The types of companies where Server Preferences and its simplified approach to administration shine -- small offices or workgroups with a limited number of workstations and users -- are exactly the market Apple has targeted with the Mac Mini server. They're the kind of shops where an Xserve or a Mac Pro functioning as server hardware would be complete overkill, both in terms of unused potential and cost.
Over the past several years, I've worked with many of these types of small businesses. In the days before Leopard Server -- the predecessor to Snow Leopard Server -- and Server Preferences, I usually wound up installing a server and being on call for even the most routine tasks, like adding or deleting new users, adjusting access rights to services or file shares, and verifying backups. Once Leopard Server arrived in 2007, my direct involvement dropped, since companies finally had a familiar and easy-to-use means of handling these tasks.
Regardless of my own involvement, I often recommended that these small firms (typically anywhere from one to few-dozen employees with basic needs) buy Apple's server software and install it on a Mac Mini. Although not big on size or raw computing power, the Mac Mini has always had at least enough power to meet the needs of these less-than-demanding environments. That's also why I was immediately taken with Apple's decision to launch the Mac Mini server configuration (as was Macworld's Jason Snell.)
A true small-business server
The Mac Mini server offers a very small footprint and low power requirements, and it runs cooler than virtually any desktop computer. Those features make it ideal for small-business environments. Its size -- 6.5 in. square and 2 in. high -- means it can be placed in a small locked closet or ventilated storage cabinet for easy security.
Price is also a big draw. For $999, businesses get a server with unlimited client access licensing to all the features that can be run on Snow Leopard Server. And the hardware, while not cutting-edge, is solid: There's a dual-core 2.53-GHz Core 2 Duo processor, the Nvidia GeForce 9400M integrated graphics chip set, five USB 2.0 ports, one Gigabit Ethernet connection and a FireWire 800 port. This contrasts sharply with Microsoft's Windows Small Business Server 2008, for instance. It starts at $1,089 for just the server license -- without the hardware -- and five client access licenses. (Additional client licenses can be purchased singly for $77, in packs of five for $385 or 20 for $1540.)