Apple introduces its first home server

Pitches $US999 Mac mini to small shops, but analyst sees it as sweet home server

Among the retooling of the more prominent iMac and MacBook lines earlier Tuesday, Apple quietly introduced its first small-scale server, a $US999 box based on the Mac mini that one analyst called the only significant announcement of today.

Dubbed the "Mac mini with Snow Leopard Server," the new device is essentially a $US799 Mac mini with two 500GB hard drives squeezed into the petite case, compared to the one 320GB drive in the stand-alone mini. Apple installs the server edition of Mac OS X 10.6, aka Snow Leopard, which costs $US499 when sold separately.

"This is the one interesting thing about today's announcements," argued Ezra Gottheil, an analyst with Technology Business Research. "It's perfect for a very small business or a classroom, but it will make a sweet home server as well."

Apple did not pitch the Mac mini-based server as at-home hardware -- instead, it touted the new system as "perfect for any small business or group" -- but Gottheil sees it as the company's first move into a potentially broader market. "This wouldn't be bad in the house," he said. "It has a bunch of USB ports, 4GB of memory, it can connect to a home wireless network, and decent if not great graphics."

The $US999 Mac mini is equipped with a 2.53GHz Intel Core Duo processor, an Nvidia GeForce 9400M integrated graphics chipset -- the same as used in the entry-level MacBook and the three least-expensive MacBook Pro models -- five USB 2.0 ports, a Gigabit Ethernet connection and single FireWire 800 port.

Apple yanked the optical drive from the Mac mini to fit the second hard drive in the case, a potential problem unless users pop for the $US99 external SuperDrive. And unlike the Time Capsule, Apple's backup and wireless device, the Mac mini lacks a built-in router.

Even though Gottheil trumpeted the Mac mini as a potential rival to Windows in the home server market, he realized that the biggest audience was very-small-to-small businesses.

"This is significant," he said. "This says Apple is going to put a real toe-hold in really small business. It's a 'My First Server' device, a 'My First Pony,' for small offices that want to get serious about backup and hosting their own e-mail."

Its other selling point, said Gottheil, is the unlimited user allowance that comes with Snow Leopard Server. "You can have as many users as you want connected to this," Gottheil said. "You can't get that from Microsoft for this price."

Microsoft has been selling a version of its Windows operating system specially crafted for home servers since 2007; it's working on a Windows 7-compatible edition of Windows Home Server, but has delayed the release of that upgrade, citing the need for additional testing . The Windows 7-ready upgrade is now set to ship before the end of the year.

Windows Home Server supports a maximum of 10 users.

The Mac mini with Snow Leopard Server is available now on Apple's online store, and will ship within 24 hours of ordering.

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