Small Business Server Review: HP Proliant Microserver

A Reliable, Entry-level Small Business Server

Small businesses frequently forgo a network server when first starting out, either because they lack the money, or they don’t believe a small business server is essential at the outset. The alternative — storing data on desktop PCs and sharing it among a handful of users via a simple peer-to-peer (P2P) network — can work for a while, but as an organization grows it becomes increasingly difficult to manage and protect data without the centralized control that a small business server provides. Yet, inertia often causes smaller companies to operate without a server long past the point they would benefit from having one.

HP hopes its new ProLiant MicroServer — a compact entry-level small business server that offers many of the same features common in larger tower-sized models — will help coax small businesses with around 10 computers, or perhaps a few more, into making the switch from a P2P to a server-based network.

Server Design and Expansion

At first glance, the ProLiant Microserver somewhat resembles HP’s MediaSmart family of consumer-focused, and similarly pint-sized, Windows Home Server products, though the Microserver small business server uses different underlying hardware.

The MicroServer’s “Ultra Micro Tower” metal case measures a scant 10.5 x 10.2 x 8.3 (W x H x D), making it a good deal smaller than the typical desktop PC. The MicroServer also runs very quietly — HP cites a noise level of 22 dBA — and emits little heat, so it can be put pretty much anywhere in an office you might put a PC. The sound coming from our MicroServer’s internal fan was so hushed that we had to feel for airflow to verify it was actually working, and that air barely felt above room temperature. By comparison, the fan noise from a nearby compact PC — by coincidence, also an HP– was quite noticeable.

On the front of the MicroServer, an HP logo lights up in one of three colors to show the small business server’s health. Blue denotes normal, while amber and red indicate non-critical and critical system problems, respectively.

Despite the lack of bulk, the MicroServer doesn’t sacrifice much compared to larger servers in terms of connectivity and expansion potential. On the back of the unit you’ll find VGA, Gigabit Ethernet, eSATA, and two USB 2.0 ports, and four more USB 2.0 ports reside on the front. There are also two free PCI Express slots (an x16 and an x1) available for internal expansion.

Server Storage, Processor and Memory

Swing open the MicroServer’s locking front panel, and you’ll find four 3.5-inch hard drive bays that use slide-out plastic trays. Each hard drive bay is capable of hosting a 2 TB SATA drive for a maximum of 8 TB of internal storage, and the integrated storage controller is capable of RAID 0 or 1, but not RAID 5.

The MicroServer’s hard drives must be affixed to the trays via four screws, so you’ll need to have a screwdriver handy to add or replace drives, and since the drives are not hot-pluggable, you’ll need to shut down the server before doing so. Still, this is an improvement from most entry-level small business servers, which typically employ internal drives connected by the same conventional data and power cables used by desktop PCs.

Above the MicroServer’s hard drive cage sits a standard externally accessible drive bay suitable for a DVD or tape backup drive. (HP also offers an optional hard disk cartridge-based RDX backup drive.)

The MicroServer’s CPU is a 1.3 GHz Dual Core AMD Athlon II Neo. This low-power processor (the only one available) is no powerhouse, but it’s a big reason the MicroServer can run without generating much in the way of noise and heat. The small business server can hold up to 8 GB of error-correcting (ECC) DDR3 RAM, but the fact that it’s only got two DIMM slots means getting to 8GB will require a pair of relatively pricey 4 GB DIMMs, whereas a larger server with four DIMM slots would allow you to use less-costly 2 GB DIMMs to get to that level. (As a rule, the fewer DIMMs you use to assemble a given amount of RAM memory, the higher the cost.)

Server Operating Systems and Pricing

The MicoServer’s base configuration, which includes 1 GB RAM and a 160 GB hard drive, sells for $329 and doesn’t include such things as a keyboard, mouse, or operating system. The MicroServer is certified for use with Windows Server 2008 Foundation and Standard versions (the former is limited to 15 users) and Red Hat Linux 5.5. Though it’s not officially supported, HP said the MicroServer’s been tested with Ubuntu as well.

HP expects the majority of MicroServers to be purchased via resellers, often with added OS installation and/or ongoing support services. It’s also available online directly from HP, though only in the aforementioned base configuration — you can specify optional hardware, but these items ship separately and must be installed by a customer or reseller. For customers so inclined, HP provides detailed instructions on how to install various components, and the MicroServer’s motherboard, which is mounted on a slide-out shelf below the hard drives, is fairly easy to access after loosening a pair of thumbscrews and disconnecting a few cables.

Our MicroServer test unit, configured with 2 GB, a pair of 160 GB hard drives, a DVD RW drive, and Windows 2008 Server Foundation, would ring up roughly $800 before adding optional support packages (1 year of overnight parts replacement by mail is standard).

The HP Proliant Microserver is well-designed and well-equipped, with plenty of expansion potential and ample RAM and storage capacity. If you’re looking for your first small business server that will consume minimal space and serve up data without a side dish of noise and heat, it’s worth serious consideration.

Joseph Moran is a longtime technology writer and co-author of Getting StartED with Windows 7 from Friends of Ed.

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