Serving a Website on Mac OS X

2002 – A few weeks ago, I jumped five years of computer history. I switched from a 200 MHz 603e-based Motorola StarMax 3000 Mac clone to a recently discontinued 933 MHz Quicksilver 2002 Power Mac G4.

Back and Forth

Motorola StarMax desktopAt first I was thinking that I’d put the StarMax to use as a Web server. It has a good amount of RAM and can have an IDE drive with massive amounts of room for serving. Then I realized that it would be a waste of electricity: I can use my Power Mac as the server at the same time that I use it for other things.

The OS X Advantage

One of the big advantages of Mac OS X over the Classic Mac OS is that it has protected memory. One program can crash without bringing down the whole computer.

Any Mac might be able to act as a server – an SE/30 could be your mail server or a Quadra 605 could be a Web server. What Mac OS X brings to the party is that the server can be your main Mac. Protected memory means that you won’t crash the Web server when you crash a single program.

A Quadra running only a web server might be pretty reliable, but you’d never try to run it with web browsing and playing a game at the same time. It would crash, and your site would go down. On Mac OS X, that doesn’t happen. It’s not the more powerful hardware (though that helps); it’s the way the operating system works.

In the next few articles, I’d like to examine how to do web serving on Mac OS X. Much of this information will be applicable to Mac users without Mac OS X. The same concepts can be used with the Classic Mac OS , Yellow Dog Linux, or even NetBSD on a 68k Mac.

In this article I’ll discuss some of the preliminaries. Before you start serving, you need to consider your electricity, your Web serving software, your Internet connection, and getting a domain name.

Electricity

If you are going to have an official website, it needs to be on all the time. In the Energy Saver system preference, the computer should be set to never go to sleep and to automatically restart after the power goes out. You want to disallow the hard drive spinning down – otherwise your site could have a 15 second delay that might make someone think your site was down.

You might set your monitor to go to sleep, since this can save a lot of energy. A 17″ monitor can use about 150 watts of power in an hour.

You might consider getting an uninterruptible power supply (UPS) to help cover your for brief power outages of a few minutes. If you need a server with 100% reliability, you need 100% reliable electricity – and that probably means paying someone to host your site. Generator backup can be expensive.

Alternatively, if you are doing a personal site, you might be satisfied with 99.9% reliability – that means that you could have up to 43 minutes of downtime every month. Where I live, having a UPS should keep me reliable for most of the year, barring a large, prolonged power outage.

Any server that’s going to be on all the time will use a lot of electricity. Some people use laptops as servers because they use less energy. I like serving on Mac OS X, because I have my Mac on a lot anyways.

If you are using an older Mac to serve, it’s worth checking online to see how much energy the Mac uses. The much maligned Performa 6200 is thrifty on energy – it uses far less energy than other desktop PPCs. Combined with MacHTTP, it might be all the power that you need.

If you are using an older Power Mac (say a 7100), you’ll use roughly the same amount of electricity as if you were on a new Power Mac (say, a Quicksilver 2002). That’s why I decided against using my StarMax as a server.

Apache

Apache is the Web server software built into Mac OS X. It’s very powerful, but like any power tool, it can be dangerous if used incorrectly. There’s a great series of articles on MacDevCenter that walks you through setting up Apache. It involves a lot of little details, but if you set aside some time and are careful, it’s not that bad. You might want to read the series through once before doing much changing. Or at least read the particular article through completely before making changes. Making a backup of a file before you change it is also a good idea.

If you are running a BSD system or Linux on an older Mac, you could still use Apache as your server. On the Classic Mac OS, you could use AppleShare IP (expensive but easy to use) or MacHTTP as your web server software.

Broadband

If you are going to run a personal website, you probably need a broadband connection. If you have a dedicated second phone line, it is theoretically possible to serve with a modem, but that’s a lot of effort for not a lot of performance. With a cable modem, DSL, or a LAN connection, you can probable get enough performance for a small website. You don’t want to be running Low End Mac, which serves many GBs every month. A broadband connection would have bandwidth for a family website or a site for your work organization.

Name

A domain name is the equivalent of an online address. Instead of numbers (i.e., 123.123.123.1), you get something more memorable (i.e., lowendmac.com) You can serve your data off of the Mac without getting a domain name, but no one will ever find it.

So head over to EasyDNS and set up a domain name. Why EasyDNS? They are a sponsor of TidBITS, the oldest Macintosh ezine. That shows that the company is supporting the Mac. EasyDNS is relatively easy to use, and they have great help online to walk you through setting up the name server. In many ways, they are the “Mac” of the domain name universe.

Next week I’ll discuss more details of how to set up the domain name and some other bits of setting up a personal server.

Publisher’s note: Sadly, this was Jonathan Ploudre’s last Back & Forth article for Low End Mac.

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