• United States

Is it really so much to ask?

Aug 21, 20034 mins

* What small businesses really need from an all-in-one server

I’ve always liked the idea of all-in-one server appliances for small businesses or departmental needs. Fitting the right appliance to the right situation should turn the potentially complicated server configuration process into a plug-and-play situation. The problem is the ones I like have disappeared, and I haven’t been able to find suitable replacements.

Let’s lay blame where it belongs: Computer company executives learned to ignore their customers during the boom and now in the slump can’t figure out what’s wrong with their products.

Two years ago, I reviewed four all-in-one servers (see link below) and the Cobalt Qube 3 won a Blue Ribbon. The runner up, Rebel NetWinder 3100, was almost as good. Unfortunately Rebel the company disappeared, and the Cobalt Qube sits on Sun’s discontinued shelf, just three years after Sun bought Cobalt for its low-end Linux rack servers for ISPs. Why were those two servers head and shoulders above the products I’ve reviewed recently? Let me count the ways:

 * Well-illustrated documentation for easy setup.

 * Administrative depth and control beneath an easy-to-use interface.

 * An LCD for setting the IP address before connecting to the network (on the Qube).

 * Extra features, including a built-in threaded discussion list (from Rebel).

The new Taurus from Procom Technologies (see link below) has an even better LCD setup window than the Qube, but falls far shorter on administrative depth.

My top two desires on the list seem contradictory, but really aren’t. Appliances are designed to be easy to use in a “turn it on and forget” manner. They are built for nontechnical users. Guess what? Nontechnical users get more technical with practice, especially within the narrow niche of technology used on a regular basis. Users get smarter with time and experience, and sometimes they grow enough to afford a consultant or value-added reseller. And they always get smarter (unlike some technology executives I’ve met).

Every network server appliance available today forgets this fact. The easy management and configuration screens on appliances are great for the first month, but the lack of depth hurts in the second month. I would like the ability to:

* Track e-mail traffic per user, including the ability to see how many e-mails users have clogging their inbox at any time because someone sent a video clip too large for your storage space.

 * Track storage space used by user (Rebel did this).

 * Configure the firewall to block or unblock individual ports coming in and going out to fit security to company needs for VPNs, online gaming or IM applications.

 * Access directory controls so you can keep the shipping clerk out of the payroll database.

 * Analyze Web site traffic statistics to see which pages attract and repel viewers.

 * Delete stalled print jobs and reset the print server. 

* Implement a “light” version of eDirectory (Novell) or Active Directory (Microsoft) for better user security and authentication. (Hey, vendors: Novell gives away 250,000 eDirectory seats free for your product. Check it out, and see if eDirectory really runs on Linux or if that’s just marketing hype.)

 * Share user security information with a second unit added to the network via a common administration screen to manage multiple units.

 * Mount external file systems (like Windows shares of other disks), such as a network-attached storage device on the net (Rebel did this, too).

 * Easily add applications so users can find new programs they know will install easily and work properly. (Check out and its Click-to-Run feature for inspiration.)

 Would these types of features confound users? Not if the second level of administrative detail was hidden behind the main (easy-to-use) configuration screens and accessed via an “Advanced” button. Each appliance uses some type of Linux operating system, and every feature I’ve asked for exists in one or more Linux distributions.

 Hardware is cheaper than ever. Linux offers a low-cost software starting point for these appliances. So why are great server appliances for small businesses non-existent?

If your company makes a product – hardware or software – that answers some of my requests, let me know. If you’re in product development for a company in this market, get away from the executives and sit down with small business people. Learn from them.