As a family we are all-in on Apple Photos… Our images are ‘magically there’ on phones, tablets and laptops. We share photo streams with family and make albums of important events. And whilst we mostly use iCloud to sync images, it’s reassuring to know they are all backed-up ’in the cloud’ too.

But I don’t trust Apple’s copy to be my only copy – we talked about this in detail on this week’s 361 Podcast.

Until now that’s been simple to fix – I setup a ‘home’ Mac laptop to download every image at full-resolution and let Time Machine (to a Synology NAS with redundant drives) take care of the rest.

Since the birth of our son my wife and I take a lot of photos and – inevitably – the laptop ran out of space. An emergency clean-up helped, but it’s clear this will only be a short-term fix and the clogged disk slows-down other apps.

What I want is the ease of Apple Photos without leaving my files solely in Apple’s hands. Switching services is the nuclear option as the family has many years of familiarity with Apple – a change would be ‘unpopular’.

I considered and dismissed several options:

  1. Archive less important images somewhere else to keep the Apple Photos library a manageable size. This is a short-term option but requires frequent manual curation. Also, it doesn’t prevent the library of images we do want to keep available from becoming too big in future. A definite no.
  2. Upgrade the home Mac’s disk. I could fit a Terabyte disk to provide ‘enough’ photo and other-uses storage for the foreseeable future, but this is pricey if I want to maintain SSD speeds for other day-to-day use. Possible, but poor value for money.
  3. Add external storage to the home Mac. This is a cheaper and more flexible way to add storage – USB3 is fast enough to run a Photos library from now – although it would need to remain connected all the time. Quick and easy, but inconvenient and fragile.
  4. Use network storage to host the Photos library. Possible in theory, but too slow in practice – especially over WiFi. Not an option.

For now, I’ve gone with a 5th option: a dedicated Mac ‘server’ for backups.

For about £30 per month (at current exchange rates) I rent a Mac Mini (i7 processor, 1TB internal storage and 16GB RAM) with 4TB external storage in a Las Vegas datacenter from MacStadium (this is a grandfathered promotional price plan from MacMiniColo before they were taken over - prices start from $79 now). It’s always on with data-centre quality power and networking and an engineer will replace it for me if it breaks.

I considered a similar approach with a virtual Windows server and iCloud for Windows. In theory this would offer a similar capability more cheaply, but the unreliability of syncing and Photo Stream when I tested syncing it put me off.

So far, this is working well:

  • Remote desktop access feels as fast as a local machine even over 4G from an iPad (Screens is an excellent app for this).
  • Storage is sufficient for all our Apple Photos need in the foreseeable future.
  • Time Machine takes frequent versioned backups.
  • Large imports / exports no longer take our home Mac out of use.
  • I don’t worry about accidental damage or (unfortunately frequent for us) power cuts at home.
  • I can install other backup services - I'm backing up our other important data direct from our home NAS and am also testing image sync to both Google Photos and Amazon Drive.

I’ve read posts from people doing similar things who go-on to run their websites and mail servers from the same device. I’ve decided against that for now and locked-down the services / ways to access as much as possible to keep my data secure. For now I sync only data I’d be happy to have in any other cloud service to keep the admin manageable.