Decision 4: Which Mac?
Let’s start with some assumptions and definitions. If you’re interested in the dedicated server approach, I assume you’re willing to spend some money. Somewhat arbitrarily, I’ve decided to cap the spend on this Mac server at $2000. That should give me (I think) enough room to build something quite good, but in the world of high-end audio it is a medium-sized expenditure. I also suspect that you can accomplish most of what I have in mind for about half that amount and I’ll try to point out how.
Given that price point, in the world of Apple, we have only the Mac Mini and the iMac to choose from. Broadly speaking, they aren’t that different. I selected the Mac Mini mainly because I think a lot of people will have an old monitor sitting around that they could use with it, and that helps me save some of the budget. It also fits better in my mind with the modular vibe of a custom music server (there’s something odd in my latent Puritan mind about buying a new display every time I want a new computer).
As far as configuration goes, my assumption is that the key thing for a music server is RAM. Ideally we want to read data into RAM and never split the computer’s attention between data in RAM and data on disk. More RAM, in principle, helps with this. 4GB is the maximum RAM for a Mac Mini, so I went with that.
Since we’re not doing heavy processing, I don’t care much about which processor we have and, as you’ll see below, I don’t plan to use the internal drive for music storage so I didn’t care about that either. A Mac Mini custom-configured this way – minimum processor and disc with 4GB RAM -- is $699 (in the end I found that Amazon sells the 4GB Mini with a larger disc and processor for $758, so that’s the actual machine I’ll be using).
The Mac Mini doesn’t come with a keyboard or mouse (a point to take into consideration when choosing Mini vs. iMac). For this application I considered that a virtue, because space constraints in our lab favor a keyboard you can hold in your lap. The Logitech DiNovo Edge (Mac Edition) is wireless and has a built-in touch pad mouse (as on a laptop). I spent $90 for this baby, even though it doesn’t contribute to sound quality at all.
Total spent so far: $848 (assuming you have an old monitor or a monitor with two inputs).
Decision 5: Internal or External Storage
Now that we’re talking about a dedicated music server, you could put you music on the internal hard drive. This is the lowest cost solution, and should work well.
I’m uncomfortable with that idea, though. I basically don’t like the idea of having to transfer all my music to another drive if the computer needs to be upgraded (a virtual certainty it seems). I also don’t like the limitation of the Mac Mini to 500GB. While that’s a lot of storage, it seems limiting.
The alternative is to start with external storage. In terms of performance, there is a slight advantage potentially gained with external storage because the operating sytem is on one drive (internal) and the music data is on another drive (external). In principle, things can happen faster with this arrangement.
I like external storage because I can choose the size of the drive more easily. I like the modularity because an external drive should allow me to replace my computer more easily (ripping or transferring huge amounts of data takes time). I also like the fact that I can choose a RAID (Redundant Array of Inexpensive Discs) system if I want.
While external storage would seem to be more expensive, the difference isn’t that big in practice. Apple essentially charges $200 to go from 160Gb to 500GB. A 1TB external drive (twice the size of a 500GB drive) costs less than that ($179 or less to be exact).
Decision 6: Local or NAS Drive
A local drive sits next to your Mac and plugs into the USB or Firewire port. NAS (network attached storage) is an alternative. It is just a hard drive with an interface that allows it to send files over a network.
You could run music files from the NAS, but I don't like the idea of possible lags in that system. 100 Base T Ethernet has a theoretical throughput lower than Firewire 800, and it also has more resource competition (other stuff on the network, and routers and such to go through). Apogee and others with more experience than I have caution against network drives as primary storage. Others who've tried this say it works fine.
So, I'm going with a local external hard drive. The primary copy of each music file resides on the external hard disk in this setup. I'm playing files from the external drive, which is sitting inches away from the Mac Mini and is connected via Firewire. The operating system is on the internal hard disk. My reasoning is to have the primary music files on a separate box that can be easily transferred to another computer.
I chose to have the external drive be RAID (see below). That means the first line of backup is on the external drive sitting next to the Mini. RAID simply doesn't raise the price enough in my mind to make it rational to skip it. But as I said, don't let me spend your money.
Speaking of spending money, I also plan to add a NAS drive. The NAS drive sits next to our network router and is plugged in there. It is connected to the Mini via Ethernet. If you're following, the RAID is primary backup, the NAS is a second backup.
Who you callin' paranoid? Actually, the NAS is entirely optional in my view, but I like the ability to access the NAS from other computers and even RAID drives have failure points.