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.