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The Search for a Portable Server

Why I have been looking for a very small server.

a desire for a small server

I have had computers that I used as personal servers. A personal server would run some form of Linux (usually Red Hat), over which I installed Apache and PHP. This would hold my personal Web site and projects. I used such servers back when it was impossible to run Apache 2.x on my Windows box due to irresolvable conflicts with my ZoneAlarm firewall.

Those were the days when I lived in a simple small room with cracked plaster walls and ceiling. In that small room, a server computer would took up precious space. Thus did I desire for a personal server that was not such a space hog. Indeed, the smaller the server, the better. In fact, something the size of a book, which I could carry in hand and safely stash in a book bag. No, I am not talking about a laptop: Those are too heavy to carry in hand; and I hate the keyboards on them. And handhelds like the HP iPaq and the late Dell Axim are purely Windows packages that can run neither Linux nor Apache; nor can you connect them to a home network.


Then I found the site mini-itx.com and the mini-ITX form factor for motherboards from VIA Technologies, and the most ingenious ways in which those motherboards were encased to create computers in the form of biscuit cans, teddy bears, antique radios, vintage computers, Bender from Futurama and just about everything else.

The mini-ITX form was still a little large for what I had in mind. And at the time I found the site, I did not have the money to buy and built a mini-ITX server. Still, the site gave me hope that, in time, something smaller will come.


So I waited … and waited … and waited. The mini-ITX.com site was as annoyed as I was at the long wait (more than two years) while VIA worked out the bugs in its next form factor, the nano-ITX.

Finally the nano-ITX came out. And my jaw dropped, because the motherboards were prized too dear for my pocketbook. Yes, I was not happy. I would have been even unhappier if other crises did not intervene: The loss of my bank job, the search for another job, the taking on of several new jobs at the Bracken Library, and finally the exchange of my old room for the many rooms of my new house.


You would think I would have plenty of room for a personal server now. But no: I still sought a small personal server that does its job while being out of the way. It had become something of a principle.

And wouldn't you know it: VIA comes out with the pico-ITX form factor in 2007, announced and released in the same year. Evidently VIA has learned from the experience of working on the nano-ITX in creating this form factor that is much smaller yet just as powerful.

All these form factors are part of VIA's embedded series of motherboards, meant for inclusion in other machines but also finding a niche in the hobbyist market.

why bother?

You may ask: Why does anyone need a computer that small, outside of the novelty? Well, personal computers and servers are not the only uses for these motherboards. As embedded motherboards, they form the hearts of the entertainment systems of cars; and pico-ITX boards are spurs to the creative efforts of car electronics customizers like Mad Mike (best known from the MTV series Pimp My Ride in the early 2000's).

Written by Andy West on 19 February 2009.