Servers for small businesses are one of the fastest-growing areas of the IT market, according to market researcher IDC.
Much of this is down to the Small Business Server (SBS) software from Microsoft, which has combined the basic Windows Server 2003 engine with extra features like internet access sharing, Microsoft Exchange for email and contacts, and, in the premium version, SQL Server for running databases.
This "everything including the kitchen sink" approach does make the reviewer's job harder, as to explore the package fully would take days if not weeks.
But for small businesses, one of the most important questions is how easy is it to set up an SBS server. Firms wanting to run SBS have two options: buy hardware and software separately, or order a server and software bundle. The latter approach is both simple and cost effective, with companies such as Dell selling basic servers with SBS for £700.
Set-up on an existing server will take longer, but it is far from difficult. Boot up the computer from the supplied CD or DVD, and the program walks the user through all the stages.
Installing SBS and Exchange on an existing server took the best part of two mornings, though much of this time is spent configuring and formatting disks. Also, it does take quite a while to load Microsoft's security updates (a vital step). For the configuration tested here, there were 18 updates in total.
Once set up, though, the server worked well on a mixed network of Windows and Macintosh computers, and Exchange handled downloading email from an ISP without fuss; this is an important feature for small firms that do not run their own web servers.
The SBS installer produces an extremely useful "To Do" checklist, so it is hard to miss out an important step. Having tools such as backup built in adds to a sense of reassurance.
The well-publicised security issues with Microsoft-based servers might deter some companies from investing in SBS, but in practice a well-maintained Windows server poses few threats to a small business. SBS comes highly recommended.
Rating: 4 out of 5.
Pros: comprehensive, easy to set up.
Cons: IT managers need to be religious about applying security updates.
Price: server hardware with SBS from around £700.