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.