Disclaimer: The following is concerning networking Apple computers together, using an Apple computer as a server. Windows isn’t mentioned because, for this purpose, it’s not applicable.
Friend of the show, CJ, posed the question above on Twitter earlier. Having a few minutes, we went back and forth on adding a Mac Mini server to a home network. He is looking at replacing an existing Mac Pro and is concerned with file storage. Besides the Mac Mini, he is also considering a Synology DiskStation, which is another great option.
The Synology is interesting in that it is, essentially, a linux server with a custom UI. Within the admin section of the device you can configure it to act as a firewall, mail/web server (complete with WordPress), iTunes media server, DHCP server and even a personal cloud server. All rolled into one device. And, at just a skoosh over $300, a pretty good deal. The biggest con of this is redundancy. The drives are fixed and can’t be swapped without opening the case. You can mirror to another Synology device on the same network (via rsync if you speak nerd) or backup to an external USB drive. The experience that I have had with the Synology has been very positive. It’s reliable and quiet and file transfers are pretty quick.
If your budget has more room, the Mac MINI with an external drive would be a better solution. With the Mac Mini, you get a full O/S computer that can be used as a regular desktop machine. Adding a Drobo or multiple Thunderbolt drives would allow you to extend storage to more than you will probably need over the life of the device. If you are looking to do some cord cutting, that’s another advantage of going with the Mini. Add the Plex Server and app to this machine connected to your home entertainment center via HDMI cable and you have a powerful device that will not only serve your files, but you media as well.
You could go full server on your Mini too, which would get you additional on-board storage and other server only options (user account controls, for example), but if all you need is file serving and you are planning on using external storage anyway, I’d vote against the Server version of the Mini. I’d go with the $599 version, add as much RAM as possible and put the rest toward external storage like a Drobo or a few daisy chained Thunderbolt drives (any of these would be awesome).
If you are looking to have access via Windows machines, the Synology device or a networked Drobo would be a better choice, unless you are looking for a full blow media server/HTPC type device.