Best of the Tests

We tested more than 100 products in 2009 in a wide variety of categories, but 15 of those products were head and shoulders above the rest and earn our Best of the Tests Award. Here are the categories and winners:

1. Operating Systems

Vendor: MicrosoftProduct: Windows Server 2008 R2

We tested a raft of operating systems in 2009, including SUSE Linux, Ubuntu, and Apple Snow Leopard. But the operating system that stood out was Microsoft's Windows Server 2008 R2. This product delivers advancements in speed, security and management.

Windows Server 2008 R2 boasts new server administrative roles for better security, an improved Server Manager program, revamped Internet Information Server (IIS) Web management functionality, better Active Directory controls, and redesigned Windows Terminal Services. Also, Windows Server 2008 is also significantly faster than Windows Server 2003.

And while Windows Server 2008 R2 certainly stands on its own, the fact that it's integrated so nicely with Windows 7 is an additional bonus for IT execs.

Review of Windows Server 2008 R2

Five things we love/hate about Windows Server 2008 R2 and Windows 7

2. Management software

Vendor: Research in Motion

Product: BlackBerry Server 5.0

There's no keeping end users from their BlackBerries, but there is a way for IT to manage those devices -- Research in Motion's BlackBerry Enterprise Server 5.0. We found BES to be an easy-to-use, Web-based tool that provides centralized administration, high availability and the ability to set rules and policies on a granular level.

With BlackBerry Enterprise Server, an administrator can publish and push updates and applications to one user or groups of users. The administrator can also identify unauthorized applications and prevent users from downloading, using or updating prohibited programs or applications. When a BlackBerry device is activated, the new security policy supersedes any previously installed programs or policies. Can your iPhone do that?

BES 5.0 a smart choice for smartphone management

3. Server Hardware

Vendor: IBM

Product: BladeCenter Server HS22

Two eight-core Intel 5570 Nehalem processors, two 10Gigabit Ethernet network interface cards, 50GB SSD drives, 150GB 15k hard drives and 48GB of RAM. Not to mention energy efficiency and strong management features. And all for around $10,000. What's not to like?

In our tests, the Nehalem-based blade delivered a 10x increase in performance when compared with Intel's Core-based Xeon processor. In terms of total overall power consumption, the Nehalem processors consumed 17% more power than the Xeon-based system, which is a pretty good bargain when you're gaining a 10x boost in performance.

Bottom line: The combination of Nehalem processors, 10G Ethernet, and lots of RAM make the HS22 a great choice for data center virtualization.

IBM BladeCenter delivers speeds, power savings

4. Security 

Vendor: McAfee

Product: Web Gateway

McAfee's Web Gateway bested the competition in every one of our performance tests. We attacked each vendor's product with 100 malware instances. Web Gateway turned aside 99. We fed each gateway 1,000 e-mails – 500 phish and 500 non-phish. Web Gateway came in first with a 90% success rate. And in our latency tests, Web Gateway exhibited the lowest latency – 28 ms.

Web Gateway sports an easy-to-use, intuitive browser-based interface that's especially responsive. Reports are quick and informative, and the Web Gateway dashboard is completely customizable. And the McAfee Web Gateway installation was the slickest. A USB memory stick containing a configuration program accompanies the device. Insert the memory stick in a Windows machine, run the program, save your configuration, move the memory stick to the Web Gateway before boot time and – voila! – the Web Gateway uses the IP address and other configuration data you've specified.

This is the second time around for McAfee's Web Gateway. The product was a Best of the Tests winner back in 2006 as well

How to fight malware

Runnerup: Vendor: Trend Micro

Product: Interscan Web Security

Trend Micro's combination of Interscan Web Security Virtual Appliance 5.0 and Interscan Messaging Security Virtual Appliance 7.0 is our runnerup. The Trend Micro software delivered a 96% success rate in blocking malware and an 84% success rate in blocking phishes.

Trend Micro's tool gave us consolidated threat reporting and corporate policy management across our network. We easily varied security policies by network segment, company division and company department, at our option. We particularly liked Trend Micro's unified view of network security across an entire enterprise.

Also, you install the software on your own computers, thus giving you fine control over the speed and capacity of your gateway. Installation is a snap.

5. Server Virtualization:

Vendor: VMware

Product: VMware vSphere 4.0

VMware created the market for x86 server virtualization in 2001 and has been the leader ever since, although Microsoft's Hyper-V and Citrix XenServer are strong competitors. In 2009, VMware raised the bar with the introduction of vSphere, a cloud-focused product that is faster than its predecessor, ESX 3.51, easier to manage, and designed for provisioning fleets of virtual machine farms.

The basic components of what VMware calls the vSphere 'cloud operating system' are an improved hypervisor and VMware's VirtualCenter management application, along with options like vMotion (live VM inter-server migration), vSphere Zones (network security aggregation), distributed resource allocation, and even a distributed network switch.

These improvements allow vSphere 4.0 to manage and automate provisioning of internally-controlled VM farms and infrastructure with hosting platforms located outside an organizations traditional computing 'perimeter'.

VMware upgrade reaches for the clouds

6. Desktop virtualization 

Vendor: Parallels

Product: Parallels Desktop for the Mac

Want to run Windows on your Mac? Check out Parallels Desktop for the Mac. In our testing, Parallels was strong in features and usability, and its 64-bit guest virtual machine support provides flexibility for developers. We could run Mac OS X Leopard client or server as a guest.

We were able to import VMware or Virtual Box files (guest VM snapshots, or rapidly mountable VM guest operating systems) easily. Parallels Transporter let us convert other formats of VMs into the Parallels format.

Windows XP (this test took place before Windows 7 was released) installed easily for us, with no interaction except for entering the username and product key. Parallels has preformatted settings for XP. Another useful Parallels feature was the ability to mount a Windows VM guest's NTFS file system into the Apple MacOS 10.5 Finder application. We could access all the files directly like an external hard disk. We could easily drag and drop files and folders between Mac and XP VMs. It's even possible to have the Apple Spotlight application index the VM Windows guest drive, a feature that wasn't available in the other hypervisor products we tested.

Parallels Desktop 4.0 for the Mac

Runnerup: Pano Logic

Product: Pano Cube

Pano Logic's Pano Cube is a very small 'designer'-looking cube containing three USB jacks, VGA and audio/mic jacks. It has no CPU or memory/storage inside, permitting it to be used strictly as a KVM+ access device.

The Pano Manager provisions desktops through ESX/vCenter and also enables policy controls about what IO can go through the Pano Cube. It's possible to restrict printers, and so on for any particular session. The Pano Gateway in turn, sets up connection brokerage relationships for VPN and proxy access from branch to 'home'.

Pano Device setup was very simple. Pano Manager allows for persistent and non-persistent VMs to be used. VMs can be organized into collections, which can host a number of VMs in which the Pano Cubes connect as a single logical unit The Cube Clients, we found, are extremely fast. They logon in just seconds, and were able to reproduce multimedia very well — even when we loaded the hosted VMware server down (a local host with 8GB of RAM) with all 10 Cubes sent to us.

The Pano Manager and Cube require VMware, but it's a decent investment. And Pano Cube's simplicity is bliss.

Pano Logic: Fast, easy, VMware-based

7. Category: software

Vendor: Microsoft

Product: SharePoint Server 2010

Our policy is to not test beta versions of products. There are lots of reasons for this, but mostly it comes down to the notion that we're trying to give readers information to help them make buying decisions. And that means we test the actual product that customers would buy. But there's an exception to every policy – and it's SharePoint Server 2010, which we tested in beta, and which came out on top in this year's software category. Interest in this product was so high that we felt we had to write a review as soon as we could get our hands on the product. And we weren't disappointed.

We tested beta versions of SharePoint Server, and two related apps, Visual Studio and Office 2010, in a virtualized environment and found that SharePoint Server 2010 is faster and more intuitive than the previous version. SharePoint 2010 allows IT departments to run applications such as enterprise search, content management, collaboration and business intelligence on a single platform.

Together with improved Internet site capabilities, SharePoint 2010 means companies can avoid the licensing and training costs associated with separate apps. SharePoint 2010 also offers improved developer and administration capabilities, which will likely speed application creation while easing server management.

SharePoint 2010 is expected to ship early this year.

Review: SharePoint Server 2010 beta pulls it all together

8. E-mail

Company: Microsoft

Product: Exchange

Yes, 2009 was quite a year for Microsoft, with major releases of Windows, Windows Server and Exchange, Microsoft's e-mail platform. So, is Exchange 2010 an overgrown, bloated hog of an undocumented application, requiring enormous resources and costing a fortune? Or has Microsoft finally gotten it right, building the speed and reliability we need into a mailbox server that goes beyond simple e-mail and raises the bar for collaboration tools? The answer to both question is "yes." It all depends on how you use it.

The core of Exchange is finally where we want it: reliable, fast, and resource-stingy. Exchange 2010 is also heavily Web-focused, supporting the inevitable march towards a clientless e-mail, calendar and address book experience.

Of course, Exchange 2010 also has the expected bloat. Obscure inter-server communications pathways, connections to VoIP PBXs, obscure digital rights management, and an edge server that is best described as "not entirely useless," all are part of the Exchange experience, too.

Still, Exchange is here to stay and if 2010 is the direction we're going, then the good far outweighs the bad. Two steps forward and one step back still adds up to one step forward!

Best and worst of Exchange 2010

Runnerup Zimbra

Product: Collaboration Suite

Want the benefits of Exchange, without actually running Exchange? We tested six alternatives, most of which closed in pretty well on the essence of what a collaboration server should be. We preferred Zimbra for its broad cross-platform support and powerful mail server.

Sure, inside, it's a complicated maze of interlocking scripts held together by strings of commands that only a few select people truly understand. But when it works, which it did very well in our testing, Zimbra does what you want on the platform of your choice, and the price is slightly less than Microsoft Exchange. Plus, VMware seems to believe in it, since they announced they're buying Zimbra from Yahoo.

Exchange alternatives: Pros and cons

9. Storage

Vendor: Compellent

Product: Storage Center 4.0

The best of our SAN systems test was the Compellent Storage Center 4.0. The product offers a compelling mix of high performance, great ease of use and wide feature set, at a price that isn't over the top. It has all the features you'd expect in a SAN system, such as synchronous and asynchronous replication, snapshots and thin provisioning, as well as some features that other systems don't have – particularly the data progression feature, which automatically migrates the most-used data on the system to the fastest storage. This feature makes the best use of the fastest storage on the system, whether 15k drives or SSDs, with little or no effort on the part of the administrator. Mature, easy to use and operating at the block level, it is more usable than the recently released and widely publicized LUN-level automated storage tiering from one of the big names in SAN technology.

The biggest differentiator for Compellent may be its ease of use. While most SAN systems offer similar functionalities, a system that can set up remote replication over the Internet to another SAN in six mouse clicks is noteworthy. Add to that a good value and high performance, with support for SSDs, 8Gbps Fibre Channel and 10Gbps iSCSI and you have a winner.

Compellent Storage Center 4.0: Fully integrated, full featured 4Gbps Fibre Channel system

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