Mac Network Appliance: Make Your Own MP3 Server

Computers are supposed to make life easier, right? It seems like if I have a faster computer, I should be able to get things done more quickly and have more free time for important things – like talking to my fiancé or getting some exercise. But often that isn’t the way it seems to work out for me.

Back and Forth

The Need for Appliances

I know that computers are supposed to save me time and energy, but I spend so much time tweaking and playing with my Mac that I never seem to get ahead. I enjoy optimizing, but let me be honest: It’s a waste of time. I spend way more time optimizing than I actually save by doing the optimization.

What I really need is some Mac appliances that actually simplify my life.

The best example of a computer appliance in my life is my TiVo. A TiVo is essentially a Power Mac 6100 with a huge hard drive, a TV tuner, and an Internet connection. It does one thing (record TV), but it does it well. I tell it that I like to watch The West Wing, and it figures out where and when to record. It learns what sort of shows I like and finds me other things to watch.

I can fit my favorite prime-time shows into whatever time I’m available, since there are always several hours of good shows on the TiVo whenever I sit down. And, best of all, I can fast forward through commercials. I can watch two hours of broadcast in an hour and a half. I probably save an hour each week through skipped ads. If only my Mac could save me time like that!

In the next few articles, I’m going to outline some ideas of ways that existing Macs can be put into service as Mac network appliances. My goal is to pick sufficient hardware and software to set up something that can be like an appliance – inexpensive, reliable, and simple. Networking is the key idea; it allows simplification on the particular appliance, since other services can be had over the network. My first example is a MP3 server.

MP3 Server

I love music, but CDs or tapes can be a hassle. I want access to all of my music at any time. But using CDs is like backing up a 230 MB hard drive using a floppy drive. Too much swapping. There’s a huge time investment on the front end to making an MP3 server – it takes a long time to convert your CD collection. But once it is done, there’s a whole realm of flexibility. Assuming a network (say a home AirPort Base Station), one network computer can contain all the MP3s, and various other Macs can tap into that server to get whatever song you want.

Performa 630So what Mac makes the best server? For my money, it’s the Quadra/Performa 63x series. Combined with, say, a 30 GB IDE hard drive for under a $100, a $20 ethernet card, and a $50 tape backup drive,  you can make a relatively inexpensive (compared to today’s prices) system that can easily serve MP3s to your network.

Let me add some detail. The 63x series has a 68040 processor that can run Mac OS 8.1. When dealing with drives as large as 30 GB, it is beneficial to have OS 8.1, since that is the minimum system that can use an HFS+ formatted hard drive. The Mac also needs 12 MB of system memory to run the Mac OS and file sharing. All the software necessary for sharing on a small home network is built into Mac OS 8.1.

The 63x series was the first desktop Mac to use IDE hard drives, and IDE drives are exactly what you want for an MP3 server, since they can inexpensively hold lots of data. The Quadra uses a subset of the IDE specification and won’t exploit a fast drive, so you don’t need to worry about getting a fast IDE drive – the cheapest one that has the capacity you want will be fine. I have a 60 GB drive on my Quadra 630, but all my CDs (around 250) only use about 15 GB. If I were buying a drive now, I’d probably only get 30-40 GB and save some money.

Even though a Quadra is incapable of playing an MP3, it can easily serve them across an ethernet network to other Macs. I encode my MP3s at a variable bitrate (VBR) of around 160 kilobits (or 20 kilobytes) per second. The ethernet card on my Quadra 630 easily supports a connection of 800 kilobits (or 100 kilobytes) per second. While my Quadra is far below the theoretical bandwidth for ethernet, it is easily capable of serving MP3s that are small. The 63x series can add ethernet through either the comm slot (~$15 on eBay in February 2001) or through the LC PDS slot (~$25). The comm slot is less popular/expensive because many 63x Macs have modems in that slot.

A backup device is vital, since you don’t want to spend weeks converting your CDs only to have the hard drive fail on you. A tape drive is a good bet, since that will mean there will be fewer members to your backup set. I have an APS HyperDAT that puts about 4 GB on a tape. My first backup took a whole day (only 10 minutes were hands-on time), but subsequent backups are very quick, since I don’t frequently add much to my collection. Having a dedicated backup for the server isn’t that expensive and adds a level of data security that is missing in all of the commercially available MP3 servers I have seen.

A final advantage of the 63x series (and also the Performa 6200 and 6300) is the low power consumption. These Macs were designed with smaller power supplies and smaller energy requirements than the professional Macs of their day.

The software side of things is quite simple. First, you need to use Drive Setup to partition the hard drive into two volumes. The first volume should be about 100 MB and be formatted in Mac OS Standard (HFS). That holds your system software, since Quadras cannot boot from a Mac OS Extended (HFS+) volume. The second volume will be the rest of the drive formatted as HFS+ to store your MP3s. Just turn on File Sharing and networking in Mac OS 8.1 – and turn off nearly everything else. Set up your Users & Groups control panel, too.

I also use the Auto Power On/Off control panel so that my MP3 server turns itself off during the night to save power. I keep AppleScript enabled so I can run a script to have Disk First Aid do some automatic maintenance. I have a control panel called Okey Dokey Pro that I use to dismiss dialog boxes automatically. In particular, it allows the Mac to shut down at night even if someone is connected to the server. I have Dantz Retrospect to run my tape drive for backup.

I haven’t actually tested it with a Mac, since I don’t own any Power Macs. Instead I have a wonderful fiancé – last fall I sold all my Macs and my PowerBook G3 to help buy an engagement ring.

Anyhow, I have tested my server with my roommate Bill’s Dell. He has CopsTalk, which is a Windows AppleTalk client. On his computer I can easily listen to any MP3 without skipping, and the networking/server is reliable. I’m sure that a Power Mac with ethernet will have no problems with skipping or pauses if it is set up correctly.

I’d love to try Apple’s new iTunes software [released January 2001 – ed] with my server, but I’ll have to wait until I get another Power Mac.

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