. This solution has been 100% bulletproof and makes Finder readable backups including CCCs Safety Net feature. I’m happy to accept the slight degradation in hourly backup reliability because everything that really matters is in more places than the laptops anyway…1PW vault on DropBox, DropBox on all of our computer, the Studio is the home file server, mail is all IMAP, etc.

Everything else you want to do is easy on a macOS computer…haven’t mucked much with NAS so no idea if it’s easy or harder there. The Studio does have an OWC RAID on it where photos reside and they all get backed up to other drives and BackBlaze as well. Web services might be prohibited by your ISP if you need to get to it from outside the house unless you pay for a commercial connection…depends on your ISP.

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It really does depend on which NAS you’re considering.

I have a Synology DS920+, which I received as a Christmas gift. I splurged and filled it with relatively large drives so I have plenty of storage. I’m currently running Plex on it, using it for TM backups, storing a bunch of data, and as a DVR in conjunction with an OTA tuner. The only minor issue I’ve had with it is the foster kittens occasionally pulling its power plug, which seems to be a bit looser than it should be. There was also a bit of a learning curve, but it wasn’t too bad.

The main advantage for me is that it’s nice and compact. If I duplicated this setup with a Mac mini, I’d have four drives hanging off the computer, with cables, power cords, etc. taking up a bunch of space. With the Synology, I have one power cord going to the UPS and an ethernet cable going to the router.

Unlike Neil, I find TM to be pretty reliable. In the past, I did run into problems with TM backing up over the network, but they were caused, as far as I can tell, with how I had my computer configured. Once I set it up so that a backup session wouldn’t be interrupted when I closed the lid on my computer, all the problems seem to go away.

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What a great present, Conrad. I’m always tempted by the idea of having a NAS again & barely avoided a similar purchase recently by realizing that I would essentially adding a third somewhat crippled computer to a setup that already included two more than adequate ones: an M1 Mini and M1 Air. I avoided some of the clutter you mention by consolidating four drives in two OWC dual enclosures and ran their USB 3.0 cables to my Studio Display and thence to the Mini via a single Thunderbolt cable. So no need for a dock, and with the enclosures running almost silently behind the door of one of the desk’s cabinets it all looks quite tidy.

Sadly :smiling_face_with_tear: this gives me all I really need for TM and remote access to my Plex and Apple Music libraries, plus an almost bewildering number of configuration/upgrade options for the future.

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I got rid of my Synology and went with a Mini with a couple of OWC JBOD enclosures attached. Currently serving as a Plex server and backup destination for Time Machine and CCC. It’s also an archive server. It’s all backed up to BackBlaze and the media & archive files are backed up locally.

I decided to got his route as I wanted to minimize the variety of OS environments I had to deal with in my retirement. The Mini is a 2012 model with an external SSD for the boot drive. I picked it up cheap and the ram is easily upgraded. It also has USB3 ports.

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I have mentioned elsewhere - as secondary backup I use an old Time Capsule (the tall one) with a powered hub plugged into its USB port and a portable drive attached to the hub. The Time Capsule is networked by ethernet (I have disabled its wifi) and every Mac on the network can see and use the portable drive.
The big advantage is that it is seamless. A disadvantage is that, these days, the Time Capsule is a data bottleneck.
Also Time Machine is very particular about the location of a drive it is using. You cannot simply move the drive to another device if the one you are using is no longer available (i.e. fails). This applies to any Time Machine backup.

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Same data and backup configuration here, except as noted above I use an M1 Mini now. I still have my 2012 (i7, 16GB, swapped in 1 TB SSD a few years ago for OS etc.), too. Any issues transcoding 4K for Plex remote access on yours? Are you running it headless?

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Haven’t done that much with Plex yet and no 4k. I have it in a cabinet in my basement with an old Thunderbolt Display.

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What does “transcoding 4k for Plex remote access” mean? Isn’t a transcoded file a transcoded file regardless of whether access is remote?

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You’re right, of course. But I only transcode (to 720p) for remote access. At home I play my 4K files directly using Infuse.

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Hi Conrad,

Thanks for this. I looked at the Synology DS920+ a few weeks ago, pricey with the storage you have but less expensive than the Mac mini… Can you perhaps a little on how you had to configure your computers so that a backup session wouldn’t be interrupted when the lids were closed?

Given a choice I would probably go for a NAS but from the responses there can be issues…

If I went for the Mac Mini solution (and I would wait until the next (M2?) release, soon hopefully) I guess I would be OK with 256GB given that I will only be running MacOS? Would 8GB memory be sufficient for my requirements?

Any recommendations for enclosures for a RAID drive, will probably go for 24TB storage… I have never had a RAID drive apart from a Drobo, assume all modern RAID drives are fairly easy to manage and will alert if/when a drive needs to be replaced. If anyone has a link to a good review on Mac compatible drives would be much appreciated…

Antony, if you haven’t already, you may want to consult Plex Support’s article on “NAS Devices and Limitations” and in particular their compatibility spreadsheet, which shows, among other things, the limitations many of them have when transcoding video --the DS920+, for example, is limited to 720P (and “some” 1080P) unless you buy a Plex Pass and use hardware transcoding.

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Thanks David, am leaning towards the Mac Mini solution… I will hopefully get some advice on The Mac Mini and RAID spec.

Do you really need RAID? It is for fault tolerance, not backup. If my drives fail I can live ok for the few days it will take to get my data back.

I went with OWC enclosures in a JBOD configuration. I have 4 drives, one for media and archives, one for CCC backups, and one for TM backups. The final one is currently a spare. The CCC backups from other computers and the media volume is backed up continuously to BackBlaze.

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How much downtime you’re willing to put up with is, of course, a matter of personal preference.

But one of the big things about RAID is that you don’t have to take several days to restore your backups. And you won’t lose whatever changed between the time of the last backup and the failure.

With a good RAID system, you can just remove the dead drive, pop in the new one and it will rebuild all the missing data on its own. You don’t have to deal with the aggravation of restoring a backup unless something truly catastrophic goes wrong (e.g. losing more drives than the RAID configuration can accommodate).

Right now, I’m just using my Mac’s internal 2TB storage (along with Time Machine and periodic clones for backups), which is just fine, since it shouldn’t take more than a few hours to restore/migrate a Data volume from a backup.

But if my storage requirements grow to the size where a NAS would make sense (e.g. 10-20TB or more), it is going to take a very long time to restore that backup. I’d prefer to not have to do it at all. I would rather buy one or two additional drives in order to support RAID-5 and keep a cold-spare drive on hand for an immediate replacement when something fails.

But if this isn’t a business and you can afford the downtime resulting from a long restore process, it’s all a matter of what you think is more important.

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Ditto here, Glen, but in addition to Backblaze I use my fourth “spare” drive for a nightly CCC clone of my media drive. This is in practice only bit less convenient than the RAID 1 arrangement David’s describing, and there’s no need for buying pairs of “identical” drives (by the way, David, is that true, or a myth I somehow bought into?). My notion at the time, anyway, was to have the flexibility of replacing a JBOD of varying vintages, makes, & sizes as they failed or I as needed more space going forward.

OWC’s Elite Pro dual and quad enclosures, in any case, allow both RAID and JBOD configurations with USB 3.2. No need for Thunderbolt in my use case, or from what I can tell, yours.

In my limited experience RAID is not worth it for backup drives. You need to carefully consider the configuration, which is not straightforward. Also I found out the hard way, that if you get this wrong and one drive fails then the second drive, in effect, has the data encrypted so it cannot be accessed. But I must admit, I didn’t really understand the technical side - it just came configured for RAID (Lacie I think) and I just plugged it in!

There are many different kinds (“levels”) of RAID, with different capabilities. You obviously need to select the one that best suits your needs, and you need to be aware of each level’s benefits and limitations.

I’m not sure what you were using, but if you were buying a high-capacity drive using RAID internally to make two drives look like one large drive, then it was probably RAID 0, which has no redundancy.

For those who are curious, here are the most commonly used RAID levels:

  • RAID 0 is striping. Your data is spread across two or more discs with no redundancy. If one drive fails, the entire array is dead. This is not technically RAID because there is no redundancy. It can give you high speed and large capacity, but it is less reliable than formatting each drive as a separate volume.

  • RAID 1 is mirroring. The array consists of two drives, each being an exact duplicate of the other. The capacity of the array is the capacity of a single drive. It is the only possible RAID level you can use on an array consisting of only two drives. If one drive fails, the array can keep working as long as the other drive doesn’t also fail.

  • RAID 5 involves striping data across multiple drives. Parity data (which can be used to reconstruct data from a failed drive) is also striped across the array. This requires a minimum of 3 drives. The capacity of the array is the capacity of all but one of the drives (e.g. a 5-drive array has the capacity of 4 drives). Any single drive can fail without taking down the array, but a second failure before the first has been replaced and rebuilt will kill it.

  • RAID 6 is similar to RAID 5, but it uses two different parity mechansims, which are striped across the array. This requires a minimum of four drives. The capacity of the array is the capacity of all but two of the drives (e.g. a 5-drive array has the capacity of 3 drives). Two drives can fail without taking down the array, but a third failure before at least one of the failures has been replaced and rebuilt will kill it.

  • RAID 10 (aka RAID 1+0) is a hybrid of RAID levels 0 and 1. An even number of drives is required. The drives are configured as mirrored pairs (RAID 1), and data is striped across these sub-arrays (RAID 0). This gives you the improved performance and capacity of RAID 0, with the redundancy of RAID 1.

  • RAID 50 (aka RAID 5+0) is a system where two (or more) RAID 5 arrays are created, and data is striped across them. This gives better performance than RAID 5, but retaining its resiliency.

  • RAID 60 (aka RAID 6+0) is similar. Two (or more) RAID 6 arrays are created, and data is striped across them.

There are also RAID levels 2, 3 and 4, but they are not used these days. But they are interesting to read about.

RAID systems often also support hot and cold spare drives.

A hot-spare is a drive that is powered-on but is not used to store data. When the array detects a drive failure, the spare is immediately brought into service to replace the failed drive.

A cold-spare drive is kept powered-off until it is needed to recover from a failure. It is also used to refer to spare drives that you keep disconnected so you can quickly swap it into service when a failure occurs (vs. needing to buy a replacement at that time).

Needless to say, you need a lot of drives for RAID 5 and 6 to be practical, especially if you also want some hot spares. This typically means an enclosure that can hold them all and a controller board (or a dedicated CPU) to manage the array and make it appear as a single drive (or file server).

For example, one server at a company I worked for had 16 drives configured as two arrays. Each array was 7 drives (configured as RAID 6) and a hot spare drive. We didn’t stripe across the two arrays - the server was configured for two network volumes - one for each array. The server was configured to send alerts to our administrator when a drive failure is detected, so he could remove the bad drive and replace it with a new one (which would automatically become the new hot-spare). Of course, this was not a cheap device, but it was very reliable.

See also What is RAID 5? - Definition from WhatIs.com

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This is several years ago when I bought a dual drive system. Something like this:

I assume the drive was set up for RAID 1 (mirrored drives). My low-tech experience was that one drive failed and when I tried to access the data on the other drive it couldn’t be read. Probably some set-up mistake on my part but it is a word of caution about RAID.