September 20, 2004

Linux small business servers

Author: Rob Reilly

Most companies with more than 25 people have their own information technology personnel, hardware, and infrastructure. Where does that leave the small and medium business (SMB) for IT services and systems? Microsoft's Windows Small Business Server 2003 seems like an obvious choice for businesses that already have a big commitment or investment in Windows-based systems, and Novell offers a Small Business Suite for the NetWare faithful, but open source software offers its own small and medium business server options.

At least two companies, ClarkConnect and Cybernet, directly challenge the notion that Microsoft has a lock on the small and medium business server market.

ClarkConnect: Thinking big about small

ClarkConnect is a division of Point Clark Networks, which says it has 38,000 small and medium server systems deployed in law firms, education organizations, and various other businesses around the world. The company, which started in November 2000, expects to have 150,000 to 200,000 registered systems by the end of 2005, with roughly 70% of sales made through value-added IT consulting partners. The third-party partners offer service level agreements to clients through monthly service contracts while deploying the ClarkConnect software. The remaining 30% of sales go to individual customers. Although the company's major distribution is Red Hat 9.0, Chambers said they eventually want to support all distributions. And, according to Ben Chambers, director of business development for Point Clark Networks, "The Microsoft Small Business Server is a direct competitor."

ClarkConnect offers two gateway server software products and a companion service.

  • The $100 ClarkConnect Professional includes the firewall, VPN, and gateway tools. It protects local networks and internal servers (including Microsoft Exchange mail servers) from outside threats.
  • The $125 ClarkConnect Office includes everything in the Professional edition, plus Web, file, and print services.
  • Integrated gateway services provide external managed services for security audits, various system logging and reporting functions, and bandwidth monitoring at additional cost.

The heart of the ClarkConnect business concept is one piece of proprietary software called Suva that handles location, authentication, and data encryption for their service delivery network (SDN). Suva pushes updates down to companion programs on the ClarkConnect registered systems. Updates and maintenance can be started from the ClarkConnect or service partner end, without even bothering the customer. Web-based interfaces remove many of the security vulnerabilities with the X Window environment.

Chambers said that some customers had concerns about moving to all-in-one firewall/gateway server solutions, because they were used to standalone firewall products. The importance of security, along with automated updates through Suva, have eased those concerns and made for brisk sales of the ClarkConnect products, Chambers said.

Chambers also said that a "big brother" situation was not a real problem, referring to the ability of ClarkConnect to monitor and "push" updates down to the customer machines. Not only do customers have service contracts with their ClarkConnect integrators, but they can always shut down the port on the firewall if they wish to stop SDN updates.

Two versions of the SDN license cover home and business use. The free home version supplies updates for one year, while the business license provides three years of updates, in addition to VPN/IPsec features. Other than that, the functionality is the same for both versions.

Scott Clark (no relation to ClarkConnect), the information technology director for the town of Fuquay-Varina, N.C., says he uses the ClarkConnect Office version for many of his group's mission-critical functions. For instance, the town uses ClarkConnect machines as their core network routers and to link seven remote locations via an IPSec VPN. Clark estimates that this usage has saved close to $50,000 compared to using comparable Microsoft, Symantec, or WatchGuard systems.

"I never really considered Microsoft software at all. I wanted a system that was reliable, robust and secure," Clark said. "We are responsible for handling mission-critical traffic for our fire, police, and town government. ClarkConnect software does this with no problem. We also use ClarkConnect software to filter Internet traffic and head off abuse or infection from a Web-based virus." Clark also hosts three Web sites that have to be up 99.9% of the time. "ClarkConnect software is so reliable we rarely have to perform maintenance or reboot the machines. The only new features I would like to see are better real-time monitoring of the services."

Cybernet

Cybernet is an Ann Arbor, Mich.-based integrator that offers SMB servers and networking services to companies with 10 to 100 employees. Some large companies, including Boeing, use NetMAX to manage their virtual private networks (VPN) and workgroups.

Much of Cybernet's expertise was developed for military projects. Cybernet's flagship product, NetMAX, is a small/medium Linux distribution/business software suite that bundles file sharing, e-commerce, web server, firewall and gateway into an integrated package that's easy to set up. According to NetMAX product manager Glenn Beach, "NetMAX is very much a direct replacement for Microsoft SMB server."

NetMAX, based on Red Hat Linux, acts as a firewall, network gateway, and file server. The software run on hardware as old as a 233MHz Pentium II with a minimum of 64MB of memory and 2GB of disk space. The NetMAX Professional Suite 5 includes a complete Linux operating system installation, as well as firewalls, Internet services, and file sharing. Other available products include Linux and just the firewall, Linux and the mail server, and so on. The NetMAX E-Commerce Suite 5 includes everything in the Professional Suite, plus e-commerce components. Prices for the various NetMAX versions can be found on the NetMAX purchasing page.

As an integrator, Cybernet realized that it had to fully support legacy Microsoft environments, and it provides Microsoft file share support via the Samba packages. (One of the NetMAX software developers is credited with creating the Samba project logo.)

Beach and NetMAX technical lead Nathan Pitts noted that "NetMAX uses NetMAX"; the company runs on its own products. Solving problems on their own servers and networks has given them valuable insight into difficulties that their customers might face.

Roughly 60% of the company's business is Linux-based, primarily in medical, imaging, and networking. Interestingly, doctors make up about 10% of Cybernet's business, and the company says it also has a strong presence with accountants, lawyers, and machine shop owners. Soon Cybernet will be offering real-time monitoring of client networks for a monthly fee.

Beach said that the company is focused on business, and that it's "all about simplifying, even at the expense of flexibility," referring to the customer service and maintenance process.

"NetMAX allows Garrett College's operations center staff the ability to concentrate on the issues of Web and email server operation", said Dan Fabbri, of Garrett College, in McHenry, Md. He said he appreciated the user-friendly interface that is built on a solid Linux shell. "The NetMAX support team has been readily available to assist me in the resolution of
technical issues," Fabbri said.

The bottom line

The fact that these two companies are growing by providing open-source-based small business server products shows that open source software can compete with proprietary alternatives, such as Microsoft's Small Business Server. Making decisions and venturing into new territory in search of making your business more profitable has always been the hallmark of the successful small businessman. ClarkConnect and Cybernet prove that one way to that new territory is through open source software.

Rob Reilly is a professional technology writer and consultant whose articles appear in various Linux media outlets. He offers professional writing and seminar services on Linux desktop applications, portable computing, and presentation technology.

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