The term server tends to conjure up images of large and imposing rack-mount boxes costing thousands of pounds, stuffed full of processors, memory and hard disk drives. However, that’s not always the case, with a growing demand for much smaller and more affordable servers to meet the needs of the small business.

What is it and who is it for?

The idea behind HP’s ProLiant MicroServer is fairly simple. Small businesses often start out sharing files on peer-to-peer basis between desktop PCs, but there comes a time when they need something a little beefier and more reliable. A ‘real’ server that can be used to share files and, maybe, host an e-mail, database or intranet Web server, without breaking the bank.

One solution might be a custom NAS (Network Attached Storage) appliance, like those from Buffalo, Netgear and Synology. The HP answer, is the MicroServer which, like other members of the ProLiant family, is a general purpose server designed to run either Windows or Linux and serve the data sharing and application hosting needs of small businesses with up to 10 users.


Pricing & setup

There’s just the one model of MicroServer at present, selling for around £209 (ex. VAT), and housed in a compact micro-tower casing not too dissimilar from the discontinued MediaSmart Home Server, also from HP.

Extremely well put together for the price, the MicroServer features a single 150-Watt power supply and a lockable front door behind which lurk pull-out plastic carriers to take four internal hard disks with, tucked away underneath, a single diminutive motherboard.

The motherboard features a single CPU socket, fitted with an AMD dual-core Athlon II Neo processor, clocked at 1.3GHz and accompanied by a modest 1GB of 800MHZ ECC-protected DDR3 memory. Storage, too is somewhat limited, with a single 160GB hard disk fitted as standard, cabled to an on-board controller capable of offering RAID 0 (data striping) and RAID 1 (disk mirroring) support. Note, however, that you need to add at least one more disk to take advantage of either of these options.

A very modest specification for a server, even one aimed at the small business, there is, fortunately, room for expansion inside the MicroServer, albeit at a price. Memory, for example, can be expanded up to 8GB, with suitable 4GB DIMMs from HP selling for £95 (ex. VAT) each. Just remember to specify them up front, if needed, as there are only two slots to play with.

You can also add more disks, either from HP or third party suppliers to provide up to 8TB in total. Similarly, it’s possible to improve on the single on-board Gigabit Ethernet interface, with plug-in Gigabit adapters available (£35 ex. VAT) and two PCI Express expansion slots to take them. There’s also a slot for an optional Remote Access card (£55 ex. VAT) to manage the server remotely via a Web interface and connect virtual media over the LAN.

An OS (operating system) isn’t included in the starting price, but can be supplied and installed by specialist resellers. Alternatively it’s possible to install an OS yourself with a choice of either Red Hat Enterprise Linux or Windows Server 2008 R2.


Does it do it well?

The ProLiant MicroServer promises a great deal. To start with it’s from HP, on top of which it benefits from the legendary build quality of the ProLiant family, with a year’s hardware warranty as standard and lots of add-on maintenance plans to choose from.

The AMD processor is a 64-bit industry-standard dual-core design, able to run Windows or Linux with ease and, despite the relatively modest, base specification, there’s scope to add plenty of memory and storage to go with it. A total of seven USB 2.0 ports are also provided for expansion, four at the front, two at the back and one inside for a backup tape drive. Plus there’s an eSATA connector to allow external hard disks to be added.

Another benefit is a remarkably small power envelope, thanks mainly to the 15-Watt Athlon Neo processor. Plus there’s a large and very quiet cooling fan to which you have to get up close and personal in order to hear. You should encounter no problems siting the server, even in a crowded open plan office.


Where does it disappoint?

Given such a low starting price, it comes as little surprise to find the MicroServer lacking in a number of key areas. Indeed, to fully match what the competition has to offer (and here we’re including both general purpose servers and custom NAS appliances), you will need to add more memory and additional hard disks, adding significantly to the price.

The operating system will also need to be factored in, and we can’t see many small businesses wanting to get to grips with Red Hat Enterprise Linux. The alternative, Windows Server 2008 R2 Foundation edition, can be added for just £149 (ex. VAT), but it’s still not the kind of product you can easily fit and forget, requiring a high level of expertise to both install and manage. For this market it would be better to offer the newly released, and much simpler to manage, Windows Small Business Server 2011 Essentials.

Other disappointments include flimsy plastic disk carriers which simply don’t gel with the otherwise very sturdy design, plus a lack of support for RAID 5 and hot-swap disks. An optical drive is also an optional extra—the DVD writer in our review sample adding £35 (ex. VAT) to the price.

Would we recommend it?

Although it clearly addresses a gap in the market, there’s nothing special about the ProLiant MicroServer and the majority of small business buyers will end up spending a lot more than the headline-grabbing base price to get what they need. Seemingly more expensive alternatives from Dell and others then start to make more sense, offering even greater scope for expansion, plus support for RAID 5 and hot-swapping of disks.

Likewise, the MicroServer faces stiff competition from a legion of small business NAS appliances which are able to match the HP product on both price and performance. Appliances with much simpler Web-based management interfaces also beat it hands down in terms of ease of deployment and day-to-day server administration