June 7, 2005

The best small business server you've never heard of

Author: Paul Virijevich

The small business market presents a couple challenges to Linux. Small businesses often lack a trained IT staff, and are staffed by users familiar with Microsoft applications. In such an environment, Linux can be a tough sell. However, companies such as Point Clark Networks, developer of ClarkConnect, are striving to bring the security, reliability, and cost advantages of open source to the small business market.

ClarkConnect is available in three editions:

  • Professional -- Acts as a gateway or firewall. Includes a number of open source security programs for antivirus, antispam, content filtering, VPN, and other purposes.
  • Office -- Includes the security features of the Professional edition along with common open source server applications.
  • Home -- Contains the same software as the other two editions, but lacks commercial support.

All three versions use the same underlying source code, but only the home edition is free; the Professional and Office editions are available for $100 and $125 respectively, which includes one month of technical support. Both of the commercial versions can also hook into Point Clark Networks ASP services, about which more in a moment. However, anyone considering either of the commercial versions would be wise to download and test the home version first. You are also free to download and modify the source code.

ClarkConnect uses a text-based version of the Anaconda installer pioneered by Red Hat. The installer keeps the number of questions to a minimum. Installation time will be anywhere from a half hour to an hour depending upon your system's specifications.

You can configure some of the server's network settings directly from the server with the text-only Lynx Web browser. You have to configure its firewall and server software through a Web browser from another computer. ClarkConnect installs a Web server on port 82 to process the PHP scripts it uses for configuration.

To access the Web-based configuration, type http://ipaddressofserver:82 in your browser's location bar. This brings up a password prompt. Log in as root with the password you chose during installation. The first page that greets you is ClarkConnect's Dashboard, which provides an overview of the system's current state, along with statistics on email activity on the server.

Seven tabs along the top of the page let you control the server:

  • Dashboard -- Provides a basic system overview.
  • Users -- Allows you to add, modify, and delete users on your system.
  • Network -- Configure your network and interface settings.
  • Services -- Allows you to register and view the status of Point Clark Networks ASP offerings.
  • Reports -- Displays reports on intrusion detection, mail, Web proxy, and Web server systems.
  • Software -- Control and configure the server software.
  • System -- Adjust the date and time, start and stop services, shutdown and reboot, create or restore from a backup image.

The user interface is cleanly laid out, and basic system administration is straightforward. Let us take the example of creating a user. On a fresh installation there will only be one user account, root. Looking at a user's icons is a quick way to see what access they have to the server. You will see a terminal icon under the options column for root. This represents that the root user has shell access to the server via SSH. The other available icons are an envelope, showing that the user has an email account; a folder, representing a Samba share; and a key icon, for VPN access. Icons are created automatically when you add a user and select its options.

While it's not hard to configure services on most Linux distributions these days, what made ClarkConnect stand out for me is the comprehensive reports and the backup and restore features. ClarkConnect generates reports for just about every aspect of the system's activity, on everything from intrusion detection to detailed email server statistics. The backup and restore utility lets you backup or restore your server's configuration with one click right through your browser.

Services enhance the software

Point Clark Networks offers an integrated a set of services for the commercial versions. The available services are:

  • 24/7 port and resource monitoring
  • DNS services, including dynamic DNS
  • antivirus protection
  • antispam tools
  • content filter updates
  • managed/dynamic VPN
  • daily security audits
  • intrusion detection updates
  • e-mail/MX backup

You can purchase them on a monthly basis or pay a one-time fee. The most expensive package includes antivirus and antispam for 50 users at $60 a month or a one-time fee of $999 for the life of the product. The less expensive options start at $40 a month or a one-time fee of $160, and include content filter and intrusion detection updates along with system monitoring at different time intervals.

Even without these services, ClarkConnect is still a great value. Whether the services are worth the added cost depends on the skill level of the server's administrator. If the administrator is comfortable with manually updating packages and monitoring the server's health, you won't really need the added services. On the other hand, if the administrator is a business person without much technical knowledge, the integrated services could be invaluable.

Point Clark Networks also offers domain registration, renewal, and transfer services for $25. It offers DNS service for $20 per domain. Although I think it is a great idea to give back to open source projects by buying services from them, these prices are a little high -- three to five times what the competition is charging.

Small businesses looking for a server operating system that is easy to install, configure, and maintain should try ClarkConnect. Any administrator familiar with Linux or Microsoft's Windows Small Business Server will have no problem setting up a server that meets the needs of a small business. The added services from Point Clark Networks can make configuring and managing a ClarkConnect server even easier. Although there are free and open source solutions to enable the same functionality, the services from Point Clark Networks offer a turnkey solution with commercial support.

Paul Virijevich is working to eliminate the "Linux consultants cost more" TCO myth. He recently started a consultancy to provide cost-effective open source solutions to small businesses.


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