Using OS X as a File Server for a Network

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Using OS X as a File Server: What You Need

Using OS X 10.5 as a File Server
Leopard’s ‘Sharing’ preferences pane makes setting up a file server a breeze.

File servers come in many forms, from dedicated computer systems like Apple’s Xserve, which has a base sticker price of $2,999, to NAS (Network Attached Storage) hard-drive-based systems, which can be found for as little as $49 (you supply the hard drives). But while buying a preconfigured solution is always an option, it’s not always the best option.

If you would like to have a file server on your network, so you can share files, music, videos, and other data with other Macs in the house or office, here is a simple step-by-step guide that will let you repurpose an older Mac. You can turn it into a file server that can be a backup destination for all of your Macs, as well as allow you to share files. You can also use this same file server to share printers, serve as a network router, or share other attached peripherals, although we won’t go into that here. We will concentrate on turning that old Mac into a dedicated file server.

What You Need

  • OS X 10.5.x. I chose to use Leopard as the OS because it already incorporates the software necessary for file sharing. This will make installing and configuring the server as easy as setting up a desktop Mac.
  • An older Mac. I’m using a PowerMac G5, but other good choices include any of the PowerMac G4s, iMacs, and Mac minis. The key is that the Mac must be able to run OS X 10.5.x and support additional hard drives. They can either be external hard drives connected via FireWire, or for desktop Macs, internal hard drives.
  • Large hard drive(s). The size and number of drives is dependent on your particular needs, but my advice is not to scrimp here. You can find 1 TB drives for well under $100, and you’ll fill them up faster than you think you will.
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Using OS X As a File Server: Selecting the Mac to Use

For most of us, this decision will be determined by the Mac hardware we happen to have lying around. Luckily, a file server doesn’t need a great deal of processing power in order to perform effectively. For must uses, a G4 or later Mac will more than suffice.

That being said, there are a few hardware specs that would help our file server perform at its best.

Hardware Needs

  • Network speed. Ideally, your file server should be one of the faster nodes on your network. This will help ensure it can respond to requests from multiple Macs on the network in a timely fashion. A network adapter that supports Fast Ethernet (100 Mbps) should be considered the minimum. Luckily, even that old G4 should have this capability built in. If your network supports Gigibit Ethernet, then one of the later model Macs with built-in Gigibit Ethernet would be an even better choice.
  • Memory. Surprisingly, memory is not an important factor for a file server. Just make sure you have enough RAM to run Leopard without bogging down. One GB of RAM would be the minimum; 2 GB should be more than sufficient for a simple file server.
  • Desktops make better servers, but a laptop will work as well. The only real problem with using a laptop is that its drive and internal data buses are not designed to be speed demons. You can get around some of these issues by using one or more external hard drives connected via FireWire. By the way, the same slower hard drive and data buses are present in the Mac mini, since the mini uses laptop components. So, if you’re going to turn a Mac mini into a file server, plan on using external hard drives with it as well.
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Using OS X as a File Server: Hard Drives to Use With Your Server

Using OS X 10.5 as a File Server - Hard Drives to Use With Your Server
SATA-based hard drives are a good choice when buying a new HD. Photo © Coyote Moon Inc.

Choosing one or more hard drive can be as simple as making do with what you already have installed in the Mac; you can also add one or more internal or external drives. If you’re going to buy additional hard drives, look for ones rated for continuous (24/7) use. These drives are sometimes referred to as ‘enterprise’ or ‘server’ class drives. Standard desktop hard drives will work as well, but their expected lifetime will be reduced since they are being used in continuous duty and they weren’t designed for it.

  • Internal hard drives. If you’re going to be using a desktop Mac, you have some options for the hard drive(s), including speed, connection type, and size. You will also have a choice to make regarding hard drive cost. PowerMac G5 and later desktops use hard drives with SATA connections. Earlier Macs used PATA-based hard drives. If you plan on replacing the hard drives in the Mac, you may find that SATA drives are offered in larger sizes and sometimes at lower costs than PATA drives. You can add SATA controllers to desktop Macs that have expansion buses.
  • External hard drives. Externals are a good choice as well, for both desktop and laptop Macs. For laptops, you can gain a performance boost by adding a 7200RPM external drive. External drives are also easy to add to a desktop Mac, and have the added benefit of removing a heat source from the interior of the Mac. Heat is one of the prime enemies of servers that run 24/7.
  • External connections. If you decide to use external hard drives, consider how you will make the connection. From slowest to fastest, here are the connection types you can use:

You can find a breakdown of the interface speeds in the About: Macs review of the OWC Mercury Elite-Al Pro external hard drive enclosure.

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Using OS X as a File Server: Installing OS X 10.5 (Leopard)

Using OS X 10.5 as a File Server - Installing OS X 10.5 (Leopard)
OS X 10.5 (Leopard) is a natural for Mac file sharing. Courtesy of Apple

Now that you have chosen a Mac to use, and have decided on the hard drive configuration, it’s time to install OS X 10.5 (Leopard). If the Mac you intend to use as a file server already has Leopard installed, you may think you’re ready to go, but that may not quite be true. There are a few things to consider that may persuade you to perform a fresh install of OS X 10.5.

Why You Should Install a Fresh Copy of OS X 10.5

  • Reclaim disk space. Chances are if you’re repurposing a Mac that already has Leopard installed, the startup disk has a great deal of unneeded data stored on it in the form of applications and user data that the file server won’t need. In my own example, my repurposed G4 had 184 GB of data on the startup drive. After a fresh install of OS X, plus a few utilities and applications I wanted on the server, the amount of disk space already in use was less than 16 GB.
  • Start your server off without disk fragmentation. While it’s true that OS X has built-in methods for keeping a disk from becoming heavily fragmented, it’s better to start with a fresh install to ensure the system can easily optimize system files for their new use as a file server.
  • Fresh OS X install lets you erase and test your hard drive. Unless they’re new drives, the hard drives will be operating for longer periods of time than they’re used to. It’s a good idea to use the ‘Zero Out Data’ security option to erase the hard drives. This option not only erases all of the data, but also checks the hard drive, and maps out any bad sections so they can’t be used.

Ready to install OS X? You can find complete step-by-step instructions in the About: Macs ‘Erase and Install Method for OS X 10.5 Leopard’ guide.

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Using OS X as a File Server: Configuring File Sharing

Using OS X 10.5 as a File Server - Configuring File Sharing
Use the ‘Sharing’ preferences pane to select folders to share and to assign access rights.

With OS X 10.5 (Leopard) freshly installed on the Mac you will be using as your file server, it's time to configure the file sharing options. This is the main reason we chose Leopard as the OS for our file server: File sharing in Leopard is a snap to set up.

Setting Up File Sharing

A quick overview of file sharing, to help you understand the process, followed by detailed instructions.

  1. Enable file sharing. You will be using Apple's native file sharing protocol, aptly named AFP (Apple Filing Protocol). AFP will allow Macs on your network to access the file server, and read and write files to and from the server, while seeing it as just another folder or hard drive.
  2. Select folders or hard drives to share. You can select entire drives, drive partitions, or folders you wish others to be able to access. Define access rights. You can define not only who can access any of the shared items, but what rights they will have. For instance, you can give some users read-only access, letting them view documents but not make any changes to them. You can provide write access, which allows users to create new files as well as edit existing files. You can also create a drop-box, a folder that a user can drop a file into, without being able to see any of the folder's contents.

To set up file sharing, follow the instructions in the About: Macs 'Sharing Files on Your Mac Network in OS X 10.5' guide.

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Using OS X as a File Server: Energy Saver

Using OS X 10.5 as a File Server: Energy Saver
Use the ‘Energy Saver’ preferences pane to configure your Mac to automatically reboot after a power failure.

How you run your file server is really up to you and how you intend to use it. Once they start it, most people never turn their file server off, running it 24/7 so every Mac on the network can access the server at any time. But you don’t have to run your Mac file server 24/7 if you don’t need ‘round-the-clock access. If you use your network for a home or small business, you may want to turn the file server off once you’ve finished work for the day. If it’s a home network, you may not want all family members to have late-night access. In both of these examples, creating a schedule that turns the server on and off at preset times might be a better approach than 24/7. This has the advantage of saving you a bit on your electric bill, as well as reducing heat buildup, which will save you on cooling loads if your home or office has air conditioning.

If you’re going to run your file server 24/7, you probably want to ensure that your Mac will restart automatically if there’s a power outage or your UPS runs out of battery time. Either way, 24/7 or not, you can use the ‘Energy Saver’ preferences pane to configure your server as needed.