Server for small networks: choosing the right device

What the optimal server should be able to do for a small network and how it must consequently be structured, varies greatly depending on the purpose. In the simplest case, it is just a matter of a common file storage that a few client computers share. Some people, on the other hand, need 50 terabytes of storage for their huge video collection. For some, the server has to be particularly economical and quiet, while others require a powerful multi-core processor and more than 64 GB of RAM with ECC error protection. Anyone looking for an affordable server for a small network must therefore give careful thought to the specific use. Because some properties are difficult to combine, for example high computing power and fanless operation.

The first question has nothing to do with the server hardware, but with its support: What does the future administrator trust himself? If you like tinkering with PCs and are familiar with Linux or Windows Server, you might be able to manage on your own. However, if the server is important for business operations, you need a problem solver when the actual admin is on vacation or sick. For commercial use, building the server yourself is not recommended anyway: Here you write off the investment and avoid liability risks if a competent service provider takes care of the installation and maintenance. Nevertheless, you have to tell the service provider what you need – this article provides the necessary know-how.

Mini-PCs like Intel’s NUC (far left) and Zotac’s Zbox nano (2nd from left) are suitable for simple server services, but can hardly be expanded. The Asrock Deskmini (far right) can accommodate two SSDs and two notebook disks. A ready-made NAS (2nd from right) saves a lot of effort in installation and configuration.

Anyone who has little experience with server management should have a look at the finished network storage (Network Attached Storage, NAS). Thanks to the huge range of functions and plug-ins as easily retrofittable and compatible extensions, NAS boxes cover a wide range of tasks for which one would have previously bought a small server. Established NAS brands such as Synology, Qnap and Netgear have been maintaining their respective NAS firmwares for several device generations and offer numerous plug-ins for additional services such as backup, cloud replacement, mail servers, video surveillance, Docker containers and virtual machines (VMs) on. NAS firmware is usually an adapted Linux that is managed via a more or less comfortable web interface using a browser. Support is available for such standard functions and the manufacturers maintain compatibility lists for hard drives and SSDs, which reduce the likelihood of problems.

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