NetCommander is a device for monitoring the physical environment in your building - power, heat, humidity and a raft of other aspects - and alerting you to problems. It bills itself as “the most versatile monitor in the world”, a claim that is not as over-optimistic as you might guess.

The basic NetCommander is a small metal box with nothing on the front and a cluster of sockets on the back. These include a 12V power inlet, Ethernet port and RS-232 connector (for serial configuration and attaching a GSM modem). There’s also a cluster of mini-DIN sockets for the various input devices, output devices and switches, although other connection methods are also available (and are described in gory-but-excellent detail in the PDF manual). The top-end Enterprise version also gives you RJ45 outlets so you can patch sensors through your structured cabling. If you try to get up and running before you’ve RTFMd then you’re likely to come a cropper, because each min-DIN can take more than one input and/or output – so digest the PDF before you start plugging.

Our unit came pre-configured with a suitable IP address, so we could launch straight into managing it via the browser-based GUI. Now I’m not about to say that this is the most attractive, best-designed GUI in the world, but it’s basic, clear and unambiguous - which is far more important than prettiness.

There’s a handful of basic things you care about when you’re configuring the unit, and the first is the sensors you’re going to attach, and which are managed through the “Inputs” tab on the GUI. Although there’s a vast number of different sensors - temperature, relative humidity, water, glass breakage, door/window open/close, smoke, pressure, PIR, the list goes on - they fall into two basic categories: they’re either on/off or they measure a level. When you connect a sensor, you simply click on the appropriate port in the GUI, give the item a name, and tell the system what type of sensor it is.

On the other hand, you have outputs and switches. These are largely synonymous, with the exception that you can turn a switch either on or off, but with an output you can tell the system to apply a specific voltage between 0 and 5V. There’s a third type of output, namely an SMS modem that connects into the serial port via a splitter cable, and which allows you to send alert messages directly to the cellular network.

When you’ve connected your gadgets, the GUI tells you the current state of each input. Clearly you’ll want to define rules that tell the system to alert you to problems, and this is the job of the Events section. Like the rest of the GUI it’s simple to use, but you must prepare properly rather than just diving in; this is because events drive actions and you can’t add an action to an event until you’ve defined the action itself. An action could be something like “Send SMS message X to number Y”, or “Send email A to address B”. Each event can have a sequence of actions, and rather helpfully the designers have built in the ability to automatically disarm and re-arm events to avoid getting bombarded with repeat alerts.

Additional sneakiness is brought about by the “acquire image” action; if you have a suitable LAN-connected camera, such as the Axis 206 that came with our review kit, you can tell the system to take a snap (eg. of whoever just opened the server cabinet door) and attach it to the alert when the latter is sent. Oh, and the concept of a “counter” is also included, so when events happen you can increment counters and only take more positive action when a counter reaches a specific value.

To define an event, you simply tell it what input you want it to be based on, give the criteria, eg. if a door switch is opened, or the reading on the temperature sensor exceeds a given figure, and tell it the action(s) to take. To attach the camera image to an alert is as simple as ticking a check-box when selecting the action, by the way, so long as you’ve previously configured the device with the camera’s IP address since it does the snapshot via the LAN, not an on-board port.

NetCommander is unlikely to win any design awards, either for its GUI or its rather bland, grey-metal-box-with-a-wiggly-blue-line-on-the-front looks. But I can’t help thinking that they’re probably right when they use the “most versatile monitor in the world” tag, because you really can do pretty much everything you’d want with it, including connecting a ridiculous range of different sensors to it.

Pre-built connectors with min-DIN plugs mean that any muppet can use one of these, while for the more adventurous, the makers just say: “Here’s a PDF with all the pin-outs – go have a play”. Oh, and if you want to step outside the confines of the browser-based GUI, you can instead use the rather fascinating graphical “Virtual Instrument Desktop”.

If you want environmental monitoring, don’t get all pretentious and aesthetically obsessed. Buy one of these.

OUR VERDICT

This is a simple, inexpensive product for environmental monitoring, and so long as you choose one with some spare capacity, you can start with just the basic sensors and then add more later.