Axentra is a software startup founded by a team mostly comprised of former Corel employees that came up with the idea of integrating its Linux-based applications software into a range of small office and home office servers. What they’ve ended up with is not so much a ‘server’, in the traditional sense of the term, as an ingenious multi-function LAN/WAN appliance that does a bit of everything and replaces a number of normally separate devices.

The Net-Box reviewed here is the top-of-the-range system for home users, the H-85 (since superseded by the almost identical H-90) but the company also has models - the S-100, S-200 and S-500 – designed for small office environments and, at a pinch, some remote offices as well. We’d normally review only business systems but took the decision to look at the more basic system as it is functionally similar to the higher-end boxes and we were intrigued by the concept.

It will handle directory or system file backup from PCs on the network and share devices such as printers or server volumes – all very much the stuff a basic file server would do. Cleverly, the Net-Box is also a WAN router, a basic firewall, 802.11G wireless access point, web server, email/anti-spam server, and remote file and email access device all rolled into one.

The Net-Box concept can be looked at in two ways. It could be bought as a way of doing away with the need a number of hardware devices (router, switch, wireless access point, print server) and getting grown-up file serving and backup as a bonus. This is a strong argument in its favour, but it’s also true that there are an increasing number of all-in-one devices that will do most of this anyway.

Alternatively, if you’re one of an increasing population of power users, or are running a small business, the Net-Box is really a file server that will let you do “OS-like” things such as creating user accounts, manage security, configure anti-spam protection, set up internal and remote access to email and, perhaps, run a small web server.

Having purchased a Net-Box, the only devices you’d still need would be a hub (assuming you use this in addition to wireless access) and a cable or DSL modem to make the actual connection to the Internet. A notable absentee from the roster of applications is integrated anti-virus but Axentra says it is close to signing an agreement to bundle this for anyone who doesn’t already have it.

Out of the box
In terms of hardware, The H-85 is basically a standard PC server based around AMD’s 1.6GHz Duron chip, with 256MB Ram and a 120GB hard disk. It runs a Linux-based OS the company calls “OEone”. You get three Ethernet interfaces; two LAN ports and a “WAN” interface, which are used depending on the devices you already have. In the simplest configuration you’d just plug a broadband modem into the WAN port and take it from there. Alternatively, one of the LAN ports would be used if connecting to a hub first. The extra LAN port is for making a direct PC/Apple connection using one of the supplied cross-over cables.

The rear of the system is unremarkable with the usual serial, RGB and USB connections should you ever want to use them. The box itself is covered in a rather eye-catching translucent white plastic that’ll be familiar to Apple users, and is about the size of a small desktop computer. It boots up quickly and executes a musical scale to tell you it’s ready for business. One flaw we spotted immediately: the system is unusually noisy, sounding more like a fan heater than a PC. This is something that needs to be sorted before it can live happily in a small office.

The Net-Box system really stands or falls on the strength of its software and it is here that the power of the system becomes apparent. It would take pages to go through all the functions included but suffice to say it offers the usual productivity applications such as email, calendaring, contacts list, file management and web publishing. A separate synchronisation client can be installed on each PC to backup files at specified times to the server, while it is possible to backup the entire state of the server to make possible a full system restore.

We still doubt that the broadband home user really needs the range of fairly powerful features on offer in the Net-Box, but then again, it is possible to use some but not all of them as you please. Where it scores highly is for the small office environment, where you are basically getting a Linux server without the complication of setting it up yourself and integrating add-on open-source applications such as an Apache web server and MySQL database on your own.

Given the small upfront cost, and the fact the it represents a decent long-term investment, we’d rate it as exceptional value for money. But anyone using it in this more advanced mode with any seriousness would need to factor in extra cost to allow for hardware, software or power failover and the inevitable management headaches that crop up from time to time.

How could it be improved? Integrating the broadband interface would be hard work given the different specs across countries but would cut out one potential configuration headache. The firewall was also pretty basic, with no logging to speak of, and the higher-end S series servers have SSL VPN support but not the unfashionable but useful IPSec, which means you can’t tie multiple units together at different locations. This is a client-to-server-only design, at least for now.

OUR VERDICT

Buying an all-in-one system has its limitations when you get beyond a small number of users. Even small systems will need some redundancy so this type of product needs careful thought - extra purchases might be required at some stage.