- Easy to deploy
- customisable search interface
- good support and next-day swap-out warranty
- Management interface is clunky in places
- lacks more advanced features of Google’s enterprise search appliances
- no upgrade path to larger models
The newest member of the Google search appliance family, the Google Mini, is aimed at small to medium-sized businesses looking to index and search information held on internal or public Web sites. No special knowledge is required and no additional software -- you just plug the Mini into your network and start indexing. At least that’s what Google would have you believe. In reality there’s a little more to it -- although not a great deal: the Google Mini took just over an hour to get up and running on our test network.
The hardware involved is an unremarkable 1U rack-mount server, albeit one painted bright blue with a big Google logo on top (which, inevitably, disappears once slid into a rack). Security screws stop the internals being tampered with, but that’s not an issue because, should anything go wrong, Google will simply swap the whole unit for a new one. This service is included in the price, along with telephone support for a year, with the option of a second year for another £695 (ex. VAT).
Were you able to get inside, you might be disappointed: the Mini contains a Gigabyte motherboard equipped with a modest pair of Pentium III processors, 2GB of memory and a 120GB IDE hard disk. However, none of that seems to matter, as the Linux-based software coped well in our tests despite the lowly specification. Performance figures aren’t available but, as delivered, the basic £1,295 (inc. VAT) Mini can handle up to 50,000 documents or URLs with support for up to 300,000 if you’re prepared to pay £5,995 (inc. VAT).
There are two 10/100Mbps Ethernet ports on the back of the appliance and two cables in the box. A yellow one connects the Mini to the local network, and there's an orange crossover cable for initial setup that plugs into a notebook. It’s then just a matter of setting the usual network parameters (IP address, netmask, DNS servers and so on), after which the Google software itself is managed using a browser from a networked PC. A built-in firewall stops any other access apart from searches, with the Linux OS very tightly locked down.
To get started all you really need to do is tell the Google software which URLs to examine, then sit back as it crawls through the data and builds an index. This can take anything from a few minutes to several hours depending on the amount of data, the speed of the connection and the servers involved. It’s a very comprehensive process, with the Mini able to handle some 220 different files types, including Microsoft Office documents and PDFs as well as ordinary HTML, in a variety of languages.
Fortunately you don’t have to sit around kicking off the crawler or waiting for indexes to be built. An integrated scheduler takes care of all that, making the amount of time required seem largely irrelevant. Rather it’s the speed of subsequent user searches and their thoroughness that matters, and it’s here that the Google Mini really starts to impress.
The usual google.com interface is employed here, although the look and feel can be customised. For example, we were able to switch from the standard Google logo to a ZDNet one and enable/disable each of the display options from the management GUI. There’s also a built-in XSLT editor to enable the search engine to be fully integrated into a an existing Web site.
As with the public search engine, the search results are returned within seconds with the usual options to order the results by relevance or date. You can also configure the software to suggest synonyms -- for example, to suggest searching for 'Wi-Fi' or '802.11g' when the word 'wireless' is specified.
Another nice feature is keyword matching (or KeyMatches in Google parlance). Using this option, searches containing specific keywords can be set to return results with associated links highlighted at the top of the page. For example, we were able to configure the search engine to point users to our Editors' Choice page whenever they searched on the words 'review' or 'reviews'.
Some experimentation is required to get the KeyMatches right, but this kind of change doesn’t require any updates to the index. Simply change the keyword list and the new association is implemented straight away. The same also applies to synonyms, which can take a while to figure out -- although the built-in reporting tools also help, letting you see exactly what users have been searching on, the top keywords employed and so on.
It’s all very easy to get to grips with and, given just a few hours, the Google Mini can be up and servicing searches for real. On the downside, the management GUI can be a bit clunky in places, and some of the more advanced features found on the enterprise-level Google Search Appliance aren’t available. For example, the only way to stop sensitive documents being indexed -- and therefore becoming visible to end users -- is to place them behind a password-protected proxy server.
Still, Google’s enterprise appliances start at £21,000 (inc. VAT), and you can’t have everything. What you do get with the Mini, however, is market-leading Google search technology in a format that’s both affordable and easy to deploy no matter how small your business or basic your level of expertise. OK, there’s no upgrade path, which could become an issue, but you do get a free T-shirt!
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