Macs in the Enterprise

Turn Your Old Mac into a Website Server with Free Open Source Software

- 2008.07.02 - Tip Jar

If you're reading Low End Mac, you probably own an older Mac, one that you adore and want to keep running and viable long past the sell-by date. With the tips and tricks you've found here, you likely have made your Blue and White G3 last longer than anyone ever expected - even the engineers at Apple. That G4 Cube that you bought on a whim is still purring along, quiet and stylish. And you even have a few G3 iMacs in use, processing words and slowly displaying web pages.

But the writing is on the wall. None of those units are officially supported by Mac OS X 10.5 "Leopard", and they sure as shooting won't be supported by OS X 10.6 "Snow Leopard". Truth be told, they are getting a little slow on the uptake, maxed RAM or not.

If this is you - and especially if you run your own small business - where your formerly idiosyncratic choice of Macs is indicative of your working style, these Macs have at least one more iteration of service left to you: LAMP.

LAMP is an acronym for Linux Apache MySQL PHP. It's a collection of software (called a stack, in server parlance) that turns any ordinary machine into a server capable of dishing out dynamic websites. And, like every flavor of open source software, it's free. And while it's getting harder to find vendors that provide this sort of software for PowerPC architectures, one of the oldest and most respected, Debian, still does.

Linux on Macs has been discussed here a great deal lately, with some folks downright down on the idea - and I can see where they're coming from. Linux, no matter how far it has progressed, is no Mac OS. Apple's flagship operating system is all swooshes and rounded corners and polish. Linux, at best, is a bit rough around the edges, unexpectedly sharp in places, and showing duct tape in others. But when you consider the limitations of your 16 MB graphics card plus your slower hard drive and system bus, Linux - and especially a Linux installation that does not use a graphical interface - can look past some of those issues.

Linux without a GUI

You heard right - no GUI. Your beloved Snow iMac is destined for service, not for play, and an expensive desktop (in terms of performance) is a waste of limited resources. Don't be too scared, though. One of the first things you can do is install a web-based graphical configuration tool (webmin, for example) and get some of those same features without all the overhead.

Apache is the de facto standard for serving up websites. A favorite under Unix for ages, it's also the same software that Apple includes in OS X (the Personal Web Sharing system preference). This is no different than turning on the web services on your Mac - just a little bit peppier and a bit more complex to configure. Again, web-based configuration tools can help ease this pain, as can many excellent online resources.

MySQL doesn't come standard with your Mac, but it is one of the most popular flavors of SQL database out there. For smaller scale operations (and more recently, enterprise class operations) it serves admirably, and again, the price can not be beat. Online tutorials can get you from installation to full utilization in a matter of minutes.

Finally we come to the P in LAMP. This is a little more flexible and depends on what you're doing. Perl, PHP, and Python all serve admirably in creating dynamic content on the Web, with PHP being the most popular, and Python making rapid inroads in recent years. Whatever flavor works best for you - and this might be dictated by software bundles that you choose to run, like forum software, or online store packages - will work wonderfully under Linux.

Requirements for Linux on Your Mac

There are several Linux distributions available that support PowerPC architecture, officially or unofficially. Debian is one of the oldest and most respected distributions still in development, and they are still in the business of supporting PowerPC. A bare install, plus the necessary support software (Apache, MySQL, PHP) comes in at less than 800 MB - an easy fit even on an old 2 GB hard drive. (In interest of fairness, this is my goto distribution for older hardware to be used as a server - while some of the newer distributions have made great advances in desktop usability, that's wasted on a CLI-only server.)

Yellow Dog Linux still supports PowerPC actively, but for anything older than a G4 you'll have to go back from the current version (6.x) to a prior release. Not even all G4s are supported by 6.x - my eMac ceased to be supported with the release of 4.x. It's hard to get an exact fix on how much disk space to expect to use with a simple LAMP installation, but a normal desktop installation, with all the bells and whistles of a graphical desktop and productivity software fits in 3 GB, so I would expect it to still fit in less than 2 GB without the GUI.

A community-supported branch of Slackware, called Slackintosh, is still currently in development as well, thought not as actively as some others. This is not a distribution for the faint of heart, requiring quite a bit of hand configuration, but it is quite fast and an efficient use of resources. A reasonable system with a stripped down GUI can be made to fit in less than 300 MB of drive space, and a similarly frugal LAMP system in less than 250 MB.

Finally, there is arguably the most popular distribution in current development - Ubuntu. The folks at Canonical, the company that supports Ubuntu, stopped officially supporting PowerPC two versions back. That said, the unofficial support community is huge, and there's very little lag time between an official Intel release, and the unofficial PowerPC port being made available. Here again, you can get into a base LAMP installation for under 1 GB of hard drive space.

Regardless of the distribution you choose, when it comes to memory utilization, more is better. A bare minimum to start the party would be 64 MB, but do not expect MySQL to perform very well - it may not even run at all! I would not recommend this setup for anything but serving up static web pages. If you're going to really use the M and P in LAMP, you'll want a minimum of 128 MB of RAM, preferably 256 MB or more. Given that most folks who have kept their Snow iMac or Mirror Drive Door G4 tower alive this long have already maxed the RAM in their systems, it shouldn't be too much of a problem.

I've focused on G3 era Macs and newer with this article, but if you're one of our hard-core readers and have an old Power Mac 8500 sitting around gathering dust, it too can be pressed into service - just don't expect earth-shattering performance, and expect to have to tinker a bit more to make it happen. But with support for 512 MB of RAM, it might not be quite as slow as you expect. Heck, I've got a 6500 that's got a date with Debian as soon as I get more RAM installed.

Linux and LAMP are not panaceas. You're not going to be running Victoria's Secret's streaming video fashion shows on your eMac. But by using these free tools and investing just a bit of time into research - most everything you'd want to do has almost certainly been done by someone, somewhere, with a penchant for sharing - you can give your favorite Yikes! G4 tower one more shot at not just making due, but really being a productive member of your office. LEM

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