Linux-based file server eases remote management

Mitel Networks' SME Server 5 provides a comprehensive set of network services bundled together in a turnkey solution to create a network file and print server for clients on a local area network--all built on a highly stable and secure Linux platform. The entire package is streamlined to operate in an extremely efficient manner, which means that many "extras" packaged with other Linux distributions (such as X or GCC) are not included.

Mitel Networks' SME Server 5 provides a comprehensive set of network services bundled together in a turnkey solution to create a network file and print server for clients on a local area network--all built on a highly stable and secure Linux platform. The entire package is streamlined to operate in an extremely efficient manner, which means that many "extras" packaged with other Linux distributions (such as X or GCC) are not included. Although a complete installation commands as little as 320MB, naturally the product is designed to run on much larger systems, as storage for user files is necessary.

The product includes virtually every service a network administrator might need to consolidate networking services. In addition to providing file and print servers, SME Server also functions as a gateway to provide an interface between a LAN and the Internet--with firewall capability to protect the server and LAN from outside intrusion. It also provides an entire suite of application servers, (including Apache Web server) that lets users host their own Web pages, an FTP server, and an e-mail server (qmail).

For internal networks, the product ships with a broad set of services that allow it to function in the role of a Windows NT/2000 file server. Since SME Server provides these services for Linux--a platform that's more stable than Windows NT/2000--updates, patches, and new software can be installed on an SME Server without the need to reboot the server each time. Compare this to Windows 2000M, which requires a server reboot for each "critical update notification" that appears on an Administrator's screen.

In addition, the product's remote administration capabilities and monitoring features allow for easier remote administration, making SME Server an ideal choice for "off site" enterprise use. Using Samba, the product provides file and printer sharing services for Windows clients, complete with centralized domain password capabilities, network home directories, and user login scripts. A DHCP server is included to provide network DHCP clients with an IP address and other DHCP-supplied options such as default gateway address and DNS server addresses. It also includes a DNS service, which provides domain name resolution to the network clients without the need to send the DNS traffic out over a slower Internet link, and a Web proxy server, which lets network administrators further reduce Internet traffic by caching Web pages on the server. Naturally, users can access their e-mail through POP3 or IMAP clients on their Windows computers.

Installing and configuring SME Server couldn't be easier. For our tests, we installed the software on a Dell PowerEdge 2300 with a fresh 18GB hard drive. The installation process is almost completely automated; at the "boot" prompt, we had to type "proceed" to accept the license agreement and begin the installation, and then sat back while the software installed and configured itself based on our installed hardware without our intervention. Once installation completed and our system rebooted, we did have to perform some additional minor configuration. This process was automated as well; the only required interaction was providing the proper information in response to prompts, such as system password, Ethernet card IP address, and so on.

In terms of day-to-day maintenance, the product is easy to manage through its secure, browser-based interface, which lets an administrator modify the software's operation from any system on the network. This feature makes SME Server an excellent choice for larger corporate environments, where the ability to administer a server remotely--perhaps even from thousands of miles away--is a necessity.

To access the network resources provided by SME Server, network administrators can require users to log in with a network user name and password. Creating these user IDs is a simple, secure process with the product's browser-based interface. Furthermore, administrators can create groups (similar to NT domains) to classify users, and then assign network-resource permissions to the groups rather than to individual users. Whenever a user account is created, a mailbox is also created on the system, as well as two aliases. For example, creating an account mdeignan for Michael Deignan will automatically create a mailbox named mdeignan, as well as two aliases, michael.deignan and michael_deignan to which mail will also be delivered. (If you're already running a mail server you may not need such functionality, but because SME Server is a "one-stop shop" for network services, the package also includes an e-mail server.)

For user and group collaboration, the product uses a concept known as an "i-bay" (information bay)--a collective term that refers to a mount point, share, FTP site, and so on--that SME Server manages as an information dispersal point. I-bays can either be accessed as file shares via Windows' file sharing or accessible via Web browser or FTP. In the case of FTP, public access from the outside world is possible, assuming the SME Server is configured to allow said access. This functionality provides an excellent way for various departments to communicate not only with each other internally but also with the external business partners, through one centralized location.

This version of SME Server includes ServiceLink, a monthly tech support subscription service. ServiceLink provides 24/7 alerts and system downtime reporting via e-mail notification, virus protection, DNS Services, guaranteed e-mail delivery and IPSEC VPN Services. For example, if a ServiceLink-enabled system does not periodically contact the Mitel Networks' Network Operations Center, an alert is generated to inform the customer. The guaranteed e-mail service operates by using a Mitel Networks' server as a secondary MX, so if the primary (the SME Server) is unavailable, mail will still be delivered to the secondary MX until the network connection is reestablished.

SME Server is built on a standard Linux operating system which includes common applications and utilities freely available to the Linux community. Although the functionality provided by SME Server is certainly readily available to any knowledgeable Linux administrator, the product's custom management tools and automated installation process let virtually anyone with a modicum of Linux experience install and maintain a network file server with minimal effort. The software is free to download; a ServiceLink subscription runs $1,885 (or $175 per month) annually. The subscription service makes this product an ideal fit for any company seeking to install a Linux-based Windows file-and-print sharing server on their network without hiring a Linux guru to maintain it.

SME Server is ideally suited for enterprise environments in which remote servers must be installed to support a user base, and also in cases where on-site technical support to maintain the server is not readily available. Its remote administration and management features--absent from Windows 2000 environments--provide additional flexibility. Also, SME Server requires no client access licenses, so a corporation can serve a dozen or a thousand users from an SME-based server without breaking the bank to pay license fees. Enterprises looking for a flexible, cost-effective alternative to Microsoft's network services should take a close look at SME Server 5.