Save remote IT support costs with Mark II

Remote offices pose tricky support problems for IT departments. Although they require the same day-to-day support services as the main office, remote office budgets often aren't large enough to hire a dedicated IT employee. In short, remote office IT support can cause pain to the corporate IT budget or require one employee in each branch office to become the local IT hero.

Furthermore, figuring out how to support numerous branch offices is enough to make many CTOs curse the day they accepted their signing bonus.

But where there's a problem, there's a buck to be made, and based on what we found in our review of the Net Integrator Mark II from Net Integration Technologies, it looks like this company's success is a sure thing.

The Mark II is a network appliance, all-in-one server that is well suited for one or hundreds of remote offices. It acts as a server for DNS (Domain Name Service), DHCP (Dynamic Host Configuration Protocol), Web, HTTPS (Secure HTTP), FTP, Telnet, Windows, and Macintosh files, e-mail, and VPNs. The Mark II does not do any one remarkable thing, but it does everything it is supposed to do remarkably well.

Most importantly, the Mark II does not require an on-site IT department or even one person for support, thereby saving a company a bundle in support costs and ultimately shaving thousands of dollars off the bottom-line cost of maintaining remote offices.

Also, Net Integrator Mark II shares a single Internet connection with the whole network, acts as a firewall, and handles NAT (network address translation) duties for added security. Almost every management task is handled via a Web browser. In all, we were left feeling almost obligated to give it our highest score of Excellent.

All things in one

The Mark II is designed to act as a gateway to the Internet and as the central server for all services. The Internet connection goes in the bottom NIC (network interface card), and the other NIC is connected to the network. A v.90 modem is also included to give access to dial-up callers. The processor is a speedy AMD 1GHz chip, and there is 60GB of storage space. Strangely, the built-in OnStream tape drive is 10GB smaller than the hard drive, making it difficult to back up the hard drive in the case of a backup emergency -- although the probability of this occurring is slim.

Once plugged in, the Mark II configures itself to blend into the existing infrastructure. For example, if a DHCP server is already running, it will turn that feature off rather than competing; likewise if it notices a client not getting an IP address, it will assign one to it. We installed the machine on both an existing network behind a firewall as well as directly attached to the Internet, and in both instances it configured itself quickly and properly.

Includes networked VPN

Companies with multiple remote offices -- insurance, real estate, or sales offices for example -- will appreciate the built-in VPN features. As easy as typing in the IP address and password of the central VPN server, multiple Mark IIs can be hooked together in a seamless network giving all users access to all machines regardless of location. The information is encrypted and decrypted for security and takes only a small bite out of performance.

Dial-up users can use Microsoft's PPTP (Point-to-Point Tunneling Protocol) to the same effect, and they will especially appreciate the Web-based e-mail functions.

The core of the Mark II is based on a custom version of the Linux OS, which includes all of the server applications embedded on a flash memory card. Not only does this make the Mark II easily upgradable when new versions or features are released, it also means the system does not require a hard drive to boot. Even a catastrophic loss of the drive will affect only the file server aspect of the system, and because the 60GB drive is hot swappable, putting in a new one can be handled by anyone.

Simple to use

Along those same lines, the backup and restore features are remarkably simple. To back up the Web site, including all files, any employee can put in a fresh tape and press the green button on the front of the unit that says Backup, instantly promoting the employee to backup administrator. If you are not in the same location, the same feat can be done via the Web-based management console. Restore is equally simple, and the administrator has the option of restoring all or none of the user directories.

In fact, all of the features are either so simple or automatic, one might think they are not all present and ready to work. But that's the genius of the Mark II -- everything is already set up, and it's very difficult for someone to configure the server incorrectly.

For example, firewall settings are as simple as choosing whether you want to offer a particular feature (such as Web, file server, or e-mail) to the trusted network, to everyone, or to no one. Forwarding information to the wrong ports or accidentally opening up holes is virtually impossible.

The only real drawback with the Mark II is that IT administrators can't add any software or options to it. But because that's the nature of this kind of server, it's hard to ding it for that.

As long as Net Integration Technologies remains responsive to its customers' needs, the inability to customize the Mark II should not be a factor for the vast majority of owners. Regardless of whether your company has just one or many remote offices, we would highly recommend the Mark II.

Steve Jefferson is a section editor in the Test Center. Send him your thoughts at steve_jefferson@infoworld.com.

THE BOTTOM LINE: EXCELLENT

Net Integrator Mark II

Business Case: In one tidy package, this network appliance provides remote offices with all the computing services they are likely to need on a day-to-day basis. Support costs are almost zero; the product requires no on-site IT staff and little tinkering.

Technology Case: The Net Integrator Mark II is a very fast, very capable network appliance offering DNS, DHCP, Web, HTTPS, FTP, Telnet, Windows, and Macintosh file, e-mail, and VPN services. All management is done via the Web browser. In the event of a catastrophic loss, anyone at the local office can either plug in the new box or swap the drives.

Pros:

+ Comprehensive suite of services

+ Very easy to configure and maintain

+ Stable, robust OS is independent of disk+ Fast, high-quality hardwareCons:

- Inherently inflexible

Cost: US$4,299

Platform(s): Internet services for all IP-compatible devices, file and print services for Windows and MacintoshNet Integration Technologies, Markham, Ontario; (866) 384-8324; www.net-itech.com

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