Introduction

Still running your network from a couple of workstations-turned-servers? You need an upgrade - Dave Mitchell digs out eight of the best starter models on the market

The SMB networking market continues to experience strong growth. With prices of equipment coming down all of the time, businesses which may before have existed with a handful of PCs connected to the Internet via a broadband router are now beginning to set up more advanced networking infrastructures. But despite this, there are still many companies out there yet to purchase their first server or are relying on a system that would be better off in a museum.

It's tempting to think that a well-specified PC would be a good candidate for a server but this is a false economy. It may well be able to run your choice of network operating system and applications but remember that with all of your data stored in a single location any failure is going to have far-reaching effects. A purpose-built server is a far more sensible investment as it offers features that the average desktop PC can't hope to match.

In this group test we invited eight vendors to submit a system that primarily suited small businesses looking for their first server. We set a price limit of 1,500 exc VAT for the hardware only and to spice things up we made no requests for particular specifications but left it entirely up to each vendor to decide what they thought would be suitable for the target market.

In an ideal world...

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The entry-level server has a massively diverse range of requirements to address and, as a result, needs to be a versatile beast. Many businesses require twenty-four hour operations so build-quality and cooling must be top-notch. This is a long-term investment so upgrade potential needs to be good, and when it comes to adding extra components or carrying out routine maintenance you'll need to be able to get in and out quickly. Good internal design and layout ensures that the server is down for the minimum of time.

Management is also a valuable feature. Server-specific motherboards, for instance, allow you to monitor critical areas such as disk activity, cooling fan status and internal temperatures. Sensors on the motherboard can pass this vital information to management software running on a remote system so you can keep a close eye on server integrity and receive early warnings of problems.

Our price limit ensured the participants kept a close eye on value and this group test shows clearly just what you can get for your money in this highly competitive market. Even so, the manufacturers have had to perform a juggling act with components - and some have done better than others. Read on to see how they all fared.

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