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Six Great Tips for Homemade Dot Mac Servers

by Alan Graham, contributor to Mac OS X Hacks: 100 Industrial Strength Tips and Tricks

If you've taken the time to discover the wonders of setting up your own
home server, then you're familiar with some of the usefulness it has. I've got six great tips for squeezing even more value from your computer, and they're not only functional, they're fun.

Each tip is presented in an open-ended fashion. In other words, there's enough information here to get you started, but you'll probably want to customize them to suit your own serving needs. If you come up with something exciting, be sure to post a TalkBack at the end of the article so others can share in your discovery.

Tip 1: Central File Server

One of my favorite uses for my homemade dot Mac computer is having a central file server in the house. We have a number of Macintoshes here in the Graham home; depending on what we're doing, we often switch between these machines. There's an older iBook in the kitchen that serves as a music station and a database link (recipes, contacts, shopping, To Do), we have a new iBook that I use when traveling or surfing from the sofa (my wife also uses it as her
machine), and we also have a new eMac with 1GB of RAM that serves as my
main machine and our server.

Since we switch machines often, we need to have a central repository that has all of our files available with little or no duplication. I may head off to a meeting with the iBook, and my wife needs to be able to jump onto any other machine in the house to do her design work. My wife also works freelance in an office several days a week. This means we need flexibility and remote availability.

So I setup a central file server on the eMac, keeping all our files stored on its fat drive. This gives us the opportunity to keep our files in a safe location that we can access from anywhere. Also, since I have a SuperDrive in it, it makes backing up all our files a breeze.

How To Set Up the File Server:

  1. On your homemade dot Mac server, go into System Preferences -> Accounts, and create a separate identity for every person in your house who will be using the file server. This way files are kept separate from each other in their own account directories.

    Screen shot.

  2. To make a network drive accessible on login, mount the directory for that person and then go to System Preferences -> Login Items and click Add. Navigate to Home -> Library -> Recent Servers and select the drive you want to mount at startup.

    Screen shot.

  3. Note: It has been my experience that having a drive mount at startup/login can be tricky. You need to be sure the fileserver is available at all times. If not, I have found that the Finder often hangs for several minutes while trying to resolve the drive's location. Due to this, I recommend you use a Toolbar alias to mount your drives.

    Keep it in Sync

    Since iSync doesn't yet allow you to keep files synced between computers on the same network (and it likely never will without .Mac), I recommend using an application called ExecutiveSync. It allows you to keep certain folders and files synchronized so that when you pick up and go, you leave with the right files. You can even use this program to keep files synced from remote locations outside the home. It is probably the best syncing program I have found for the money, but be sure to read the instructions carefully. There is a lot more to syncing files than meets the eye.

    If you happen to forget a file or weren't able to sync, you can always download it from the server.

    Mac OS X Hacks

    Related Reading

    Mac OS X Hacks
    100 Industrial-Strength Tips & Tricks
    By Rael Dornfest, Kevin Hemenway

    Identical Identities

    If you want to take things one step further, you can copy many of the same preferences files from your Home library across to different machines. This way when you login to a different machine, the Dock and all your applications behave just like they do on any other machine. But be careful with this. Backup your old preferences before you go replacing them with new ones.

    Tip 2: iTunes Central

    One of my favorite solutions is a little ditty I discovered by accident. I've always wanted a central repository for all my music files. The problem is that when I've been out of the house or on another machine in the house, I've had to use third-party apps like iCommune to access my own playlists and music files. iCommune allowed other people's music libraries to appear in your iTunes source list.

    ICommune ran into a little rough water with Apple and had to make a few adjustments. But since you have your own homemade dot Mac server, you can stream audio files from a central server without iCommune. You already have all the power to keep iTunes in check, regardless of your location. In fact, you can switch to multiple machines anywhere in the world and keep your iTunes settings and playlists accessible (and without an iPod).

    How To Set Up iTunes Central

    1. Place all your music files and copy all your iTunes Preferences over to your home server.

    2. Go to your remote machine (the client, not the server) and in the Finder or your browser, connect to your Home directory (make sure Personal File Sharing is on -- then just type afp:// You can do this from any location in the world, as long as you've already setup the homemade dot Mac server. This will mount the server directory in the Finder and it will appear as a network drive on the Desktop.

    3. Go into your server's Home directory and locate the folder where you store your music files. Make an alias of this folder's contents and copy them to the same directory location on the remote machine.

      Be sure to make aliases of the iTunes 3 Music Library, iTunes Music folder, and the iTunes Music Library XML. Do not copy the actual music files or folders to your remote machine or import files -- that defeats the purpose. You don't want to transfer the music files, you just want to point to them.

      Screen shot.

    4. Then go into Home -> Library -> Preferences and copy the two iTunes preferences files ( & and paste them into the same directory location on your remote machine.

      Screen shot.

    5. Launch iTunes.

    6. Bingo, you've just built a perfect mirror of your server's copy of iTunes, complete with playlists and Eq settings. Your remote machine is using the preferences you already setup on the server, and it is using the iTunes alias files to locate the music and playlists located there. If you make changes to the remote preferences or vice versa, you can use ExecutiveSync to keep those preference files in check.

      The one caveat is that you have to be sure to mount the drive each time you want to play your music. And as long as your network connection is fast enough, you shouldn't experience any lag in playing those files, regardless of whether you are in the kitchen or 300 miles away.

      Screen shot.

      The downstairs wireless music machine pulling the music from the server upstairs and the iRock 300 wireless FM transmitter for playing the music through my Tivoli radios scattered around the house. Note the bread machine rocking out! Go bread! Go bread!

      Tivoli radio.
      The Model One from Tivoli

      Note: You should be able to play as many copies of iTunes as you have the bandwidth for (I've had three simultaneous streams), however, I have experienced on two occasions where the server's copy of iTunes had difficulty accessing the iTunes library because it was locked. Although it has happened on rare occasions, it has never damaged any of my files. A quick fix seems to be unmounting the server's drive on the client and restarting iTunes on the server. Of course it doesn't hurt to keep a backup of your iTunes library files just to be safe.

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