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Why use a server appliance?

By James Gaskin

Internet server appliances come of age | How we did it | Top five tips for server appliance success | Appliance services

Say "server" and people generally think Compaq, Dell, IBM or Sun boxes powerful enough to run global corporations. Why would anyone replace this "big and powerful" hardware with "small and cute" servers?

First, examine the cost of servers needed for various purposes. Large companies need plenty of server horsepower to support thousands of internal employees and potentially millions of daily visitors over the Internet. Statistically, however, most companies average hundreds or thousands of Web hits per day, compared with the few companies handling millions of hits per hour. Why pay for millions of hits when you only dream of thousands?

Second, small companies or remote offices with two dozen or fewer employees don't place a high demand on their servers. The Cahners In-Stat Group reported earlier this year that U.S. businesses support more than two million remote branch offices. Heavy-duty server clusters that make sense for headquarters don't make sense for a remote sales office.

Price goes far beyond hardware, however. Server software optimized for small businesses can equal or exceed hardware costs.

For example, Novell's Small Business Suite 5.1 costs $2,695 for 25 users, while the Microsoft Small Business Server 2000 totals $2,498 for 25 users, with no hardware included. All the server appliances we reviewed include the critical server functions (Web, e-mail, FTP, file and print) as well as VPN and remote user support. Novell throws in fax software, virus control and client management software, while Microsoft adds fax software and Web site creation tools (FrontPage 2000). So while it may be argued that Novell and Microsoft offer more features, the server appliances include all the really necessary software bundled with essentially free hardware. Or, if you prefer, they sell the hardware with free software.

Third, high power still means high complexity. Technical expertise gravitates toward high dollars and away from small companies. Small companies struggle to get technical support and demand easier-to-use systems. Even large companies with adequate technical support face a personnel crunch servicing remote offices. The average enterprise customer supports nearly 100 remote offices, making adequate physical technical support almost impossible.

Hardware and software bundling in server appliances help small businesses get needed services conveniently and inexpensively. Each server appliance reviewed here used some version of Linux, reducing the software cost considerably, although each provided its own administration software at some development cost. Other companies in the Linux space now target customers with customized software, letting customers "just add hardware" to make their own server appliance.

Putting together the correct Linux-approved hardware with correct drivers on standard PC-based servers takes experience. Configuring the software services needed, such as Web, e-mail and FTP servers, takes more Linux experience.

Trading hardware expansion capabilities for properly matched hardware and software and preconfigured services makes sense for many companies. These companies are the target market for server appliances.

Finally, server appliances require much less power than traditional servers. While a desktop PC requires about 200 watts, servers typically require a minimum of 300 watts. But even the most power-hungry appliances have a maximum electrical requirement of 60 watts.

Although the common feature list for these server appliances is long (see graphic), each server remains a distinct unit and retains its own personality. Hiding the Linux operating system from users forces each vendor to walk the tightrope between too technical and too simplistic. Each server includes telnet software for command line operation.

At least two companies have taken the approach of providing customized Linux server software that can turn an existing low-end PC into an appliance. NetMAX Professional Suite includes all the features listed for the Internet appliance (except the appliance hardware) for $550 or less, depending on software modules ordered. E-smith Server has partnered with Gateway to offer appliance software on a yearly subscription basis ($600), including technical support.

Don't assume "small and cute" servers can't handle a reasonable workload. The Celestix unit, for example, powered by only a 200-MHz MediaGMX processor and 64M bytes of RAM, claims support for up to one million Web page requests and 400,000 e-mails per day. The Rebel NetWinder promises to serve up to 450 Web page requests per second (more than 38 million per 24 hours), and Cobalt's Qube 3 also offers up to 35 million Web objects per day.

But beyond cost vs. value and other rational reasons, these servers are small and cute, nonthreatening in a world full of often-menacing technology. Server appliances are optimized for a small range of jobs, and they perform these jobs quite well.

Today, when general-purpose networks boast a dozen monster quad-servers in a rack-mounted cluster weighing a thousand pounds, small and targeted appliances offer an elegant alternative in the right situation.

- James Gaskin

Appliances include the following services:
  • Shared Internet access, sometimes through integrated DSL modem.
  • Linux operating system (well-hidden).
  • Web server (Apache) for administration and public/private Web sites.
  • Web caching service.
  • E-mail server (POP3, IMAP and SMTP).
  • FTP server
  • File server for Windows, Mac and Unix clients.
  • Print server
  • DNS server
  • DHCP server to automatically configure clients for proper server and Internet access.
  • Basic firewall security.
  • Network address translation to hide internal network addresses from the Internet.
  • VPN support to securely connect private networks across the Internet.
  • Remote user authentication and connection support.

    Related links

    Gaskin is a freelance writer and author of Mastering NetWare 5.1. He can be reached at

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    Global Test Alliance

    Gaskin is also a member of the Network World Global Test Alliance, a cooperative of the premier reviewers in the network industry, each bringing to bear years of practical experience on every review. For more Test Alliance information, including what it takes to become a member, go to

    How we did it
    Our testing methods explained.

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