Small business server - what are the options?

We’ve been using Mac servers going back to Appleshare 4. We still have a couple of Yosemite servers which are very reliable but sit atop machines nearly 10 years old. Clearly this is playing with fire and I’d love to offer a viable alternative.

About 5 years ago we bought a Synology NAS (RAID 5 with hot spare) and configured it with a matching unit as a cluster. It works but is incredibly slooooooooow - despite being a high end model with maxxed out RAM and fast drives. It’s way too slow for us to use as a main server and I suspect most other NASes would be similar.

We don’t want to use a cloud service because I’m reasonably sure if the local NAS is too slow then the remote cloud will be worse,

My questions is, what are our other options? I’m not keen to look at a Windows solution - I’ve always found Windows horrible to use, terribly to license and impossible to get support. Linux still seems a nerd environment and the ‘friendly’ versions (Elementary OS and Cinnamon Mint) don’t appear to support the server services (sharing) we need.

Can anyone offer a suggestion of a solid, easy to administer server option for an SME?

I am still using apple file sharing in monterey and the only speed limitations are either the speed of the drives or the network interface, whichever is slower. A gigabit network seems to be the slowest part these days. My file servers are extremely reliable. I pretty much reboot them only when there are updates.

Using the builtin ssd to create the share points because the storage needs are minimal.
If I needed a lot of storage I would use softraid on an external thunderbolt enclosure with 4 or more drive bays.

I use tinker tool system, a less than $20 app, to set the permissions of the shares.

I still use HFS for my sharepoints because when I set this up a few years ago with with an earlier OS their was a big bug in APFS permissions for file sharing. The bug may or may not exist anymore in monterey.

I would setup a test computer and make sure everything works to your satisfaction before committing dollars for new equipment. Setup multiple users with different permissions, hammer it with multiple client computers simultaneously copying to and from the test server, test permissions with the multiple users, etc.

Good luck.

First off, I think you need to do some web searching. There are many options available, but I don’t think you’ll find many free/cheap options that come with nice friendly user interfaces (like Apple’s server offerings used to provide).

That having been said, there are several things to consider:

  1. If you want to stick with an Apple-compatible file server, there really is nothing better than doing it straight from your Mac. The built-in file sharing may be all you need. Create accounts on the server for your users and share them - now each person on your LAN has personal storage space. For shared space, you can create another account and configure it so any valid user has read/write access to it.

  2. For other kinds of server activities, the server software may be built-in to macOS, but without any friendly GUI for configuration and maintenance.

    For instance, although an FTP server is no longer available, if you enable remote login to a Mac, then you can use sftp (FTP over SSH) to transfer files. I actually do this quite a bit when moving files between my Mac and my non-Mac (Windows and Linux) systems.

  3. Also, macOS still includes the Apache web server. But the only way to configure and start it is via command-line tools, run from Terminal. Back in 2020, I blogged about migrating my personal web server from Apple’s to Catalina’s built-in Apache software. It’s not hard to do. Here are some articles I used at the time to learn what I needed to know:

    (If you don’t need PHP, Perl or MySQL on your web server, you can just ignore those sections of the articles. I just serve static web pages on mine, so I’m just using Apache.)

  4. As for setting up Linux as a server, that may require doing a bit of reading if you’re not already familiar with how Unix file sharing works in general. You’ll want to pick the protocol you want to use (probably SMB to be most compatible with modern Windows and Mac clients) and you may have to do some configuration in order to set up permissions and access levels the way you want them.

    It’s probably the best long-term solution, because it will literally be able to do anything you want. Most commercial NAS offerings are actually running Linux under the hood (with custom management software, but quite possibly using open source software for the actual file sharing).

  5. I’m really surprised about the Synology performance problems. Unfortunately, I have no personal experience with them, so I can’t help you diagnose its problems.

  6. If you’ve got a spare PC with suitable storage and network bandwidth, you might want to consider installing a dedicated NAS operating system on it. These are usually based on some kind of Unix (Linux or BSD), but come pre-configured for file server operations and usually include various management and monitoring utilities.

    I have no personal experience with these, but TrueNAS CORE (formerly known as FreeNAS) seems very popular. It uses the ZFS file system for distributing your data across multiple storage devices for performance and redundancy (fault tolerance) and provides a web-based tool for GUI management (command-line only for on-device management).

    It can scale up to very large sizes, if you think you will need to connect a lot of hard drives to your server. But it’s probably overkill if you just want to serve data from a single hard drive or SSD. For that, you might be better off just getting a cheap Mac mini and a large external drive and use its file sharing as your server (see above).


I’ve also been looking for a replacement for the abandoned Apple Server. For our use Apple’s file sharing is adequate, but I miss CalDAV (especially since Ventura’s local Cal sync is truly frelled here). The BusyCal folks mention Kerio and Zimbra server software, and ownCloud also looks interesting, but I haven’t come to any conclusions yet.

At this stage I only need file sharing as virtually all the other services have been moved. We don’t need personal home folders - everything is shared volumes.

We run a separate server for Wordpress (I won’t go into the enormous nightmare trying to migrate a Mojave server to a new machine has been) and we’re running Rumpus for FTP. Mail has been moved to Exchange.

I’d love to have Open Directory but can live without it.

We were extremely disappointed in the Synology. It benchmarks fine with BlackMagic speed test but in real world use (InDesign and Photoshop) it’s terrible. I would steer clear of other NASes purely based on this.

Part of our problem is our RAID units are older, Thunderbolt 2 Thunderbays from OWC. This makes them incompatible with anything new without some sort of adaptor. I think we’ll need to buy different storage but I’ll need to investigate what RAID solutions are available for Linux as we currently use Softraid. If we go Linux, I’ll need to work out what we’re going to run it on and what drive elcosures to use.

Life was so much easier when we had Xserves and a functional Mac OS Server.

1 Like

The Apple TB2-TB3 adapter isn’t very expensive. It won’t make anything run faster, of course, but it will let you connect your device.

It doesn’t provide power, so you can’t use it with bus-powered devices, but if your Thunderbay has its own power supply (as I assume a device like that must), then it should work.

I’m surprised by your experience too, not because I have any history with Synology, but because lots of consultants I know recommend and install them for clients. Have you worked with Synology support to see if they have any suggestions? I presume the network is not the bottleneck.

1 Like

We did early on without any resolution. There was an issue with SMB versions (which IIRC wasn’t limited to Synology devices) but the fixes we tried didn’t help.

Of course it’s possible this is an Adobe issue but we have no problems at all running the same things on our old OSX Servers and the network is very fast and solid.

Edit to say we’re now using new M1/M2 Mac and the latest Adobe CC. I’m going to test with the new systems and see how it goes.

I’d also like to point out I don’t ‘hate’ the Synology systems, it’s purely performance based. They’ve been pretty reliable and the cluster is easy to manage and works very well. Their OS is the best I’ve used - so much so that we also use their routers because the OS is so familiar.

I can confirm it matches my experience with Synology vs Mac using Indesign and having the images on the server. An 2014 MacMini with standard OS, a fast SSD and lots of ram outperformed the 2018 Synology.

I had been meaning to say something about this for a while on here, but I can’t remember now whether or not I fulfilled that threat promise so here goes …

To start with, I’m a “prosumer” with higher-than-average needs but by no means is it business-critical; I could manage some downtime while I wait for a replacement part, if push came to shove. Nevertheless I do depend on having fast access to my data in general, and I won’t tolerate any data loss. My experience has been that NAS products aren’t good enough, though mostly because of hardware, rather than software. Synology have always struck me as pretty cutting-edge and yet still very refined; still, given a choice, I would rather roll my own software stack for maximum power and flexibility to run on my own hardware. I want it all: speed, quietness, compactness, flexibility.

I’ve been using Macs since late 2008, so that was the hardware available to me, and while Macs had plenty of ports and ran on Intel, those were obvious candidates for servers, particularly of course the Mac Mini. I therefore ran Linux on a 2012 Mac Mini Server for a bit, as a combination router and NAS. It was … exciting! Access to the Thunderbolt port gave me the use of a LaCie 5Big (original, non-hardware-RAID) with 5 disks in it, configured in a RAID 6 using the Linux MD driver. There wasn’t really anything wrong with the setup, but getting this setup just right in the face of potential downtime was often anxiety-inducing. I am, of course, silly enough to keep doing things that make me anxious, but recognise that other, more sensible people won’t be. Still, it really only came to a head when a Thunderbolt cable between the enclosure and the port went bad, and I lost faith in Thunderbolt enclosures that I could not easily and trivially replace, calling my whole choice of platform into question. It has been an unashamed principle of mine since that what matters most is resilience in the face of component failure: keep it simple, decentralise the work, set course for commodity and easily-available hardware and software, and use existing skills/knowledge to best practical effect whilst minimising the number of compromises to the technical requirements. Most people will have worked all this out already, but I always resented making compromises to the functionality of my system, and the fact that compact, quiet, easy-to-order, easy-to-expand Linux boxes suitable for use as storage servers and routers that aren’t running custom software on an anaemic CPU don’t have mass-market appeal strikes me as unfortunate.

Now, of course, Macs are based on Apple Silicon, and though superbly power-efficient and exactly the right size, running Linux on them is much, much more challenging. Sadly, too, the state of play does seem to be that storage enclosures, particularly now those using a good-quality hardware RAID controller and/or a Thunderbolt interface, are very much targeted at the media professionals using Macs, exclusively. It would therefore seem that if you want a decent server platform that isn’t an enterprise storage server you’ll want to buy a Mac for use as your server, and do your routing on a dedicated platform if you need that (I now have a Mikrotik RB5009, but I haven’t yet given up hope of customising a Linkstar H68K). Crucially, I now use single-NVME, bus-powered OWC Envoy Express units to expand and back up the enlarged storage of a Mac Mini M2 Pro (formerly 2018 Mac Mini) running macOS to perform the file sharing duties. It is not without its attractions to run macOS as a server in 2023 (see my comments on this blog post), but I do still need Linux, so it now runs in virtual machines. I appreciate that the learning curve is less than trivial, but it does give you a nice platform that meets the requirements for being both generally available long-term, future-proof, and powerful, while being only slightly more limiting technically than bare-metal Linux; if I wanted to get back into the RAID business, then I’d try to find something that did RAID 6 in hardware, that was platform-agnostic (including Linux) and had a non-visual (like Ethernet) and non-custom-software management interface, with operating system support, if any, being limited to device drivers for the RAID chipset. There used to be something from RocketStor, but I can’t find it now. But anyway, the point is that compact, convenient, tool-free storage options that use Thunderbolt are still overwhelmingly a Mac-only game, so unless you want to go down the road of building your own box with all that comes with it, a Mac server really isn’t such a bad idea, after all, and gives you a lot of the Mac spice you’ve come to expect, including things like host-to-host Thunderbolt file transfers when you have a particular need for speed, Apple’s own file sharing server extensions, access to native Mac applications useful for automation, file sync, and backup, and so on.

Of course, if you are taking the business seriously, then somebody will be on hand to take your money. Certainly there are SME options, for example, beginning with the microserver market that are popular with small businesses willing to run production software that’s supported by the vendor, whether it be VMWare, Windows, Linux; they will have support contracts and warranties and you’ll be taken care of, but nothing like the convenience and cost-effectiveness of OS X server and these simply aren’t designed to be as compact or quiet. But many people find that they meet their needs for performance and there’s a brisk resale market for them which many hobbyists take advantage of.

I hope you find something that works for you. For myself, I hope that the situation improves for external storage on non-Apple platforms.

1 Like

Thanks for the detailed post. I can relate to much of it although we can’t afford to have downtimes of more than a few minutes. This is why we’ve relied so heavily on CCC clones in the past - if a server dies we take its clone, boot on another machine, plug in the data drives and we’re up and running again.

The greatest concern I have using an Apple Silicon Mac Mini is the reports of file sharing issues with SMB on Ventura. I haven’t seen issues personally but there are enough reports of problems to give me concerns. Custom icons seem to be one culprit but I don’t think they’ve been identified as the only possible problem.

I’m also not sure of the status of booting another machine from a clone if we had a failure. I guess an option would be to have a backup machine and configure it in an identical way to the main server. Any change to the main server would also have to be made on the backup (sounds like a royal PIA).

I appreciate it probably wasn’t a massive money earner but OS X Server really was the server-for-the-rest-of-us.

1 Like

I can appreciate your hesitancy. I mean, I know it’s not very helpful, but FWIW, even the update through Monterey to Ventura did not disturb my SMB configuration. I can’t speak to custom icons, sorry, because I’m blind and don’t really benefit from those, however, there is no problem with the link speed—the NVME SSD is the bottleneck now more often than not.

I think the cloning situation is much more clearly grim, however. The closest to getting the same result would be the data clone that is restored onto the internal SSD of the hot spare, when necessary, after first making sure the machine is running a matching OS version. Not impossible, certainly, but clearly less optimal and slower, though it might be sufficient for you.

I have very mixed feelings about the death of macOS server. It was awesome, in the beginning, when Apple had a much higher regard for admins wishing to configure it adequately. But eventually the simplifications and forced choices made the product much more brittle, till we got to the point that choosing to run Linux could easily give you an advantage in suiting the software to your needs excluding the Mac-specific stuff like APNS and net-booting. If Apple had kept up the pace, probably things would be very different; but with the death of their Xserve they really didn’t have their heart in it. Just like AirPort, it met the cruel fate that was “iOSification”. I know it looks like a mountain, but do give thought to perhaps learning Linux, so you can be in a better position. You could very well find it worthwhile even if you’re just using VMs. And who knows? I might go back there myself if the cost of Thunderbolt storage that’s easy to hot-swap becomes halfway reasonable and commodified.

Good luck!

If it was just me I’d consider it. I’ve retired but still handle the larger IT at my former workplace (one of the agreements to getting voluntary redundancy was I’d help them as a contractor).

This means the day to day stuff is done by current employees with no knowledge of servers other than the on/off switches in OSX Server. Foisting Linux on them would be a bridge too far. It has to be easy enough for when I’m not around and Linux would leave them flummoxed.