March 26, 2004

Review: IT in a Box ably serves small business needs

Author: Lee Schlesinger

I call her ITina, short for IT in a Box IT-100. She's a petite little number, smaller than my laptop computer, stylishly cased in grey and adorned with colorful LEDs. She's a Linux-based server with a wide range of capabilities. Though she's a classy package, she's neither high-priced, at $1,395, nor high-maintenance.

Under the covers, the IT-100 comprises a 533MHz Crusoe CPU, 128MB RAM, 20GB hard drive, a four-port 10/100 Ethernet switch, and an 802.11b wireless access point. EmergeCore's CoreVista operating system is based on the Linux Slackware distribution.

I had a little trouble getting on talking terms with ITina because its default password had been changed before I got my hands on it, but by accessing the device through a client attached to its serial port I was able to reset it. After that I was able to perform most of the IT-100 configuration tasks from an attractive Web interface.

I began by setting the box up as a wireless access point. By default, the IT-100 serves up the 10.9.8.0 subnet to wired clients and 10.9.9.0 to 802.11b wireless users. You can add access rules to provide block or permit lists of adapter MAC addresses that are allowed to use the system. Real-time monitoring capabilities for connected clients is strangely missing, however; I couldn't find any screen that showed a list of connected clients on the wired or wireless subnets.

My next step was to add a domain -- windows-xp.com, in this case, for testing purposes. Each IT-100 can host multiple domains. The management software displayed a DNS setup wizard screen, followed setup screens for mail, Web, and FTP services, all of which started flawlessly. EmergeCore even provides email antivirus software. You can set the box to update its virus definitions automatically on a daily, weekly, or monthly basis. You can also turn on SpamCop for spam filtering. Finally, you can set up traditional LAN file services for your domain's users as well.

Once all the network services were up, my internal clients could work with anything in the windows-xp.com domain. Unfortunately, I couldn't get the domain to propagate out to the wider world in general, despite setting up the proper Web forwarding record with my domain's registrar. I was also disappointed to find no link in the IT-100's management software to Web-based utilities to upload Web or FTP content. Luckily any FTP client does the job just fine.

Upgrading the unit's software from version 2.70, which came on the unit as shipped, to the current 3.0, was a simple matter of clicking on the proper link, waiting for a download to complete, and letting the machine upgrade itself. It was simple, but there were six upgrades waiting, and I had to go through the simple routine twice to apply them all. Still, the box never lost contact with the Internet during upgrades -- a level of stability necessary for business use.

IT in a Box isn't perfect. For one thing, I'd like to see enhanced reporting features, to enable administrators to get a better picture of Web server statistics. I'd also like to be able to hook up a printer to the IT-100's parallel port to give multiple users access to centralized print services. I'd like to be able to install server-based applications that aren't bundled with the operating system. EmergeCore provides no shell access to the operating system. But then again, if I want to do things that require shell access, I'm probably outside of EmergeCore's target customer base.

EmergeCore could also do a better job of online support. While the tech support staff was knowledgeable enough on the phone when I needed them, the online resources are scanty. There are a few answers to frequently asked questions, but no discussion forums.

Despite these drawbacks, IT in a Box is an excellent bundle of hardware and software for small businesses without a dedicated IT staff. The IT-100, by focusing on ease of use, should find a welcome reception among businesses that know they need a server-based network but are scared of the complexity that managing such a system usually involves.

Category:

  • Networking
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