Mac USB & FireWire

Older Macs as File Servers

Dan Knight - 1999.09.10

I've received some excellent reader feedback on The Ethernet Alternative to USB Drives, mostly from people who are already using older Macs as networked file servers.

Old Mac Servers

Steve writes:

As a long time low end Mac user (and reader of yours) I would answer your question: "Is a Mac on ethernet a viable alternative to USB hard drives?" with a definite yes! The caveat being 'What is viable'? I had an LC II and an SE/30 connected via ethernet, each with several external SCSI devices attached. When I bought an iMac 233, I replaced the LC II on the network, and I now use the SE/30 as my back-up storage server. For a low demand situation like mine, ethernet is a very viable alternative to a USB drive. In a higher demand situation like you described in your article, perhaps not as viable an option. So, for low end users an ethernet solution can be very satisfactory.

With System 7.5.5 freely available from Apple, any Mac with a hard drive (even the Mac Plus) can act as a file server. Of course, it may not be economical to add ethernet to some of these antiques - the $45 card I put in my $19 SE being a prime example - but it's always neat to know what you can do.

Since System 7.0, the Mac OS allows personal file sharing, which supports up to five users at a time. For almost any home network, and even small offices, that can be all you need.

To do it right, you want a Mac with at least 4 MB of memory, System 7.5.5 (very stable, good OpenTransport support on all but the oldest Macs), ethernet, and a big, fast hard drive. If you follow dealmac and visit HiTechCafe occasionally, you can sometimes find some incredible hard drive bargains. Last week I missed out on a 4.5 GB Quantum drive for $89 at HiTechCafe. On Wednesday, I ordered some 1 GB Fujitsu wide SCSI-2 drives for just $29 each.

For a small network, a gigabyte or two is plenty of storage. You may only need a larger drive if you want to back up your iMac, iBook, PowerBook G3, or Power Mac G3 to a networked volume.

With used low end Macs such as the LC, IIsi, and IIcx going for a song, if you don't already have a second Mac, setting one up can be very inexpensive. (BTW, if you have two to four older Macs, they can share a keyboard, mouse, and monitor using the MoniSwitch from Dr. Bott, a product I use both at home and at work.)

Old Macs and Unix

Ed writes:

The idea of using Unix is cheaper, since it can be run on older hardware, but it is a server - and throughput, as such, does increase. Equipment as old as SEs can serve as print and/or file servers. I'd strongly recommend using a Quadra or higher, but you can find OSes to run on the older systems.

Options include:

NetBSD, OpenBSD, and some variants of Linux (Linux support is not firm on the 68k Macintoshes, but is very firm on the PowerMacs, with offerings including mkLinux from Apple and the Open Software Foundation, LinuxPPC and YellowDog Linux). While being a considerable challenge to set up and install, these OSes could easily take a piece of equipment that was once thought to be very dead and bring it back to a very productive life. There are freely available downloadable software packages to have the OS utilize AppleTalk for networking with a LAN of Macintoshes, and you could even "proxy" or set up a firewall that could be used with cable modems, xDSL, or even a 56k modem, as well as serve as a printer RIP and queue.

And here's the best part of these OS's - they're available free on the internet or can be purchased on CD from many retailers worldwide.

Caveat Emptor: Unix is not easy to learn, nor is it always forgiving as far as error messages, etc., but with the right tools you can get most anything done with it as with anything else.

I'll second that. Unix and its variants (BSD and Linux foremost among them) are not for the faint of heart. I once set up my IIcx with NetBSD, but never could figure out just how to do anything with it.

There are excellent support forums for BSD and Linux. You'll probably find NetBSD and FreeBSD the best options for 680x0-based Macs, Linux for Power Macs. For links on these Unix variants, see our BSD Page and Linux Page.

Setting up a vintage Mac to run a non-Mac OS will be a real learning experience, and it can also help prepare you for Mac OS X, which has a BSD core hidden behind the familiar Macintosh interface.

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