Small businesses looking to set up ship with e-mail, file and printer sharing, and a Web presence have options such as Microsoft's Small Business Server, or even Linux distributions that come with all the software you need (although setup and configuration isn't for the faint of heart).
For a Linux option that is simple to set up and configure, consider the EmergeCore IT-100 IT in a Box appliance. The IT-100 is a handy single-point product for file sharing, Web and FTP serving and e-mail. For most end users the cost will be part of a long-term service agreement with an ISP and shouldn't be a factor in deciding to go with the product.
Features and apps
EmergeCore's business proposition is aimed squarely at the ISP. With prices for high-speed DSL or cable continuing to drop, it's imperative for ISPs to offer some additional value to its business customers. The IT-100 offers several features that you'd normally expect to get with a higher-end server, but in a package not much larger than a small router.
The hardware portion of the IT-100 is a standard set of functions - including four 10/100 Ethernet ports, an 802.11b wireless access point, two USB 2.0 ports for attaching an external hard drive or printer, and 16G-bytes of internal user disk space. The box itself is not much bigger than a DSL modem/router combination box that many service providers are offering to customers.
The IT-100 has the basics covered with e-mail, FTP and Web servers ready to go out-of-the-box. Each component must be individually configured for use through a simple Web-based configuration screen. The system includes a Web site creation tool called Web Builder that can quickly create a basic Web site. It's comparable to similar offerings from ISP vendors such as Verizon for creating a basic home page. Web Builder offers several screens where you choose from a list of site categories or themes, add contact information and choose what type of site navigation will be displayed. Overall the process is straightforward and would work for creating a simple Web site.
Configuring client e-mail programs to use the IT-100 took only a few steps. The EmergeCore Web site offers several how-to stories, including how to configure Outlook to talk to an IT-100 mail server. It didn't offer information for other e-mail clients, although the information provided in the "Outlook How-To" was generic enough that we could configure Mozilla Thunderbird to work with it.
Sharing files on a Windows network worked like a champ. To get up and running, we just needed to enter a workgroup name and NetBIOS hostname. A drawback is the lack of support for anything other than Windows NT domains - meaning we couldn't authenticate to Active Directory or join an Active Directory domain. This would only be a problem if you have a Windows 2003 server on your network acting as a domain controller.
The system's Traveler application is included to help SMBs manage trips. It offers a place to enter an itinerary, airline, hotel and rental car information for later access. While the app is straightforward and might be useful for sharing your itinerary information with others, it wouldn't be practical unless you had constant access to the Internet.
A customer relationship management (CRM) application is also included to let SMB owners manage customer data. It's not on par with something you'd get from Siebel but it does the basics of tracking names and contact information.
To protect a company's network from outside attack, the IT-100 includes a Linux-based firewall with multiple levels of protection, intrusion detection that reports on the integrity of program files, and configurable alarms. The security features are solid, based on time-tested Linux applications.
Wireless security support includes media access control address filtering (we liked how it was turned on by default), as well as username/password authentication and up to 128-bit Wired Equivalent Privacy encryption. On the downside you won't find any support for Wi-Fi Protected Access. While the box we tested did not support 802.11g, it is available as an option.
Managing the IT-100 is done through a Web browser, and can be done from anywhere with Internet access. The management console provides all the necessary information in a very readable format with a tree-view of configuration items on the left of the page, and detailed information on the right, similar to a Windows Explorer display. From the top level you see graphical and tabbed views depicting the system's status. Another nice touch is the listing of technical support phone numbers and the system's serial number on the system summary page.
A backup and restore feature lets you back up the IT-100's data locally, to an external USB storage device or over the network to a Windows file share. The automatic scheduled backup comes disabled by default, but can be easily enabled. The 20G-byte hard drive in the unit we tested was too small for more than simple e-mail storage, although you can get a 60G- or 100G-byte version.
Getting the IT-100 up and running took less than 10 minutes. An Express Setup Guide led us through the necessary steps of connecting the box to the Internet and at least one workstation. A single RJ-45 jack on the back of the IT-100 connects to either a DSL or cable modem for access to the Internet.
We disliked having to set the IP address of our workstation to 10.9.8.10 to talk to the IT-100. It would seem more intuitive to have DHCP enabled to make the setup process a little simpler. Fortunately, the configuration process prompts you for a new address if you need to change it. We liked the ability to go back and change our configuration settings at a later date. The guide says this during the first time you get to an optional component such as CRM or Traveler. All the installation dialogs are clear and easy to understand.
While the IT-100 includes both a serial and parallel port, neither one worked in our test. The EmergeCore Web site recommended using IP printing on the local network as a solution for shared printing.
How we did it
We connected the IT-100 directly into a DSL modem/router provided by our ISP (Verizon). We then connected a laptop to one of the IT-100 Ethernet ports to perform all the management functions. On the laptop we used Mozilla Thunderbird to test the e-mail server capabilities of the product. We also built several sample Web sites using the provided Web site builder application.
Other tests included file sharing setup on a Windows network, and trying the bundled applications on the device (including the CRM and travel itinerary software).
EmergeCore IT-100 IT in a Box is sold in Australia via Ozglobal Communications. More information can be found be calling 1800 855944.