Axentra Net-Box series
If a wireless router is not enough and a Windows server is too much for handling your home networking, Axentra's Net-Box may be just right. A Linux-based home-network appliance, the Net-Box combines all the key network functions into one PC-size box. The Net-Box acts as a combination broadband router and minitower server, letting you share an Internet connection, host your own Web site, and run your own e-mail services. While we like that the Net-Box can do so much and that its complexity is hidden behind easy-to-configure screens, we don't think the unit is well suited for delivering mission-critical services for small businesses. If you're a small-business owner in need of simple but robust and expandable IT resources, see our roundup of servers and server alternatives.
Inside the 61-page manual and the quickie start-up sheet are thorough descriptions of the device's many capabilities and configuration options. Oddly, the system comes set for manual entry of your broadband service provider's IP address and logon information, not for the more common (and easier) automated setup. All told, setting up this machine is not for those seeking instant online gratification; each section takes a few minutes to configure because of the server's sometimes slow response. It took us more than 30 minutes to complete a basic setup for the Net-Box. The instructions on the browser-based configuration pages are simple, to the point, and well explained, and in most cases, you don't need to restart the machine for configuration changes to take effect.
The Net-Box comes in a variety of flavors, all with slightly different configurations and prices, but all of the units function virtually identically. We looked at the Net-Box H-70, and inside its white case is a budget server with an 800MHz x86-based Via C3 processor, 256MB of 266MHz RAM, an 80GB 7,200rpm hard drive, and a Hawking Technologies PCI-based 802.11b/g wireless access point. The H-70 costs a reasonable $500 as of January 2005, while a more fully equipped H-90 model with a 1.6GHz AMD Duron processor and twice as much storage sells for $700. Axentra has similar devices aimed at small businesses, with faster processors and more disk space and at higher prices. Four USB ports let you add external storage devices, such as hard drives or memory keys.
The gleaming-white H-70 is gargantuan compared to today's smallest routers, and the unit has a pair of annoyingly loud fans, one of which never turns off. Good looks aside, the Net-Box begs to be put in a closet. Inside is everything needed to create a complete home network, but the Net-Box is a step behind many standalone devices. The unit includes password protection, a virtual private network server, a configurable network address translation (NAT), firewall and Sophos virus protection (with 45 days of updates), as well as the ability to lock out objectionable content based on site URL and IP address. Unfortunately, the 802.11b/g wireless transmitter can accommodate only the older and vulnerable wired equivalent privacy (WEP) encryption rather than the more secure Wi-Fi-protected access (WPA).
Based on the Linux OS and Axentra's OEone software platform, the Net-Box's functions are organized into what the company calls portlets, browser-based configuration pages/portals, that cover everything from hosting a Web page, setting up an e-mail server, backing up a PC or a Mac, sharing files, and virtual private networking. The browser-based configuration pages are clear and straightforward. You can even use the Net-Box to store and post a calendar and address book with all of your contacts on the Internet so that you can easily access the data remotely. Axentra will set up a domain name of your choosing for a year. After that, you'll need to pay to keep your domain.
The Net-Box is a jack-of-all-trades rather than a master of any single skill. With a wireless throughput of only 3.2Mbps over its integrated access point, the Net-Box isn't especially well equipped as a wireless router. The unit was able to distribute a broadband Web connection to two wired and six wireless clients at once; while one was on a VoIP phone call, another was listening to Internet radio, and the others were moving data back and forth. The Net-Box lacks the power of a PC but has more memory and processing power than a router, though most routers easily outdistance the Net-Box's poor 90-foot range.
The Net-Box comes with a meager one-year warranty. Unfortunately, the warranty is void if you so much as open the Net-Box to see what's inside, which is unacceptable for small businesses and a sad reminder of the unit's lack of expandability. Tech support is available via e-mail only.