Time was when a server was an expensive add-on for a small business or a branch office of a larger enterprise. There was a great deal of advice in the media and elsewhere about minimising the cost of information sharing, one tactic being to only install a server when the company's employee count grew to double figures.

Today, there's no excuse for even the smallest company not to run a small box. Plummeting computer technology prices, so welcome a feature of the PC and notebook market, are reflected in today's server prices.

And the biggest vendor of low-end servers is undoubtedly Dell, as a result of which it's reckoned to be third in the server market overall, having just overtaken Sun. The figures suggest that the company's picked up over 10 per cent of share in the last year. With a large number of customers for its products, almost everyone has an opinion about Dell but its value for money at the bottom end can hardly be denied.

As a result of its volume buying, Dell was offering deals on its cheapest server, the PowerEdge 430, which meant, at the time of writing, that you could obtain a 2.4GHz Pentium-based server in exchange for under £250. And its January sale offers include processor upgrades, tape drives and switches, depending on which machine you buy.

It's also brought dual core to most of its server lines. For instance, you can configure the 830 to a point where it could support a fair-sized department, depending on the application, for little more than £1,000 -- a 3GHz dual core Pentium 830 with 4GB RAM, 73B SCSI disk and gigabit Ethernet costs under £1,300. Just add storage.

Dell's product line extends as far as the PowerEdge 6800, a quad 64-bit Xeon-based system that includes management tools, and is designed for database work. As well as Windows or Linux, you can buy it with VMware ESX Server installed instead, allowing you to partition it into virtual machines, and maximise utilisation.

Where Dell has no product offering is the high-end systems market, where players such as Sun, IBM and HP dominate. The Texas-based company has flirted in this area in the past but its direct model, designed for volume throughput, is unsuitable for top-end servers. This means Dell had to adjust its methodology and compete on an equal footing with more established players with customer relationships in place. It has since shied away from this market.

At the low end however, Dell's star seems to be on the ascendant, with few obstacles to its continued growth.