February 23, 2002

Commentary: Fax2Send is feature-rich fax program for a mixed Linux/Windows network

Author: JT Smith

- By John P. Lathrop -
Fax2Send, by Beacon Computer Services, is an example of a first-class Linux product designed to appeal to Windows system administrators. Although a commercial product, it comes at a significant cost-savings to Windows alternatives, and in many ways, points to the direction that Linux software applications could profitably go.

A glimpse at DaveCentral's archive of Linux programs shows 11 fax programs for the Linux platform. They range from old standards like HylaFAX to marginal products, many of them in a questionable maintenance and development status. Typically, these are Open Source projects. Many of them have installation problems, complex configuration requirements, and either non-existent or poor GUIs. Documentation is often also poor: HylaFAX's documentation consists of many pages of technical configuration details, in which the newcomer will look in vain to find simple instructions on actually sending a fax.

Fax2Send, by contrast, is as simple to install, set up and use as most Microsoft programs. It uses a client-server design, with the server component running on Linux, and the clients on either Linux or Windows. The GUIs for the both the Linux server and Windows client components are excellent. Fax2Send perhaps mirrors the current state of Linux on the desktop in that the program's Linux client component is still command line only, although it is possible, with some command line manipulation, to run the server's X Window GUI on a Linux client machine.

The server package is downloadable as a gunzipped tar file, which creates its own directory where the install program resides. It can be run within either GNOME or KDE. It uses tcl, and launches an installation wizard (in English or German), a model of its kind, guaranteed to put the Linux newcomer at his or her ease. The free 30-day evaluation copy supports one server and four users. Users and hosts are entered during the installation procedure, as is one of five pre-designed cover sheets. The user is prompted for cover sheet details, and default paper sizes.

When finished, the program puts a cute icon on the server desktop; clicking it brings up a control panel showing at a glance the status of the program, and with buttons to launch composer, configuration or help windows.

The Windows client is even simpler to install -- one simply downloads a single dll and a Windows executable, and then executes it. The standard Windows-style installation wizard takes over.

The Windows fax client is well integrated into Windows 2000. It is tedious to constantly enter telephone numbers and contact information every time one wants to send a fax: A necessary feature on the Windows platform is the ability to import contact data from Outlook. Fax2Send doesn't support importing Outlook data directly, but it can import data from almost any database, including MS Access and Excel files. It is a simple matter to export Outlook contact information as an Access file, for instance, and then import that into the Fax2Send phonebook. Fax2Send has a straightforward import wizard for such files: Within a minute I was able to import all the necessary data from my Outlook contact file.

Fax composition on either a Linux server or Windows client is a breeze, with very usable interfaces, and the ability to drag-and-drop files, copy-and-paste text, or insert attachments. In one experiment from the Windows client, I wrote a brief cover letter, and then inserted a multiple-page contract as an attached PDF file. One click and off it went to the Linux server through the LAN, out through the modem, and was received in perfect order as a multiple page fax.

Two other similar experiments also worked. In the first, I composed a short cover letter on the Linux server, and attached to it, via Samba, a .txt document residing on a Windows client on the LAN. In the second experiment, I sent an MS Word document, also as an attachment, directly from the Windows client. Both made it to California (I live in Calgary, Canada), in good condition as multiple page faxes.

Sending faxes from a Linux client machine, by contrast, is like a chill wind from the past: One is reduced to setting environment variables at the command line, and typing in long strings of header options. Although Fax2Send is an excellent solution for a Linux server/Windows client environment, and is also an excellent solution on a stand-alone Linux machine, it is a questionable solution for Linux workstations on a LAN.

The general scarcity of Linux workstations mitigates this disappointment, as does the product's pricing model. Below is a comparison of Fax2Send, and Symantec's WinFax PRO:

Single user license: Fax2Send, $25; WinFax PRO, one copy, $99

License for small number of users: Fax2Send for four users, $99; WinFax PRO five-user pack, $449.95

License for larger number of users: Fax2Send for 12 users, $149; WinFax PRO 10-user Pack, $899.95

Of course the two products are not identical. Fax2Send is a client/server solution; to compete in such a configuration, WinFax PRO, a client only, needs a separate server product like RightFax. The fact that neither RightFax nor WinFax PRO runs on the Linux platform further increases Fax2Send's cost advantage.

To sum up, this product is significant in three ways:

2.The fact that it is designed primarily to support Windows clients running on a Linux server mirrors the current state of Linux's impact on the corporate desktop.

3. The product is a perfect example of how the cost and performance of a commercial Linux product could ease a Windows system administrator's decision to move his or her servers to Linux. Here is a non-Open Source Linux product that takes the place of two competing Windows products; that installs as easily as any Windows program; that works as well as its main competitor, and is only a fraction of the cost.

The author of this review has just published "Linux in Small Business: A Practical User's Guide" (Apress). His consultancy's Web site is: linuxleap.org.

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