The Downfall of a Meta Server or “Why a Mac Mini Makes a Terrible NMS Server”

In a recent post named The Making of a Meta Server or “Why I Bought a Mac Mini as a NMS” I explained why I had chosen a brand new, 2012 Mac Mini as my NMS hardware. After two weeks of mind numbing work, I have officially declared the Mac-Mini-as-a-NMS project a failure.

The main problem surrounded Apple’s custom EFI. Apple hardware does not use a BIOS, but instead uses EFI (note: not, specifically speaking, UEFI). Or rather, it uses an ancient, bastardized version of EFI 1.1. There is a BIOS compatibility layer that allows OSs that can only communicate with a BIOS to operate on the hardware. Most notably Windows. Apple’s OS also runs on a hard disk that has been partitioned using the GPT partitioning scheme, which isn’t itself a huge deal, but you might be surprised at the anemic support for GPT boot disks in even modern operating systems.

To use the Mac Mini to boot an OS that needs BIOS compatibility and a MBR disk should be relatively easy. Right? Right!

Unless Apple is involved.

There are several things that Apple has mutated away from the EFI standard, one of them being not using the EFI system partition for anything except firmware updates. Their custom EFI implementation has the boot process (as well as some extra filesystem drivers) baked in. The whole EFI experience just never worked like I expected it to. The other trouble is that Boot Camp has been changed in OS X Lion. If you wanted to be hand held through the partitioning process and the creation of a hybrid GPT/MBR disk, you’re invited to use Boot Camp. However the latest alterations only allow media with Windows images to be accepted. You can no longer (from my ability to understand) use Boot Camp to install non-Windows OSs. Of course, it was always unsupported, but at least it was doable.

During the whole process, I used the EFI boot manager rEFIt which apparently only recently works with OS X Lion. I read more about the GPT partitioning scheme than I ever have previously. I learned more about EFI than I ever wanted to know (although all of that information will come in very handy in the near future). I hand-rolled bootable USB thumbdrives. I tweaked partition tables. I did very nearly everything I could think of except rolling my own EFI boot partition. After the hours had steadily ticked away I decided it was no longer worth it.

After countless errors concerning boot media, partition problems, and blinking cursors, I concede that the latest Mac Mini has defeated me. It has been shipped back to Amazon and I can go back to my Apple-less existence. Speaking of Amazon, I believe that they deserve some praise in this.

Amazon made the returns process easier than any return I have ever made. Anywhere. I stated that the reason I returned it was because software I had intended to use with it was not compatible. As a result of the return not being their fault, I had to pay return shipping. Within just a few clicks, Amazon created a return label. I printed it out, boxed the mini up, taped the label to the box and handed it over to the man behind the UPS Store counter. Within 15 seconds I was walking out of the store. I have the fortune of living just a few hundred miles from an Amazon return center located in the Las Vegas area so the return was processed and money credited back within two days. Thank you, Amazon. You were the only bright spot in this debacle.

I am now investigating other pieces of hardware for this project based on the recommendations of several colleagues. If you have a recommendation, share it with me and the rest of my readers in the comments below. I’ll certainly write about my second attempt at this project as it happens.

In the end, I’m not mad. The Apple wasn’t designed to do what I was asking it to do. It was my fault. My only lingering frustration is that the Mac seems to take any standard technology that it uses and twists it in new and different ways so that your familiairty with a standard becomes more of a liability than an asset. Sound like another familiar company that SysAdmins like to pick on? Then again, Apple isn’t intended to be in the business market. Let us pause and mourn the passing of the Xserve (I handed my G5 Xserve over to Best Buy for free recycling last year. So, so sad…).

Any similar experiences with an Apple product? Have you managed to wedge an alternate OS on 2012 Apple hardware? Let me know in the comments below.


  1. RobM

    May 9, 2012 at 4:14 am

    No suggestions on what to do instead but I can’t say I’m surprised about the mac mini not working out. Apple just like to do things their own way and the moment you want to to off that path they aren’t interested in you.

    I’ve got a mac mini working as a media centre underneath my TV. It does an absolutely beautiful job of that… but then I’m not trying to make it do something Apple doesn’t like.


    • Wesley David

      May 9, 2012 at 8:55 am

      Apple. The possibilities are limitless! As long as they’re our possibilities.


  2. furicle

    May 9, 2012 at 6:24 am

    Kudos for your comments, it can be tough to admit publicly when things don’t pan out. Instructional for everybody this way.

    You made a comment in the previous post about ‘six year old workstations’ that sounded like something you might want to reconsider. Six year old power supplies might be questionable, but by definition this unit could fail without the business even noticing, uptime here is desired but not required. What’s wrong with say a 2 year old desktop? or a new Walmart special? The specs are easy to match, and at idle the power consumption isn’t all that different…


    • Wesley David

      May 9, 2012 at 8:47 am

      I reconsidered it, but there are a few things on the list that I wanted to do with it that might be a little valuable to the business. Things like the ticketing system as well as the image management services come to mind. Relying on an ancient desktop would make me a bit nervous. I tossed the idea based on their size; I didn’t want to have a regular desktop just sitting under a desk so would put it in their equipment area for servers and network equipment… and that space is limited.

      Nevertheless, I think I’ve settled on an alternative that turns out to be rather larger than a Mac Mini. I’ll blog about that later. =)


  3. Trever

    May 9, 2012 at 6:57 am

    Hmm, there’s a certified unix under the hood. I take it that the monitoring software was written for Linux only? It would be n extra layer to deal with, but VirtualBox could have been used here.


    • Wesley David

      May 9, 2012 at 8:51 am

      While they’re technically a certified UNIX under the hood, that designation has always made me wonder who Apple bribed to get it. It seems squirrely enough and speciated enough to not make the endeavor worth it.

      As for Virtualbox, using OS X as a “hypervisor” seems like an enormous waste of resources, plus a huge added layer of possibilities for things to go wrong.


  4. russm

    May 9, 2012 at 7:27 am

    assuming you didn’t want to dual-boot, why not just ignore EFI entirely and use an MBR partition table like any other x86 hardware? that works fine for me… the only times I bother with mixed EFI/MBR partitioning is gear that also needs to boot OSX…


    • Wesley David

      May 9, 2012 at 8:52 am

      I tried straight MBR using the EFI’s BIOS emulation and CentOS’s installer wouldn’t even boot.


  5. Rob

    May 9, 2012 at 7:52 am

    Curious whether you considered running OSX for the NMS box.

    Two other possibilities… if 2GB is enough, looks pretty tempting. Two of my coworkers are considering those. Wall/VESA mountable Atom, fanless, quiet, low power.

    If rackmount is an interest, (a.k.a. would be tempting to me. D525 with IPMI KVM and a well-known brand, max of 4GB RAM.


    • Wesley David

      May 9, 2012 at 8:54 am

      The ECOPC was a strong contendor, but I was swayed away from thin clients and other PCs because I realized I really wanted some kind of KVMoIP capabilities. I did consider the SuperMicro Atom line. I would wedge the pizza box somewhere unassuming. I very nearly bought one, but the consistent complaints about the power supply’s terrible ruckus made me stutter on the “BUY!” button.

      I actually bought a box already, but I’ll save the surprise for a later blog post. It hasn’t even arrived yet so I haven’t even kicked the tires to be sure it will work.


  6. Alan Latteri

    September 26, 2012 at 11:13 pm

    I have had centos 5.x and 6.x running on my MacBookPro for years. Never had any issue installing. Very easy in fact. You really over complicated it.


    • Wesley David

      September 27, 2012 at 9:05 am

      When you say “for years” that shows me that you haven’t tried to install CentOS on a recent Mac. Try it out on a hardware made in 2012, specifically the Mac Mini and see if it still works. The hardware has changed since the MBP a few years back and the ability to install different OSs on it no longer remains as easy.

      Of course, if you do manage to get CentOS 6 on the 2012 Mini, let me know so I can pick your brain. =)


      • fixafone123

        January 22, 2013 at 2:16 pm

        Were you ever able to get CentOS installed on your Mac Mini? I am running into the same problems.


        • Wesley David

          January 22, 2013 at 2:29 pm

          Nope, was never able to get it working. The Mac’s firmware resisted all efforts at getting a foreign OS installed on the hardware.


  7. G:-)

    March 11, 2013 at 3:24 pm

    Hey Wesley, old post I know but stumbled across it while looking for some other info. I’m currently running the free version of ESXi 5.0 on recent MacMini (with Thunderbolt), which I know a number of people are doing. While most of the posts on install are a little fiddly because of driver support, I’ve got to say I cheated and just used my Dell installer, which had all the drivers pre-loaded, and it was plug and play for the install (USB key). I wasn’t trying dual boot though, just blew OSX away completely. The limitation on ESX are higher than any mac mini spec these days, and the overheads of it as the hypervisor are very low. Big bonus is on Apple kit you can even run your OSX as a virtual machine. Only downside is you can’t sit at the console and fiddle, but hey its a server. Has worked so well have bought an xmac mini server with 10Gb cards to hang of our corporate iSCSI, not for your application I realise, but good fallback now mac don’t make servers. Oh and before anyone asks, no the hardware is not supported by WMware at this stage, but you sound like you are prepared to try some unsupported things 😉


    • Wesley David

      March 11, 2013 at 8:23 pm

      Wow, sounds awesome. Never thought of doing ESXi on a Mini. I may revisit the MacMini, but was kinda spooked off of the whole idea after this. The Micro Server is just so huge by comparison though. It’s hardly “micro.” Anyway, thanks for the information!


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