Before we get started
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If you’ve been a Mac fan for a while, then you may have an old Mac lying around somewhere, gathering dust. Maybe you’ve told yourself that you’re going to get around to selling or donating it one day (perhaps as soon as you’ve found the time to wipe all your personal data from it) but these aren’t the only options available to you.
Why not give your old Mac a new lease of life, by repurposing it as a file server?
With just a bit of setup, you’ll be able to access your Mac’s contents and storage wirelessly from any other computer on the same network, in exactly the same way you’d access a regular folder or hard drive.
This can give you access to lots of additional storage, as well as a place to backup your Mac’s most important content. Plus, if your streaming experiences aren’t as fast as you’d like, then a file server is ideal for sharing large media files, such as HD movies, videos and music with other Macs on your network. Streaming large media files that are stored locally tends to be much faster than trying to stream the same content directly from the Internet – so you can finally enjoy your favourite HD movies without them constantly stopping to buffer!
In this article I’m going to show you how to transform your old Mac into a file server that you can connect to from any other device on your local network.
Why should I use my Mac as a file server?
Macs are far from the only devices you can use as a server. Most modern operating systems can function as file servers, and you can also purchase a device that’s designed to act as a file server, such as a NAS (Network Attached Storage) hard drive based system.
However, there are a number of benefits to using your old Mac as a file server. The most obvious benefit is cost – why bother shelling out on a dedicated file server, when you already have an old Mac that can fulfil the same purpose? Your MacBook may not necessarily boast the same amount of storage as a device that was designed to function as a file server, but if you start struggling for space then you can always increase your Mac’s storage by connecting an external hard drive.
Another major benefit to using an old Mac, is that you’ll already be familiar with its hardware and software. This familiarity can make the process of configuring and using your file server much more straightforward, and if you do encounter issues with your server then you’ll be able to use your existing Mac knowledge to help you diagnose and fix the problem.
Finally, Apple products are designed to play nicely with one another, so you’ll be able to connect your Mac, MacBook, Apple TV, iOS device, and other Apple products to your server, with very little configuration. In fact, most of the time your Apple devices should be able to detect your Mac-server automatically, at which point you’ll be able to connect to it with a single mouse click.
The major downside to using a Mac as a file server, is that there’s really no such thing as a cheap Mac, so if you don’t have an old Mac lying around then it usually won’t make financial sense to purchase a Mac simply to use as a file server. Chances are that even an old, second-hand Mac purchased at a reasonable price is going to be more expensive than a NAS with similar specifications.
What you’ll need
In order to complete this tutorial you’ll need a Mac or MacBook running macOS 10.5 or higher, as Leopard saw the introduction of some important file sharing features.
If you’re using a MacBook as your server, then for the best possible results it should be capable of supporting external hard drives, as once you start using a MacBook as a file server you’ll find that you burn through its internal memory much faster than you anticipated.
You should also be aware that although most MacBooks will function perfectly fine as a file server, desktops do tend to have larger hard drives and more USB ports that you can attach external storage devices to, which tend to make them more effective as file servers. Desktop computers are also less susceptible to overheating, which may become an issue if you’re running your server 24/7.
Setup your Mac for remote access
To setup your Mac as a file server:
- Select the ‘Apple’ logo from the toolbar, followed by ‘System preferences…’
- Select ‘Sharing.’
- The subsequent window contains a ‘Computer name’ field. This is how your Mac will identify itself to other devices on your network, so make sure this is set to something memorable!
- In the left-hand menu, select the ‘File sharing’ checkbox. Make sure you have the ‘File Sharing’ itself selected – it should be highlighted blue.
- In the ‘Shared folders’ section, click the little ‘+’ icon and then select all the items you want to share – this can be an entire hard drive, an SD card, or even individual folders such as ‘Documents.’
- For every item you’ve added, select it in the ‘Shared folders’ list. This will open a ‘Users’ menu where you can see exactly who has permission to access this item, and whether they have read and write permissions, or read permissions only. Make any changes as necessary.
Connect to your new server
Your Mac is now setup to function as a file server. As long as your server is awake, you’ll be able to access all of the items you marked as ‘Shared,’ from any other device on your network.
To connect to this server from another Mac, simply open a ‘Finder’ window, and most of the time your server will appear automatically in the ‘Finder’ sidebar. At this point you can connect to the server by clicking it, and then you’re ready to start accessing, editing and transferring files between your server and your client.
However, sometimes your server may not appear in the ‘Finder’ automatically. If this happens, then you can help your Mac recognize your new server, by completing the following steps:
- On the Mac you’re using as your server, go to ‘System preferences… > Sharing.’
- Under the ‘Computer Name’ field, you should see the message ‘Computers on your local network can access your computer at,’ followed by an address in the .local format. Make a note of this address.
- On the Mac you’re using as your client, launch a ‘Finder’ window.
- Select ‘Go > Connect to Server…’ from the toolbar.
- In the ‘Server address’ field, enter the .local address you retrieved from your server.
- Click the ‘Connect’ button. The server should now appear in your ‘Finder’ sidebar.
Make sure your server doesn’t fall asleep!
You can only access a server when it’s awake, so if you want to be able to access your server at any time, day or night, then you’ll need to leave your server running 24/7.
However if you’re setting up a file server for home use, then you usually won’t require around the clock access, and may choose to switch your server off when you’re heading off to sleep or work.
If you do only require access to your server at certain times, then you can save yourself the effort of switching your server on and off, by creating a schedule that’ll activate and deactivate your server for you.
To create this schedule:
- Navigate to ‘System preferences… > Energy Saver.’
- Click the ‘Schedule…’ button.
- Select the ‘Start up or wake up’ checkbox.
- Specify the day(s) and time(s) when your Mac should launch automatically.
- Select the ‘Sleep’ checkbox.
- Open the dropdown menu and select either ‘Sleep’ or ‘Shut down.’
- Use the corresponding dropdown and text field to specify the day(s) and time(s) when your Mac should power down automatically.
Note that your Mac will only boot automatically based on your schedule, when it’s connected to a power source.
Regardless of whether you plan to leave your server running 24/7 or whether you’ve created a schedule that’ll wake your Mac up and send it to sleep at preset times, you’ll want to ensure your Mac doesn’t drift off to sleep automatically. To prevent your Mac from going to sleep, navigate to ‘System preferences… > Energy Saver’ and set the slider to ‘Never.’ Note that this particular menu contains ‘Power Adapter’ and ‘Battery’ tabs, which both feature their own slider, so make sure you set both of these to ‘Never.’
If you’re using a MacBook as a server, then you may want to leave your MacBook’s lid closed. By default, macOS will go to sleep as soon as you close the lid, but you can set it to remain awake even with the lid closed, using the InsomniaX app. Just be aware that a MacBook is more likely to overheat when its lid is closed!