Turn-key network servers
The growth in Linux popularity has lead to several new types of network devices, growing in use and ease of use, all aimed at making small to medium sized networks easier to set up and manage. Replacing Windows NT, many companies are now configuring Linux-based boxes to act as firewalls, network application servers, DNS and DHCP servers, and network storage devices. Several years ago, you would have to build these devices yourself, but the last couple of years have seen turn-key network servers become not only popular, but also relatively inexpensive and almost trivial to install, configure and maintain.
After receiving many requests for comments on inexpensive Linux-based network servers, we obtained four units covering several price points and roles, and tested them. The goal of each of these servers is to be placed between a small company internal network (or medium sized company subnet) and the Internet. They all provide Linux-based kernels that manage the system, provide firewall capabilities, Web server capabilities, offer network file storage, TCP service servers, and additional features.
We placed each unit between a test network of thirty different workstations (a heterogeneous mix of Linux, Windows 95/98, Windows ME, Windows NT 4.0, and Windows 2000 Server and Professional), connected from that network to the Internet through either a dial-up telephone line or dedicated T1 line, and let each machine go through its paces for two weeks. We noted the ease of installation, configuration, and on-going maintenance both from an experienced system administrator’s and also from a complete newcomer’s point of view. We ran load tests, Web page demands, and all manner of file transfers trying to determine each unit’s thrashing point, as well as its ability to handle traffic of different amounts.
We’ll start this review with a look at each of the four units individuals, then recap with performance and subjective evaluations.
Cobalt Networks Qube
The Cobalt Networks Qube is a small, blue cube shaped appliance measuring seven inches on a side and weighing six pounds. Cobalt’s design criteria for the Qube tells its goal: a Web server with low cost of ownership for companies with no dedicated network administrator or Webmaster. The Qube is preloaded with Linux, Apache Web server, and support applications and utilities.
The Qube uses a 64-bit CPU with 16 to 64MB of RAM (two SIMM slots can be user expanded) and a single ATA hard drive. Dual 10/100MB Ethernet ports as well as a single PCI slot for expansion in the complete the unit. A DB9 port on the back provides a telnet connection to a host, or the Qube can be connected solely through the network.
Configuring the unit is through the front panel, which has an LCD panel used to initiate the setup and perform simple administration procedures. Installing the Qube is simple: connect the Ethernet cables, set the IP address and away you go. The unit is easy to configure through the network, and a neophyte will understand the steps. The documentation accompanying the unit it good, but could be improved. The focus of the Qube is primarily as a Web server, and it supports FrontPage extensions. Automatic indexing on the Qube allow for fast retrieval of Web pages, especially for sites that have lots of documents on-line. CGI and Perl script handlers are built in.
For e-mail there’s SMTP, IMAP4, and POP. There’s FTP, SMB and AppleShare connectivity built in as well. TCP server roles include DNS, DHCP and NAT. For security the Qube includes a firewall product that will keep out most standard hacker attacks. The price of the Qube depends on the RAM and disk options, but a system can be installed in most companies in the range of $999 to $1,799 (fully loaded).
e-smith Server and Gateway
The e-smith server and gateway is designed as a cost-effective firewall, Web server and gateway. The e-smith server and gateway is software only: you need to provide the hardware and configure them yourself if the e-smith software installation routine cannot do it for you. The machine you install the software on is totally dedicated in its role as a gateway and shouldn’t be used as a workstation.
The e-smith CD-ROM includes a copy of Linux that has been toptimized to perform in the gateway role. Installing is simple: boot from the floppy or CD-ROM and let the installation routine go through its steps, responding to the prompts when needed. Installation took a half hour although optimal configuration requires experimentation and took me a day to be completely happy with the performance. A slow Pentium machine can easily handle a smallish network of 50 workstations because the e-smith software has a light impact on the operating system. The documentation is very good at guiding novice users through installation and setup of the gateway package. You should know what terms like DHCP and LDAP mean, but you don’t need experience with Linux to install and configure e-smith server. The first configuration is done through a character-based interface, and then you can employ an HTTP interface from any machine on the network.
There’s a surprising amount of capability built in. There’s a POP mail server, a web server, and a concept called “information bays” or ibays. Ibays allow developing of user groups with shared access permissions, each ibay password protected. There are a few minor flaws with the e-smith server and gateway, most notably a tendency to thrash with very heavy loads through the Web server or demands for TCP services. Moving to a faster machine with more resources would solve part of the problem, but greatly increases the cost of rolling out an e-smith server. The package costs $595 with a one-year support contract.
Rebel.com is an Ottawa-based company with strong ties to Corel. Rebel.com has tried to revolutionize the small server market through its NetWinder products, of which there are several models. We reviewed the small business version called the OfficeServer. The NetWinder OfficeServer is a small, light box about the size of a hardback book. The front of the beige case has status lights, the top has a single button for power, and the back has ports for connected devices. (There are two network ports, a parallel ports, keyboard and mouse PS-2 style ports, a monitor video port, a serial input port for remote connection, and a power socket for a wall-wart power supply.) The NetWinder OfficeServer uses a 275MHz StrongARM CPU (the StrongARM is a 32-bit processor designed for Linux). The unit is supplied with a printed, spiral bound well-written manual, as well as softcopies of the documentation on CD-ROM. The NetWinder OfficeServer has an on-line HTML version of the manual, too.
Installing the NetWinder OfficeServer is simple: connect two Ethernet cables (one to a router for the ISP, the other to the internal network), plug in the unit and turn it on. The boot process is a little slow, taking about four minutes, then the NetWinder OfficeServer speaks to you to tell you it is ready (pretty cool!). Configuring the NetWinder OfficeServer is through software running on any Windows machine (a little ironically there is no Linux routine). The software detects the NetWinder and you then use a browser to configure the unit. After providing an IP address you choose the services the NetWinder OfficeServer will offer, create user accounts for everyone who will use the NetWinder OfficeServer, and then you’re done.
The system is preconfigured as a Web server and the software CD-ROM includes a copy of Corel’s Web Designer software (for Windows). E-mail can be set up using POP or IMAP, and can do advanced features such as forwarding and filtering. Newsgroup support for both Usenet and local newsgroups can be quickly set up using the discussion forum configuration screens. InfoPlace software is a document manager that allows posted documents to be reviewed by other users. You can use the NetWinder OfficeServer as a DHCP, DNS and NIS server. Virtual hosts are supported, allowing multiple hosts with different IP addresses to be maintained on one NetWinder OfficeServer box.
The only real problem with the NetWinder OfficeServer is the built-in hard disk, which is either 6 or 10GB. For a lot of document serving or complex Web pages, this may not be enough. RAM is expandable from 32MB to 128MB. All in all, the NetWinder OfficeServer is a neat solution to a simple office server in a clever package. Prices start at $1795 for a unit with 64MB RAM and 10GB hard drive.
Net Integration Technologies’ Net Integrator is a pre-built PC hosting a 600MHz Pentium III processor, a hard drive loaded with Linux, two preconfigured Ethernet cards, a V.90 modem card, and an OnStream tape backup unit. Using a standard PC architecture instead of a proprietary box like the NetWinder allows for future expansion but does tend to make the unit more expensive.
The front panel of the Net Integrator has an LCD panel with a few simple surface push buttons. The front panel shows the boot process and after a couple of minutes the Net Integrator returns a guess of an available IP address on the subnet. You can accept it’s guess or configure your own IP address right on the front panel. The system dynamically adjusts to the new IP address without a reboot, and any Web browser on the network can then log in and configure the unit. The default HTMP page is a summary of the system status that shows loads on the components (memory, CPU, hard drive, and Ethernet ports) as well as showing how many sessions are active at the time. Other configuration pages are easily accessed from the menu and allow you to configure the Net Integrator.
Standard TCP services are available, such as DNS, DHCP, and SNMP server platforms. E-mail support is through POP, SMTP, and IMAP. You can allow FTP and anonymous FTP service, Web server (using Apache Web server preconfigured on the unit), as well as Apple and Windows File Server capabilities. Virtual Private Networks are almost trivial to configure with Net Integrator and the routine is amongst the easiest of any VPN device we’ve tested. A Soft Update capability allows the Net Integrator to check for software updates on the manufacturer’s Web site. The firewall software included with the unit will be sufficient for most locations. The HTML interface provides backup and restore from the OnStream device, holding 30GB of compressed data (15GB native). The documentation is good with lots of advice for system administrators.
The Net Integrator was a joy to use as its interface is amongst the best we’ve seen, updating load figures continually and performing perfectly. The automated backups to the OnStream device take away yet another anxiety of system administrators. The unit we tested is more heavily configured than of the company’s setups, retailing for $2499.
All four units performed without crashes except when we loaded the e-smith server and gateway excessively, in which case it locked up. The Qube, Net Integrator and OfficeServer simply slowed down with increasing load, but didn’t crash or lock up. The latter three devices experienced no Linux crashes at all, even when we tried repeatedly to overload the servers. Sometimes requests didn’t get processed before a time-out, but the servers continued to function.
To load tests involved all the clients on the network running scripts designed to emulate loads of 30 to 250 people. This includes scripting for Web and file requests, bogus and malformed IP packets (to test the firewall), and telnet and X sessions (where applicable). We ran each test on all three devices at different simulated loads and monitored response times, network traffic, and failed requests.
Of the four devices, the e-smith server and gateway was the least powerful device, even on a fast Pentium III processor. The Office Server performed better, but not excessively so. The Qube was better still, but again only incrementally. The best performer of the group was the Net Integrator, which so overpowered the other units the winner of all performance tests was crystal clear. The Net Integrator handled eight times the number of requests as the other two products. Network throughput was higher, and disk storage and retrieval times were a couple of times faster, too. In every measure, the Net Integrator was faster than the other devices. However, it is also the most expensive of the units tested.
Balancing price to performance is always a tricky issue, but the units that stood out in our tests were the Qube (primarily for its excellent Web server setup) and the Net Integrator for its completeness and performance. The OfficeServer and e-smith products are competitive, although the latter requires a host computer adding to its cost. Based on your network’s needs, you’ll find any of these four good, but we will spend the extra for the Net Integrator and revel in its load handling!