Small business server appliances

If your business can't support a large, dedicated IT department, you need a straightforward appliance that delivers a range of network services. We review five and choose a clear winner.

When Sun pulled the plug on its Cobalt product line in 2003, some analysts predicted that the server appliance market would suffer a similar fate. However, that hasn’t happened, and a growing band of products are now available, five of which are evaluated in this group test.

Linux is a common theme in this market, although the operating system and applications running on it are usually hidden beneath a Web-based user interface. But that doesn’t necessarily mean reduced functionality: appliance servers can enable small businesses, with limited budgets and IT expertise, to deploy the same kind of server-based applications as large corporates.

What’s in the box?
What you get is, typically, a small box housing relatively modest PC server hardware and pre-loaded software. This simply plugs into the local network to provide a range of shared services -- starting, nearly always, with file sharing.

A local SMTP mail server will also be available, to handle both internal and external mail, with support for POP3 and/or IMAP4 access using clients such as Microsoft Outlook, Eudora and so on. You'll often get a Web-based mail client with, in some cases, shared address books, calendars and other groupware functionality.

A Web server is another core component, to support both intranet and public Internet Web sites. Moreover, most appliances are designed to be used as gateway/routers, connecting the LAN to the Internet -- making them ideal platforms for additional security applications. Consequently, you’ll find most with a built-in firewall and VPN server functionality, while some go further and offer antivirus, anti-spam and content filtering capabilities.

How they’re sold
Linux may be cheap, but appliance vendors have to make money and pricing models vary widely. Some sell outright, with optional support and other services as required; others include their appliances as part of a complete managed service. As might be expected, the cheapest products only provide basic facilities, while those offering more advanced groupware and security options can be surprisingly costly.

What we found
Of the appliances we tested, those from Equiinet and Inty were clearly skewed towards network security. Equiinet's NetPilot Plus impressed us the most, and is recommended for that role.

However, neither of these appliances was particularly well specified in terms of network productivity tools, and if it's a general-purpose server you're after, our Editors' Choice has to be the Net Integrator Micro. It may be small, but it's very well equipped, with an innovative self-managing OS plus a good mix of network productivity and security tools -- all at an affordable price.

SME server appliances compared

Axentra Net-Box H-85


Equiinet NetPilot Plus

Inty ExoServer XL

Net Integrator Micro

Processor AMD Duron Transmeta Crusoe Intel Celeron Intel Celeron Via Eden
RAM (MB) 256 128 256 512 256
Disk space (GB) 120 20 30 120 40
10/100 Ethernet ports 2 5 2 3 3
Wireless interface 802.11b/g 802.11b/g none none none
WAN connectivity Ethernet Ethernet Ethernet/
internal ISDN or X.21 adapter
internal ISDN or X.21 adapter
USB ports yes yes yes yes yes
Backup facility yes yes yes yes yes
Network productivity
File sharing Windows + WebDAV Windows Windows Windows + Apple Mac Windows + Apple Mac
Web server yes yes yes yes yes
Mail server SMTP/IMAP4 SMTP/POP3/
Browser client yes yes no yes yes
Groupware functionality yes CRM application no shared address book ExchangeIt!
Network security
Firewall yes yes yes yes yes
VPN server no yes yes yes yes
VPN client no no yes no no
Anti-virus scanning no yes yes yes yes
Spam blocking yes yes yes yes yes
Content filtering no no yes yes yes
Price (ex. VAT)
£425 £963 £2,495 £2,495 £940 (5 users)