Back-to-Basics Server Reduces Cost, Complexity

by Joseph Moran

FileEngine servers forgo fancy features and focus on the applications and support most small business need.

Many small businesses rely on a handful of PCs to store and share access to data. Sooner or later though, most will seriously consider the purchase of a server after discovering that peer-based file sharing, while inexpensive and easy to set up, can quickly become unwieldy, inefficient and risky.

It's at this point that things often get really complicated, because the default software choice for most companies, Microsoft's Windows Server, is expensive to buy, complicated to install, and both expensive and complicated to keep up and running day in and day out.

Windows Small Business Server uses bundling and wizards to reduce some of the initial cost and complexity of server setup, but cheaper and easier still doesn't mean cheap and easy. Moreover, while Windows Server is capable and powerful it includes a lot of bells and whistles — such as Web server, remote access and clustering capabilities — that many small businesses simply do not want or need. It's precisely this over-abundance of features that makes the operating system so byzantine and difficult to keep up and running smoothly (e.g., not updated against the security threat du jour).

FileEngine control panel screenshot
Click here for a larger image.

Server Partners, an Indianapolis-based company, thinks it's found a better alternative in its FileEngine server. The FileEngine, which is available only through resellers, is a limited-functionality server appliance optimized to provide the major functions that every small business needs — namely, the storage, sharing, access control and protection of data — any organization's crown jewel.

Hardware Specifications
With it's fire-engine red aluminum mini-tower case and faux carbon-fiber accent, the FileEngine server almost looks too good to be locked away unseen in an equipment room. (The FileEngine is also available in a 3U rack-mount chassis.) More important than its aesthetics however, is what's inside— the FileEngine eschews Windows in favor of Linux, and uses a particular distribution that is licensed on a per-server rather than a per-user basis. The upshot of this for the customer is that unlike Windows (and indeed some versions of Linux) you don't have to purchase a separate client license for each desktop PC.

There are three versions of the FileEngine, and hardware specifications vary among them. The entry-level FE120-1 that we tested is designed for up to 25 people and sported a 2.4 GHz Pentium 4, 256 MB of RAM, and a pair of 120GB hard drives setup as a RAID 1 mirror. (Some FileEngines offer three-disk RAID 5 setups.) Only 25 GB of the FileEngine's available space is dedicated to user storage; much of the rest is dedicated to an isolated storage area that maintains two week's worth of "snapshots" of every file on the system. The system also includes a built-in recordable DVD drive for regular backups.

Setup and Administration
Operating on the assumption that the customer lacks (and has no desire or means to acquire) an IT staff, the FileEngine is designed to insulate you from most of the technology underpinning its operation. Although it's a Linux server, the FileEngine looks like a Windows server to clients since its open-source software uses the same standardized protocols as Windows — including LDAP (Lightweight Directory Access Protocol) for access control and SMB (Server Message Block) for networked file sharing.

FileEngine control panel screenshot
Click here for a larger image.

To minimize on-site setup time, the reseller configures the majority of the FileEngine settings — customer user accounts, groups and shared folders — in advance of delivery. Our FileEngine arrived fully configured and ready to connect to clients.

The FileEngine lacks a keyboard, mouse or monitor, but a small LCD with four buttons lets you perform a few very basic operations directly from the server, including verifying the unit's IP address, pinging the network gateway to verify connectivity, performing data backups and shutting down the system. The only tasks a customer can perform on the FileEngine are creating, deleting or editing user accounts, groups, or folders, all of which can be performed using an austere Windows-based utility called the File Engine Administration Tool (FEAT).

The individual at an organization charged with performing these housekeeping chores (as well as placing a blank DVD in the unit daily for the evening's backup) is known as the Key Operator, named for the person trained to do copier maintenance in the offices of yore. The FileEngine comes with a slender Key Operator's manual that gives him or her just enough information to perform these tasks without mired in technical minutiae.

To configure desktops for the network and set up user-specific information like home folders and login scripts, the FileEngine reseller uses a utility called the FileEngine Connection Wizard (FECW). This utility is simple enough to be used by a Key Operator to add subsequent systems to the network, and you can run it on a system directly without having to install it first.

An annoying characteristic of Windows 2000 or XP is that whenever you join an existing client system a Windows domain for the first time, it creates a new profile that doesn't retain the user's data, application shortcuts and desktop environment. (It's still there, just inaccessible using the new user profile.) The FECW version we tested wasn't able to transfer this information, but Server Partners says a forthcoming version of the FECW (which should be available by the time you read this) will be able to migrate all of a user's profile data from an existing system.

Performing regular and reliable backups is a challenge for many small businesses, particularly those without a "tech guy" (or girl), and one of the FileEngine's strengths is that it makes performing and managing backups quite straightforward. You can specify each FileEngine data folder to backup to DVD, the two-week archive, or both, and the historical backups are easily accessible through standard Windows folder dialogs, without the convoluted interface common to backup utilities.

When files are restored from backup they're initially copied to a dedicated partition to guard against overwriting of valid data. With a few button presses from the FileEngine's physical control panel, you can perform ad-hoc backups at any time or generate "TakeOut" discs, containing data previously placed in a special folder (a PIN is required for both operations).

Pricing and Support
Technical support for the FileEngine can be obtained through either the reseller or directly from Server Partners (the FileEngine's LCD continually displays the company's support hotline number (1-888-LINUX-RX). The FileEngine runs a monitoring utility called WatchBot to report system conditions and events back to Server Partners, and the company says it can remotely administer the FileEngine in response to a customer's request.

Although Server Partners can sell you a FileEngine, it believes most small business customers will prefer leasing a server rather than buying one outright. Prices for the FE120-1 start at $235 per month for a 36-month lease term. At the end of the leasing period, you get a new server if you decide to renew the lease.

The server package also includes a UPS (Uninterrupted Power Source) and the integration of up to 10 PCs. You can have additional PCs integrated for a one-time fee of $50 each. The recurring monthly payment covers basic FileEngine installation and setup costs (unusual or extraordinary installations may carry additional setup charges) as well as ongoing monitoring and maintenance as well. While not included in the basic package, resellers have the option to offer additional services to run on the FileEngine, such as e-mail/groupware applications.

Bottom Line
For a small business with basic needs and up to a couple of dozen employees, the FileServer makes an affordable, reliable alternative to a Windows server environment. However, if you're company is experiencing rapid growth, and you might soon need more advanced server functions, FileEngine is probably not the right choice for you.

When you compare the FileEngine's cost against the cumulative costs of a Windows server (the purchase, requisite client licenses, installation labor and the unexpected yet inevitable service calls) there's little doubt that the FileEngine will cost less and probably run more reliably to boot.

A caveat: Indianapolis-based Server Partner's reseller network is currently limited and lacks national scope, so the FileEngine will not be available everywhere. If you have an outsourced IT provider (a VAR or reseller), Server Partners says its willing to work with them to get your FileEngine up and running. But some larger VARS and resellers have strict contracts with Microsoft and may be unwilling to do that, so be sure to check with your IT provider first.

Choosing a FileEngine over a Windows server won't cure all small businesses headaches, but it can help you avoid a lot of them.

Price: varies by configuration; lease pricing starts at $235 per month with 10 clients

Pros: reliable, less expensive operation due to Linux; installation plus ongoing monitoring and maintenance included in monthly payment; simple backup and restore process

Cons: limited reseller network

Joe Moran spent six years as an editor and analyst with Ziff-Davis Publishing and several more as a freelance product reviewer. He's also worked in technology public relations and as a corporate IT manager, and he's currently principal of Neighborhood Techs, a technology service firm in Naples, FL. He holds several industry certifications, including Microsoft Certified Systems Engineer (MCSE) and Cisco Certified Network Associate (CCNA).

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This article was originally published on Tuesday Feb 7th 2006
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