By Stephen H. Wildstrom Servers can be scary. These workhorse computers, whether running Windows 2000 or Linux or Novell's NetWare, present untrained administrators with a barrage of technical concepts and incomprehensible choices. But increasingly, it's difficult to run even a small business without a server of some sort to manage the local network and control access to the Internet.
Some products on the market, however, can make the job of setting up a server both cheap and simple. I recently tried out the new Qube 3 from Cobalt Networks (www.cobalt.com), which was acquired by Sun Microsystems. Unlike Sun's big Sparc servers, the Qube, which starts at $1,149, does everything it can to hide the complexity of network administration. The server actually runs Linux, but all management is done using a Web browser and requires no special training.
Setting up the Qube is just about plug and play. You connect the power, plug it into your Internet connection -- exactly how that's done depends on the nature of the connection -- and in most cases, the server will configure itself. You can then proceed to create user accounts with easy control over just what services users have access to and how much disk storage they're allotted.
FIREWALLS AND HOSTING. For a simple and inexpensive server, the Qube offers lots of power. A firewall to protect your network from intrusion is built in. You can opt to use the Qube to host a Web site -- though I think you'll be happier, and your network will be much more secure, if you post pages only for internal consumption and use an outside hosting service for your public site. You can run a mail server and even a sophisticated database server. The cheapest equivalent product from Microsoft, the five-user Windows 2000 Small Business Server, costs more than $1,300 just for the software.
The Qube 3 comes in three different models. The cheapest features 32 megabytes of memory and a 10.2-gigabyte hard drive, and would probably best suit a network of 5 to 10 users. The top-of-the-line Qube 3 Professional costs $2,099 and comes with 128 MB of RAM, a pair of 20.4 GB hard drives, and the capability of adding an external disk-storage array.
Compaq offers fairly similar, but somewhat more expensive, competition in its Prosignia NeoServer line. The base NeoServer 150 offers 64 MB of RAM and a 13.2 GB hard drive, but no Internet connectivity. Most businesses would go for the $1,799 Internet Plus version, which adds connectivity. But if you're looking for power and ease of use, Qube does the trick. Wildstrom is Technology & You columnist for BusinessWeek. Follow his Flash Product Reviews, only on BW Online