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Jewish World Review June 26, 2000 / 23 Sivan, 5760

Jim Bray's TechnoFILE

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Consumer Reports


Netwinder serves humanity in a very small way

http://www.jewishworldreview.com -- NETWORK COMPUTERS were all the rage a couple of years ago as "vaporware."

Vaporware refers to products or technologies that were announced but which never really saw the light of day, and for a long time, it looked as if these Network computers would be the latest in a long line of such beasts. NCs, as they were called, were supposed to offer a cheap and reliable way to get at one's data without having to spring for a full-fledged PC.

Plunging PC prices undoubtedly had something to do with NCs' virtual demise.

Still, an increasing number of homes and small businesses are discovering they need more than one computer. They may need to share information, applications and files between them, they may want to host their own web site, or they may want to give employees access to the office network from their homes.

These new needs make the idea of a small, affordable network server increasingly attractive.

Hence, the NetWinder all-in-one (software and hardware combined) "Internet server appliance" which, according to its manufacturer, "provides home networks, home offices and small businesses with full Internet and local area network support."

The NetWinder OfficeServer uses the Linux operating system, and comes configured with a broad range of network services, including firewall/VPN (virtual private network), web-site hosting, web access, file and printer sharing, and e-mail. The unit is aimed primarily at those who want a very basic and relatively affordable web/Windows file server.

The $1,595 OfficeServer is scarcely bigger than a couple of VHS videocassettes glued together, so it'll sit out of sight just about anywhere. It sits in a little "bookend-like" stand that holds the unit upright vertically, taking up practically no desk space (or floor space) at all. You can also get a "rack mount" version.

The NetWinder uses a StrongARM (registered trademark) RISC microprocessor, and it comes configured with 32, 64 or 128 Meg of RAM, a megabyte of flash memory and a 10-gig hard drive. Larger hard drives are supposedly coming soon.

It's interesting to see NetWinder using Linux, an operating system many are hoping gives Microsoft NT a run for its money. Linux is an offshoot of Unix, is public domain, very stable and flexible, and is being embraced by an increasing number of users. I've really only had a chance to dabble with the Linux OS so far, but it seems to be everything it's claimed to be, though its software selection is nowhere near the variety of applications that are available for Windows.

That isn't necessarily a flaw when it comes to something like the NetWinder, however.

Despite its small size, they've made room on the back of the unit for two Ethernet connections (10BaseT and 10/100BaseT -- though I couldn't figure out how to use it with the 100BaseT), an EPP/ECP parallel port, serial port, keyboard and mouse ports. Naturally, there's also a monitor port and power supply input.

As a web server, you can take advantage of the OfficeServer's built in support for DNS, FTP, POP3/IMAP4, SMTP and telnet. It also incorporates a Linux firewall, and you can use it as a proxy server, DHCP server, file server and web server. It supports HTTP/1.1, CGI and Perl Scripting, too, so you can run virtually any script for your web-publishing needs.

Setting up the NetWinder (using "Wizards") is supposed to be easy, and for the most part, it is. The company claims it requires no expert help -- though, because I'm not technically oriented and not as up to speed with Linux as I might be, I had to enlist the expert help of my son.

Besides the OfficeServer, Rebel also makes the NetWinder Developer, which is aimed at software designers. There's also a configuration for Internet Service Providers (ISPs).

As much as I like the NetWinder concept and its cute appearance and incredibly small footprint, I found it most suitable for very basic server use.

That may be all you need, however, and if that's so, you might find the OfficeServer easy and powerful -- though you can also buy a pretty good PC for less than the price of a NetWinder, and use the leftover money to hire someone to set it up for you.

You'll have to sacrifice a lot more desk or floor space, though.


JWR contributor Jim Bray publishes TechnoFILE magazine, "the consumer's non-technical guide to today's technology." You may comment by clicking here.

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© 2000 Jim Bray.