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Helix 6 Server — Choosing the Right Hardware

With the release of Helix Server for macOS, we have been getting numerous questions about which hardware is the best for running Helix Server. Although we have not done exhaustive testing to determine the absolute optimal hardware configurartion, this note attempts to outline the areas in which we believe hardware choices correlate to performance benefits for Helix Server.

macOS 10.3 Required

Helix Server will run on any hardware that supports macOS 10.3 or higher. Therfore anything with a G3 chip or higher can be put into use as a Helix Server.

Although we do not have any hard facts to back this up, it is our impression that macOS 10.4 (aka Tiger) is faster and more stable tha macOS 10.3 (aka Panther), so we recommend running Helix Server on a Mac with macOS 10.4 installed.

Specific Guidelines

Beyond the OS itself, the performance (and stability) of Helix Client/Server will be most directly affected by the quality and horsepower of the Macintosh the Server runs on. With that in mind, here are some guidelines for choosing the best Mac to run Helix Server…

  1. The faster the processor, the faster Helix will run.
  2. Multiply the size of your collection by 2, and add 512MB for macOS. That's the minimum amount of RAM you should have for optimal performance. If you are running other applications (or services such as file sharing) on that Mac, add more RAM for them as well.
  3. Helix is "hardware sensitive" so if you want the most stable system possible, spend the extra money on error correcting (ECC) RAM. (Note that you must have ALL ECC RAM installed or the error correcting capabilities are turned off. This is not required, but we mention it only because some people want the absolute best for their Server.
  4. We do not fully understand the way macOS handles virtual memory (VM) yet, so we now suggest faster hard drives. Most stock drives are 5400 or 7200 RPM. (The Mac mini is advertised as 4200 RPM, but some ship with 5400 RPM drives.) Again: for the absolute best performance, a 10,000 RPM drive is recommended.
  5. Helix 6 itself dos not take direct advantage of multiple processors. (We did some work on this in Helix 6.0, but discovered that it will be an expensive job, programming-wise and were forced to set it aside for now. We do not currently have a schedule for when we will resume this work.) HOWEVER: multiple processors do not sit idle: the OS itself can offload many tasks to the other processors, giving Helix a larger share of the one processor it does use. Purchasing a Quad G5 specifically to run Helix is probably not useful: purchase a dual-core G5 instead and put the extra money into more RAM, faster hard drives, etc.
  6. Xserves are also an option for running Helix Server, but much of the extra expense of an Xserve is for the macOS Server software, a $999 package if purchased separately. If you do not plan on utilizing the services macOS Server offers, a G5 tower will work just as well, and you'll get more horsepower for your money.

To reiterate: none of these are requirements. You can run Helix Server on an old Bondi Blue iMac with minimal RAM or a new Mac mini with its slow hard drive if you want to.

Shameless Plug

As you may be aware, one of our principals (Matt Strange) also owns Autograph Systems, an Apple Authorized Reseller. If you already have a good relationship with a local Apple reseller, we encourage you to continue that relationship.

But if you typically buy your Macs from one of the mail order places, Autograph Systems would be happy to sell you your next Mac. Since Autograph Systems is not a mail order catalog company, the rules under which Apple allows resellers to operate prohibit them from directly marketing to the Helix customer base. But if you contact Matt, that's OK.

Purchasing from Autograph Systems brings two benefits. First: it keeps Matt working and indirectlly funds Helix development. Second: it can save you a few dollars on the price of a tower or Xserve.