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It really depends what you need a "server" to do, as well as the capability of the hardware.
You could want a server to be a media server, file server, or network server; probably some other functions I haven't thought of as well as a combination of features.
Either case, you can install just Linux for a desktop and a lot of distributions contain sufficient server daemons to perform similar functions as a server. And you can also install other stuff on most given distributions to accomplish what you want.
I think if you want a personal or home server, then maybe starting with a Linux desktop distribution is fine. If you're building a server for many users to be part of an office network and need it to perform well, then my answer is different.
On business servers, Linux is usually run without a GUI: that makes it much easier to see what's going on if there's any trouble. If you adopt the same approach for a home server, you'll have no problem with a old computer, since it's the GUI that eats your RAM and CPU activity. CentOS is popular with enterprise users and the installer allows you to choose an installation type, including basic server, database server, or web-server. Salix, based on Slackware, has a CLI installation option too.
From what I understand, the only difference between the server and desktop versions is the presence of a GUI. From what I understand, the only thing I need to do to convert Ubuntu Server to Ubuntu Desktop is "apt-get install lxde lightdm" (and configure, if needed).