Server appliances that mean business

A few years ago, companies had to construct Web, FTP, file and print andemail server services from scratch, a costly and time-consuming processfor small businesses. Today, server appliances are a growing market withall of these and other features in one convenient box, usually about thesize of a small desktop PC, for a fraction of the former cost.

A few years ago, companies had to construct Web, FTP, file and print and email server services from scratch, a costly and time-consuming process for small businesses.

Today, server appliances are a growing market with all of these and other features in one convenient box, usually about the size of a small desktop PC, for a fraction of the former cost.

There are many different categories to the server appliance market; multipurpose appliances, Web server appliances found in data centers, cache server appliances that replicate and mirror Web sites to allow speedy content delivery and network storage servers to provide high-availability and redundant drive storage in a plug-in box for all types of client computers.

Multipurpose server appliances vary slightly in capabilities, but they all have Internet sharing, firewall and FTP file-transfer services. Some offer email service and others have virtual private network connections, print-and file server functions and the ability to operate as a Web server. All for between $800 to about $2,700.

PC Magazine recently tested seven of these products and found that several of the better ones could be up and running in less than half an hour (you do need to consider the expertise level of the person in charge of your network when choosing.)

The products allow you to manage the computer from any browser-equipped PC, making life easier for administrators and technical support. However, the simplicity of the more basic server appliances can limit the flexibility of more knowledgeable administrators.

One great feature in this increasingly work-from-home economy is having VPN capabilities in a server appliance to allow mobile or telecommuting employees access to the corporate network from anywhere with ease and security. And the spread of residential broadband only makes this more feasible.

The server appliance products we reviewed are great for small businesses needing an all-in-one networking solution. And those products that offer modular architecture are an ideal start that allows a business to grow with them.

Check out the reviews to see if one could be the cornerstone of your network. Click for more.

Ready, Set, Server

A network in a box. That's the concept behind the evolving class of multipurpose server appliances. Designed to simplify networking for small businesses, a server appliance offers features of many networking components -- from firewall security to Internet sharing -- in one box.

Server appliances are being adopted by small businesses at an increasing rate, where they can be used for fast Internet access sharing with up to 50 employees or to act as Web servers, among other things.

Scott USA, for example, a 30-person company based in Sun Valley, Idaho, sells specialty goggles and poles for snowboarding and skIIng and bought an Extended Systems ExtendNet 4000 to handle e-mail. "E-mail is critical to our business," said Cyndy Garvin-Scott, who takes orders from sales reps around the world via e-mail. "I prefer to have the e-mail server at my workstation where I can see it and manage it."

The size of a small desktop PC, the ExtendNet (like the other units reviewed) fits easily into the typical workspaces of small businesses. Although Garvin-Scott prefers to dedicate the ExtendNet to e-mail, the beauty of multipurpose server appliances is that you can use them to handle several network jobs simultaneously. A server appliance is like a multifunction pocketknife: You might use only one tool, but it's nice to know that others are available if you need them.

That said, these server appliances are also great as Web servers for internal Web sites or for developmental sites mirrored to more robust hardware in a hosting service. This lets developers view Web pages before loading them online.

Though each product in this category might have slightly different capabilities, they all provide Internet sharing, firewall services, and FTP file-transfer services. Some offer e-mail service, and others have virtual private network (VPN) connections, print- and file-server functions, and the ability to operate as a Web server.

Classifying the Server Appliance
The server appliance market can be confusing, however, because the products tend to fall into many different categories, such as multipurpose appliances, Web server appliances, cache server appliances, network storage, and specialty appliances.

Web server appliances, for example, resemble rack-mounted pizza boxes and live in colonies of hundreds or thousands in Web-hosting facilities. You'll find these products from a number of manufacturers in modern data centers, stacked with as many as 70 or more in a rack.

Cache server appliances, also found in data centers, replicate and mirror Web sites in geographically diverse areas for speedy delivery of content. Several companies, including Compaq and Dell, offer this type of server appliance.

Finally, network attached storage servers provide high-availability and redundant drive storage in a plug-in box for all types of client computers.

Generally, the multipurpose products we reviewed range from $800 (usually lacking in speed, processing power, and memory) to around $2,000. The more expensive systems tend to be more robust, offering more RAM and faster processors that will handle the workload of a busy small office.

PC Magazine Labs reviewed seven products for this story. Missing from our roundup is the IBM InterJet, which has a leading market share in this product category. The unit has been redesigned with additional services in mind but was not ready in time for us to review.

Armed with preplanned IP addresses, we had several of the better units running in less than half an hour. Our Editors' Choice, the Cobalt Qube 3, scored best overall on our tests, and even though the eSoft InstaGate EX offered an exemplary user interface, reporting, alerts, and modular architecture, we found it lagging in the area of performance. The eSoft unit we received for testing had only 32MB of RAM installed, instead of the minimum of 64MB that eSoft units are supposed to ship with. We liked the Compaq NeoServer 150 Internet Plus for very different reasons. Its performance and feature set are un-distinguished, but its easy setup, installation, and management are perfect for the office manager with little or no network experience.

Technically Speaking
These multipurpose server appliances use standard computer hardware and run a version of Red Hat Linux. Most use Intel processors, although the Rebel.com NetWinder OfficeServer uses a Strongarm SA-110 processor. The use of Linux keeps the costs down and makes it easy to add functions from public-domain software libraries. The Qube 3 and the net machines RedRAK Linux Pro 128 offer software RAID 1. Equipped with two 20GB hard drives, they act as high-reliability network-attached storage servers. The Avaya Web Communications Server (WCS), the Qube 3, and one version of the NetWinder also offer appealing and stylish cabinets.

On the software side, the products allow you to manage the computer from any browser-equipped PC. Browser-based administration makes life easier for administrators and for technical support. The simplicity of the Compaq NeoServer, however, can limit the flexibility of more knowledgeable administrators. The Qube 3, InstaGate EX, ExtendNet, and Net Winder have flexible and easy-to-use administration tools, but the Compaq NeoServer 150 Internet Plus is great for those who don't know much about networks or IP addressing.

VPN services in a server appliance allow mobile or work-at-home employees to access the corporate network from anywhere with ease and security, and the spread of residential broadband is only increasing their value. The InstaGate EX, ExtendNet, and NetWinder can act as VPN servers. You should note that IPsec VPN support is important for Microsoft Windows 2000 client computers, but PPTP is important for Windows 98 clients. eSoft is the only company that offers both IPsec and PPTP VPN support in the server, so if you have a mix of clients, the eSoft InstaGate EX should top your list.

Similarly, the ability to use a protocol called Point-to-Point Over Ethernet (PPPoE) is an important differentiating factor for any company that connects to the Internet through a DSL service using this technology. PPPoE changes DSL from an always-on service to an on-demand service and allows companies to reduce the size and cost of their Internet infrastructures. DSL providers drive the use of PPPoE, because it makes metering connection time and acquiring a smaller block of IP addresses possible. You can't share a DSL PPPoE connection without a PPPoE device. The Qube 3, InstaGate EX, and NetWinder offer PPPoE, so you should consider them first if you use DSL.

These server appliance products offer a great start for small businesses needing an all-in-one networking solution. We suggest considering those products offering a modular architecture that will allow them to grow with your business. Equally important, choose the unit that fits the expertise level of that special person in charge of your network.

Our contributors: Frank J. Derfler, Jr., is the senior networking editor at PC Magazine. Neil Randall is a contributing editor, and Rob Schenk is a frequent contributor to PC Magazine. Jay Munro is a freelance writer. Associate editor Davis D. Janowski and PC Magazine Labs project leader Andrew R. Garcia were in charge of this story.



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Server Appliances Mean Business   Editors' Choice
Editors' Choice
 
The two newest and best arrivals in this segment of the industry are a signal that things are maturing in the server appliance market.

In our review of these server appliances, what mattered most was how well these machines handled their assigned mission -- in this case, meeting the "everything in one box" needs of a small office. Our favorite and Editors' Choice is the Cobalt Qube 3. With its ease of installation and setup, polished Web interfaces, well-rounded features (including Web mail and RAID), modular architecture, and superior performance scores at light to moderate client loads, the Qube 3 clearly surpassed its competition. RAID (Redundant Array of Inexpensive Disks) is very important for those companies planning to run mission-critical software and store important data on their machines. Also, a modular architecture ensures that Cobalt is thinking of the future, leaving the door open to innovation and product offerings from companies specializing in areas such as antivirus, virtual private networking, and URL site filtering.

We liked the eSoft InstaGate EX for many of the same reasons we liked the Qube 3 -- ease of use and configuration, a nice interface, and modularity -- but it lacks RAID and Web mail. We should also grant Compaq a pat or two on the back for making the Compaq NeoServer 150 Internet Plus so easy to set up and use. It is clearly designed to meet the needs of the non-network -- savvy person who has to get an office up and running quickly, though Compaq had to make sacrifices in the area of manageability.



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Ready, Set Server   Avaya Web Communications Server
Avaya Web Communications Server
 
By Neil Randall
December 15, 2000

With the Avaya Web Communications Server's one significant strength -- providing a good environment for building catalog-based, Web-based storefronts -- and many weaknesses, prospective buyers are better off subscribing to a storefront service (as discussed in E-Store Solutions) or purchasing software for site building. As a server for small businesses, this is clearly the least capable of the servers reviewed here.

Apart from including a four-port, 10-Base-T Ethernet hub, the WCS offers little in the hardware department. The unit we reviewed shipped with only a Cyrix/200 processor and a mere 32MB of RAM. This is simply too little speed and memory to act as a server for any office. Other units in the roundup offered significantly faster processor speeds and at least 64MB of RAM. The difference in performance was clear.

Also, there is little information on or support for the WCS on the Avaya and Lucent Web sites (this machine was formerly a Lucent product), and our calls to technical support were frequently re-routed several times before we reached someone or simply gave up.

Setting up the machine proved frustrating from the start. A few steps in, we found that in order to access the management interface and procedures, we had to edit a Windows hosts file to map the IP number to the domain name manually. In late 2000 no software should require this, especially the setup software of a supposedly user-friendly, one-stop appliance.

Creating storefronts would be the only real reason for buying the WCS. The management interface for this feature is stronger than the product's other features, and the catalog-building and maintenance tools work well.

The WCS does have excellent reporting on Web site usage, though. It is the only product reviewed that provides reports for the most popular pages viewed, the most frequent visitors, and other information about Web page usage.

If you want to set up a server in a very small office and build and host a storefront site on it, the WCS might get the job done. But you can do much better for equal or less money with a more powerful, full-featured server and a good storefront design package.

Avaya Inc. www.avaya.com, $2,700 list; broadband model, $3,200, 2



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Editor's Choice   Cobalt Qube 3
Cobalt Qube 3
 
By Rob Schenk
December 15, 2000

PC Magazine Editors' Choice

The Cobalt Qube 3 provides small businesses a complete solution, with minimal fuss. An intuitive installation process, redundant design, and flexible feature set make it a standout and an easy pick for our Editors' Choice.

We were impressed with its ease of setup and had the unit up and running in less than 20 minutes. The polished Web-based interface uses a hierarchical menu structure that makes navigation between service categories easy.

The Qube 3 and the NETmachines RedRAK Linux Pro 128 are the only devices in our roundup that support raid (hard drive mirroring). This level of redundancy provides more peace of mind in the case of drive failure. Like eSoft, Cobalt has implemented PPPoE support.

In addition to checking e-mail with a POP or IMAP-compliant e-mail program, the Qube 3 is the only product reviewed that provides Web-based e-mail. A basic address book provides users with access to their own profiles, where they can change their passwords and create out-of-office replies. There is also support for authenticated pop relaying. Once authenticated, e-mail sent from your location, wherever that is, will be relayed through the Qube 3 to its final destination.

New to the Qube 3 is BlueLinQ, a mechanism that notifies administrators via e-mail of available software patches and updates and allows them to download updates automatically.

We did find during testing that uploading Web pages to the Qube 3 proved more cumbersome than necessary. The procedure requires that the end users know technical details about their Web site infrastructures, potentially frustrating novices.

The Qube 3 falls behind a bit in reporting and alerting. Unlike with the eSoft and Extended Systems appliances, alerts aren't configurable, lessening their utility. Likewise, the Qube 3's canned reports aren't as detailed as the eSoft InstaGate EX's.

All told, though, small businesses wanting a simple yet robust Internet solution should look no further than the Cobalt Qube 3.

Cobalt Networks, Inc.www.cobalt.com, $999 direct; Business Edition, $1,499; Professional Edition, $1,999, 4



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Avaya Web Communications Server   Compaq NeoServer 150 Internet Plus
Compaq NeoServer 150 Internet Plus
 
By Neil Randall
December 15, 2000

The Compaq NeoServer 150 Internet Plus is clearly designed for users with very little experience in setting up Internet services -- or, for that matter, networking of any kind. Setup was flawless, effortless, and easier than on any other machine we reviewed. The NeoServer 150 won't intimidate the novice user, which is a refreshing change for Internet servers in general.

Compaq's dedication to the neophyte user shines through in most every aspect of the product. Everything you need is available right out of the box, including two separate user guides. The standard guide offers detailed information. The second guide is called NeoServer Quick Setup for Dummies (from IDG Books). The package also includes an eight-port hub (at 10 Mbps) for connecting several machines in your office right off the bat. The NeoServer 150 can handle up to 100 users, and it comes with 100 licenses. The machine allows you to share a single Internet connection around the office through either a 56-Kbps V.90 modem or a second 10/100 NIC. You specify which model you want when ordering. Wireless adapters are available separately.

If, on the other hand, you have experience with networking and want high granularity with your server configuration, the Neo Server 150's management interface will disappoint you.

Unlike with the Cobalt Qube 3 or Rebel.com NetWinder OfficeServer, you cannot drill down into several aspects of your server's configuration, including your firewall, DHCP, or DNS servers. But the unit does allow the administrator to control folder ownership and access permissions, and Internet access can be controlled for individual internal users.

Our tests revealed two negatives: First, the configuration limitations might leave administrators in a tight spot if networking needs become more complex. Second, as with all the server appliances reviewed, you need to set up the NeoServer 150 through a separate computer. We had difficulty getting the client configuration tool to work on Microsoft Windows 2000 Server, although we were able to get it to configure manually. The Compaq documentation indicates that the tool should work on Windows 2000 Professional, and we did get it to work easily with Windows 98.

Compaq Computer Corp. www.compaq.com, $1,799 direct, 4



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Cobalt Qube 3   Extended Systems ExtendNet 4000
Extended Systems ExtendNet 4000
 
By Rob Schenk
December 15, 2000

Directed at small businesses, via the reseller channel, the Extended Systems ExtendNet 4000 offers a decent set of features and configurable alerting but at $2,599 (list) is one of the most expensive server appliances we reviewed.

After we set the IP address and completed a setup wizard, a diagnostic tool verified the Internet connection, and we were live. We then managed the device via a simple-to-navigate Web interface that is adequate but not as polished as the Cobalt Qube 3's or eSoft InstaGate EX's.

Configuring the ExtendNet e-mail services requires some technical knowledge, however, and the administrator must select the server mode used: standalone, multidrop, enhanced SMTP, or mirrored. As with the eSoft unit, administrators can manage e-mail queues on a per-user basis, but the ExtendNet lacks Web-based e-mail support, and end users have little control over their mailboxes.

The ExtendNet also lacks PPPoE support, though the company said a software update offering this functionality will be available by press time. In addition, the product lacks RAID, which makes backup a more critical issue. Extended Systems does offer a backup service for a monthly fee, ranging from $9.95 to $39.95, based on your needs. With this service, the unit compresses and encrypts data prior to sending it to an Extended Systems co-located server.

Extended Systems is the only company that included antivirus scanning capabilities (an embedded McAfee VirusScan engine). The software scans incoming, outgoing, or compressed mail, and if a virus is discovered, it sends an alert and quarantines the file.

Like the InstaGate EX, the ExtendNet has strong alerting capabilities. Customizable alerts notify administrators if a user's e-mail quota is surpassed or if hard drive space on the unit is low. In addition, the unit monitors system events such as UPS alerts, authentication errors, or firewall abnormalities. Logging is flexible and offers the ability to track disparate systems' events, but logs can't be exported.

Extended Systems includes VPN functionality based on PPTP -- though both the InstaGate EX and NetWinder also support the stronger IPsec with their VPNs.

Extended Systems Inc. www.extendnet4000.com, For 100 users, $2,599 list, 3



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Compaq NeoServer 150 Internet Plus   NETmachines RedRAK Linux Pro 128
NETmachines RedRAK Linux Pro 128
 
By Rob Schenk
December 15, 2000

Targeted at small ISPs hosting multiple customer Web sites, the NETmachines RedRAK Linux Pro 128 offers flexible site management and RAID capabilities. Before this server can make significant inroads to the small-business market, though, it needs further user interface development and polishing and functionality enhancements.

Initial configuration was relatively easy, and the Web-based administrative interface is as capable as others reviewed, but it is the least polished of the bunch. We occasionally noticed an annoying lag while waiting for a Web page to load.

The RedRAK is rack-mountable and takes up about 1U of rack space (though older models are a quarter-inch thicker than this). Along with the Cobalt Qube 3, the RedRAK supports software RAID, which significantly reduces the likelihood of data loss in the case of drive failure. It also ships with hot-swappable hard drives, which simplifies trouble shooting.

We liked the flexibility of the Web site management tools. The RedRAK allows you to define Web site paths and set up virtual hosts. This works well for ISPs hosting multiple Web sites. Monitor and keyboard ports on the back of the unit let the RedRAK double as a standalone server, though it lacks a CD-ROM drive.

The RedRAK gives Unix administrators access to the command line for added flexibility and allows them to override Web interface decisions.

Reporting isn't quite as configurable as with the eSoft or Extended Systems unit, but this one offers more options than the Qube 3. The Redrak allows you to e-mail alerts to a specific address, or send a pop-up -- window message to a networked Microsoft Windows PC. The RedRAK doesn't offer the diagnostic testing utilities included with the eSoft InstaGate EX and Extended Systems ExtendNet 4000 though.

Software updating is a manual process, but administrators are e-mailed about updates. The device currently lacks antivirus, site-filtering, and VPN capabilities, all of which are important to small offices.

The RedRAK is a no-frills appliance that will function well for small ISPs looking for reliability at a reasonable cost. On the other hand, for NETmachines to acquire a significant share of the office market, it will need to improve the user interface and increase the number of added services offered.

NETmachines Inc. www.netmachines.net, $1,999 direct, 3



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Extended Systems ExtendNet 4000   Rebel.com NetWinder OfficeServer
Rebel.com NetWinder OfficeServer
 
By Neil Randall
December 15, 2000

The Rebel.com NetWinder OfficeServer comes with all the services you need to fulfill your small office's network needs. But its many configuration choices can be confusing, especially for the novice.

Rebel.com offers two NetWinder models: the Rackmount OfficeServer and the pint-size Desktop model, which is a small 2- by 9.5- by 6-inch, 2-pound unit designed for 100 users or fewer . Each has a 275-MHz processor and either 64MB or 128MB of RAM, along with 1MB of flash memory, a 10GB hard drive (or optional 20GB drive with the Rackmount unit), and two Ethernet connections. With a two-server Rackmount, one can act as your firewall while the other handles your Internet and intranet services.

We tested two Rackmount units. We easily configured one, but the other necessitated several calls to technical support and in turn, required us to connect a keyboard and monitor to the unit and run a small configuration application from the command line -- something that could be a headache for the novice.

Once the server is installed, you can fully configure the proxy service, search engine, and DHCP service. You can also set up public or private discussion groups easily and set the firewall to accept or deny specific protocols according to IP range.

Reports provide details on the total memory in use, the hot-swappable memory in use, and the number of TCP and UDP connections, as well as statistics for uptime, Web throughput, and load averages.

With NetWinder, you can either download a site-to-site VPN (Rebel Remote) or have a remote-access VPN solution (Rebel Connect), which supports the IPsec and PPTP protocols. Rebel Connect includes three free licenses, and you can purchase a ten-user upgrade license for $999.

The NetWinder remains a solid choice for the small office with an administrator who likes to assert deep control over a network, but several of the other products offer better performance and simpler, more intuitive interfaces.

Rebel.com. www.rebel.com, $1,795 direct, 3



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NETmachines RedRAK Linux Pro 128   eSoft InstaGate EX
eSoft InstaGate EX
 
By Rob Schenk
December 15, 2000

Flexible e-mail options, a well-designed user interface, and excellent alerting and reporting make the eSoft InstaGate EX a good fit for small businesses. Lack of RAID, though, keeps the InstaGate EX from top honors. Additionally, the test unit we received had only 32MB of RAM, instead of the expected 64MB of RAM.

Installation was straightforward. Several utilities are installed from the CD-ROM onto the PC used for configuration, and then an auto-discovery routine scans the network for the InstaGate EX. We were able to configure Internet and mail settings quickly using a simple wizard.

The InstaGate EX offers flexible e-mail services, such as mail forwarding to a specific user account, management of e-mail queues, and e-mail alias creation. You can also prevent users from downloading e-mail from an external ISP account. Using the off-site e-mail access feature, remote clients can access e-mail from the Internet side without establishing a VPN session. Unfortunately, though, there is no Web mail option yet.

The InstaGate EX has a well-designed Web interface, in the same league as the Cobalt Qube 3. A hierarchical menu structure makes navigation easy. Web access can be enabled or disabled globally but isn't as granular as the Extended Systems ExtendNet 4000's.

eSoft has incorporated a modular architecture, similar to Cobalt's, called SoftPak. It offers SoftPaks for enhanced firewall protection, URL site filtering, antivirus protection, and more robust reporting tools. The InstaGate EX checks for new software updates weekly, downloads those available, and e-mails the administrator, who then manually installs each patch at a convenient time.

Along with the ExtendNet and the Rebel.com NetWinder OfficeServer, the InstaGate EX offers VPN support. The InstaGate EX and NetWinder are the only products that currently support both PPTP and IPsec.

The InstaGate EX's alerting and reporting are strong, with configurable alerts. Reports for failed log-ons, hard disk quotas on a per-user basis, e-mail usage, and Web access can also be generated.

Small businesses looking for a modular, simple-to-use server appliance will do well with the eSoft InstaGate EX. If redundancy and Web-based e-mail are added, eSoft has potential for best in class.

eSoft Inc. www.esoft.com, for 50 users, $995 direct; 100 users, $1,495; 250 users, $2,195, 4



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