A Low-Tech Network Appliance

Axentra claims its new OfficeSeries Network Appliances are extremely easy for non-techies to set up and use and provide all-in-one network solutions. As you’ll see, you can’t have it both ways &#151 at least not at the same time. Still, almost any small business that needs a new or first office network should consider these products.

This line of three network servers comes with a comprehensive suite of Axentra-developed network and application software. Pricing ranges from $600 to $1,000.

If all you want is the most basic kind of office network, one that lets several computers share files, printers and a high-speed Internet connection &#151 and that’s all your business will ever need &#151 then these products are overkill.

However, if you also want to store or backup data from all the computers in your office to a central repository &#151 or hope to as your company grows &#151 then you need a network appliance with a big hard drive. The Axentra products serve this purpose well. They can also do much more, letting you create and host your own intranets, Web sites and e-mail systems and control and secure valuable company data. At this point, though, set-up and administration is no longer a simple proposition for non-technical administrators.

This is partly because the documentation isn’t as good as it could be at helping the technically challenged through the complexities, and partly because there is a certain amount of complexity to setting up a full-featured network that you can’t just avoid.

The beauty of the Axentra products is that you can start by setting up a simple network and then learn at your own pace. As your company grows, and its needs become more complex, you can add the more advanced features and functions.

The Technology Behind the Curtain
Axentra builds the servers based on its own OEone software platform that uses the Linux operating system, Apache Web Server, MySQL database and other Open Source components. The products work with both Windows or Macintosh computers &#151 and even a mix of both.

The software bundle includes a number of applications, including Web page and photo album publishing modules, Web mail, a Web address book and calendar, plus automatic backup and restore. The Axentra OfficeSeries comes in the following configurations (we reviewed the S-200):

  • S-100 ($600): A 1.7 GHz AMD processor, 256MB of memory and an 80MB hard drive
  • S-200 ($800): A 1.8GHz AMD Athlon 2200+ processor, 512MB of memory and a 120MB hard drive
  • S-500: ($1,000): A 2.2GHz AMD processor, 512MB of memory and a 160MB hard drive

The S-200 that we tested also included:

  • Two hard-wired ports
  • One unused expansion slot
  • One parallel port for directly connecting a network printer
  • Four USB ports

You can attach a keyboard, mouse and monitor to the server, but it’s not necessary. You configure and manage the server from any connected computer using the Axentra browser interface.

Designed for high-speed cable or DSL Internet access, the Axentra servers perform many of the same functions as home or office network gateways and hubs. The unit we reviewed also includes a built-in Wi-Fi access point (the 54-megabits-per-second 802.11g protocol) so you can connect Wi-Fi-equipped wireless notebooks.

Axentra application portal

Open the Axentra server appliance application portal to access the network and a variety of other applications.

If you already have a gateway or hub and want to continue using it to distribute the Internet signal, setting up the Axentra device becomes somewhat complicated, but for most buyers set-up will be very simple indeed.

Making It All Work
In the simplest scenario, you plug the Ethernet cable from your high-speed Internet modem into the RJ-45 WAN (wide area network) port on the back of the Axentra server. Then connect individual computers into the LAN ports using the cross-wire cables that come with the server.

The Getting Started sheet clearly lays out the cabling and initial set-up procedures. The sheet is similar to documentation you find in a home computer or peripheral product, and it’s just as easy to follow. However, the rest of the documentation &#151 on an accompanying CD, isn’t so clear and simple.

After you turn on the Axentra server, it emits a series of beep tones as it progresses through its start-up procedure. When it’s ready to use, it plays a series of do-re-mi tones. Now you can restart the computers you’ve connected to the server. Use a Web browser on one of the connected computers to access the Axentra server’s IP address and start setting up your network.

The server automatically launches a set-up Wizard in the browser window. Answer a series of questions to identify the administrator, choose the type of Internet connection and other basics of how you want the server to work.

The Axentra box will function as the Dynamic Host Configuration Protocol (DHCP) server, automatically assigning IP addresses to computers connected to the wired ports and to any wireless notebooks you may have added. You’ll need to go into network settings on each computer and ensure they’re set to receive an automatically assigned address.

At this point &#151 after only a few minutes, theoretically &#151 you have a network. Each computer accesses the Internet through the Axentra box. If you connected a printer to the server, anyone on the network will be able to print to it. Once you set up file sharing permissions on the individual connected computers, they’ll be able to share files over the network, too.

Complexity Happens

Axentra's email application

The OfficeSeries network appliances let you host your company’s email.

But the real point of the Axentra appliance is that you can store &#151 or at least back up &#151 all of your company’s critical data on the server’s hard drive. Then you can make that data available to all authorized employees over the network, and/or the Internet.

Use the Office Series server to:

  • Store document files
  • Host the company’s e-mail service and provided mail boxes for each employee, Store calendar and contact data for each employee
  • Host the company’s public Web and intranet (private, in-house) sites

Setting up and implementing all of these features and capabilities is where the Axentra OfficeSeries appliances get decidedly more complicated.

Your employees will interact with the server through the same browser interface you used to administer and set it up. Before they can use the services, you must set up each user with an account and password, which is easy enough to do. Then they can access the Axentra applications.

The applications &#151 e-mail, file store, calendar, contacts, bookmarks, Web page publishing &#151 are reasonably well designed but basic and, in some cases, rudimentary. To anyone accustomed to well designed and full-featured Windows or Mac applications and utilities, these applications will seem clunky.

Your employee’s can manage their schedules on Axentra’s calendar feature.

The Portals application, however, is a powerful feature that gives employees easy access to all the information and services they need and use most often.

Every time they log on to the server, they start at their own portal page, which provides access to Web and/or intranet pages stored on the server, as well as the various services the Axentra box provides. These can include the employee’s folders in the central file store, his e-mail box, calendar, Web bookmarks, notes to himself &#151 and a blog .

Employees can access the company portal and their personal pages from any Internet-connected computer. This is easy to set up if your ISP assigns you a static IP address. It’s somewhat more difficult, but not impossible, if it assigns IP addresses dynamically.

Rather than having your ISP or a separate Web hosting company host your Web pages and your e-mail service, you can &#151 if your ISP allows it &#151 host them yourself on the Axentra server. To do this, you need to register a domain name or names and set them up on your server.

We’ve clearly now gone well beyond the basic requirements of a small business LAN &#151 and the skill and knowledge required to set up and manage it.

Our recommendation: if you only want to set up a simple network for sharing files and printers and an Internet connection, there are easier and cheaper ways to do it &#151 using hubs and gateways from mainstream network equipment vendors such as Cisco, D-Link, Netgear and others.

If, however, you’re interested in taking centralized control of and securing company data, the Axentra product is an inexpensive and relatively easy-to-use solution.

It’s worth considering even if you just think you might want more capability in future. The nice thing is, you can start slowly&#151 set up a simple office network and then as you learn, add more of the services the Axentra products can provide.

Based in London, Canada, Gerry Blackwell has been writing about information technology and telecommunications for a variety of print and online publications since the 1980’s. Just for fun, he also authors features and columns on digital photography for Here’s How, a spiffy new Canadian consumer technology magazine.

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