Ever wanted to run up a quick Linux machine as a file, email or Web server but been daunted by the installation process? E-Smith may well be the answer. E-Smith itself is a free, unsupported version of a commercial equivalent - Mitel Networks' 6000 Managed Application Server.
The system, available in both an unsupported version (the one we looked at) and a supported commercial offering, is a cut-down Red Hat Linux implementation. Instead of requiring you to fight with the intricacies of the various applications that reside on the average Linux server, it collects everything together into a small collection of configuration files and deals with all the back-end complexities for you. So, all you need to do is complete this handful of config scripts and let the box do the work.
The installation process follows the familiar grey-on-blue wizard with which any users of past Red Hat implementations will be familiar. You're asked to choose the language for installation, and you also get the choice of doing a single-disk installation or using a pair of disks in RAID1 mirror configuration. We chose the single-disk setup on our lab machine, an old 450MHz Pentium-III desktop. Unlike a normal Linux installation, you don't get a choice about how to partition your disk - so forget any ideas about installing e-Smith next to one or more other operating systems on a multi-partition hard disk.
Once you've given the system its basic information, it spends five minutes or so copying files from the CD before rebooting from the newly-built hard disk. You're then asked for the root password, server name and IP information. Then there's a choice of setting the machine up as a gateway to the Internet or just as a stand-alone server (we chose the latter). Then you have the option of turning on DHCP server services, setting the master DNS server, and reporting uptime stats to Mitel. The final parameter of any interest is the selection of whether you wish to have the admin console always visible or hidden behind a login prompt. Once the wizard is complete, the system sets up its initial configuration and is ready to use.
Although the console has a basic configuration capability (whose capabilities include checking and amending the networking setup of the box) you'd usually configure the unit via the Web interface. The latter is simple and usable, and is split into a number of distinct areas of functionality.
First is Collaboration, which is where you define users, groups, disk quotas, "pseudonyms" (email aliases) and "information bays". An Information Bay is basically a shared directory which, depending on which options you choose, can be accessed via any or all of FTP (anonymous or user-based), HTTP or Windows file-sharing. Access control can be restricted by group, or set to "everyone".
The next section is Administration, which is where you can look at log files, back up or restore the system (backups can be done either to a tape drive or via a file transfer to a desktop machine), create a reinstallation disk and reboot/shut down the system.
Next comes the Security section, in which you can turn on or off PPTP server services, allow or disallow management connections from afar, permit or deny SSH terminal-based connections and configure the security settings of the FTP server. The Security section also lets you tell the box what networks it should consider as "local", and allows you to set packet forwarding rules if you chose the combined server/gateway mode when you installed the server.
The Miscellaneous section is pretty basic. It includes a link to the licence agreement for the software and a simple wizard for creating a noddy Web site. More interesting is the main Configuration section, which deals with date and time settings (you can set the time manually or point it at an NTP server), Windows workgroup and domain naming (the unit uses Samba for file sharing, and so can be a member of a workgroup or domain or even a PDC if you're feeling that way inclined) and directory service (LDAP) access. Also in this section are printer support (Samba again), hostnames and domain names (each of the latter can be pointed at a chosen Information Bay, which allows you to do stuff like Web site multi-homing), and email (SMTP, POP and IMAP). The final option in Configuration gives you a one-page summary of everything you've configured, to save you hopping through the various sections.
With regard to downsides, the only thing that's a bit lacking is the documentation; the link to the user guide simply points to Mitel's general, product-independent "e-docs" Web page, although the links to the HowTo documents and the technical papers are more helpful. Oh, and when you reboot, the box does tend to take a fair old while to start up, but this is no real problem as it's not something you're doing all the time (and it's still way better than our WS2003 AD controller, which takes five times longer).
We have to admit to being sceptical about this type of system, but in fact it turned out to be surprisingly versatile and usable. The structure of the various services has been thought out sensibly (defining Information Bays and then allocating stuff to them seems logical, for instance). We were under the impression whilst reading the docs before installation that we were going to have to fiddle with config files, but in fact the Web interface makes the setup process a graphical one, and although you can use a command-line interface if you so desire (and, in fact, you have to for some functions such as configuring the MySQL) you usually won't need to.
This type of product makes installation of a Linux-based server easier than the average "proper" Linux distribution - and you don't lose all the flexibility of the latter because the command-line management interface is available should you need it. The usual downside of this sort of product is that it's generally harder to add your own custom functionality, since by definition you'll have to manage them outside the "sandbox" of the built-in config schema.