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The following review is available at:   http://www.intranetjournal.com/articles/200208/it_08_22_02a.html


Nowadays, there's an 'appliance' for just about everything. As companies have rushed to meet our need for appliance based computing, we have been presented with firewall appliances, file server appliances, web server appliances, virus checking appliances and a multitude of others that fulfill practically every other need we do (or don't) have.

While appliance based computing has caught on, at least to a certain extent, some companies find themselves actually spending more money on a number of appliances than they would have spent on a single powerful server which would satisfy all their needs, albeit at the expense of additional complexity.

And it is this complexity, as they say, that is the appliances vendors 'Ace in the Hole'. By presenting a certain feature set in a single box, appliances remove a large part of the complexity that comes from managing a server running an OS like Linux, NetWare or Windows Server. So, if you want the simplicity of an appliance, but don't want to have a collection of appliance boxes each performing just one or two tasks, the answer is to have a single box that does more than one thing. For the functions needed by departmental and small business users, these one-box-for-all appliances come in the form of so-called 'groupware appliances'.

One such appliance is the Taurus Groupware C360 from Fremont, CA. based Celestix Networks. The 360 comes replete with a full set of network functionality and also includes the Cybozu Share360 Office Collaboration Suite, an Intranet based groupware application.

The built in OS of the Taurus appliance provides file and print server, firewall, proxy, email, DHCP, web server, FTP server, email and VPN capabilities. The Share360 software further offers a scheduler, a 'whereabouts' feature, a bulletin board, web based email, address book, To Do list, a discussion forum program, a Cabinet which facilitates the sharing of files with other users, memos function, Project planning tools and Web forms which provide a workflow type system for standard forms within an organization. In simple terms, what all this means is that the Taurus is able to provide almost every service that a department, workgroup, or small to medium sized business will need, all in a unit that's no larger than a box of cereal.

The Tech Spec's
Although the appliance is housed in a toaster-like freestanding enclosure, it is basically a Linux based PC. It has an Intel Celeron processor running at 900Mhz, 256MB RAM, a
40GB Hard Drive and 2 100BaseT network connections. The front of the system is host to a 3" backlit LCD screen which displays startup information and can also be used, with navigation buttons, for performing basic configuration tasks. The small screen also shows disk and CPU usage during operation. Access to the 'front user interface' or FUI can be limited by removing a smart card from a slot on the front of the unit. According to Celestix the same smart card reader can be used for uploading configurations.

Internet connectivity can be achieved by external modem through a 9-pin serial port, by a PC Card (PCMCIA) modem or through one of the standard network connections. The aforementioned proxy and firewall capabilities take care of connection sharing and security.

The PCMCIA card slot also gives the ability (provided it is not used for Internet access) to configure the Taurus as a wireless (802.11b) device. Other ports on the device include two USB ports, and infra-red port and a keyboard input.

First Looks
Powering up the appliance reminds you that, like many other appliances, the Taurus is based on Linux. Messages flash up on the small LCD screen informing you that Eth0 is being brought up [OK] and so on. Once the system is up, you must perform some basic network configuration from the FUI (gotta love that acronym) to allow you to connect to the device with a Web browser.

Connecting to the device for the first time takes you into a basic administration interface from which you can further configure network connections, set the administrator password and perform other basic tasks. Once this step is complete and saved, the Taurus restarts. Now, when you connect, you are taken in to the standard configuration interface, which is minimalist and very simple to use. The interface provides access to all of the configuration options for the device including the ability to stop and restart the services offered by the appliance. An example of the configuration interface can be seen in Figure 1.

[The Brush Palette]

Figure 1. The Administration/Configuration Interface.

Administering the Taurus
Administration tasks are straightforward, a fact which has a great deal to do with the basic nature of the options available. For example, user account creation is simple, with the only options available being the ability to specify a disk quota for the user, whether the user is allowed Internet access or whether they get administrator equivalency. While such a simple approach has it's advantages, it is in areas such as this that products like the Taurus have a potential weakness. With no configurable password policy, the Taurus is arguably less secure than an OS based server. Not that this may be an issue in environments that might typically use an appliance like the Taurus, but it is a consideration that should be factored in if you are sensitive about security.

 

Another area in which the limited security offered by the Taurus is highlighted is with file sharing. Access to the 40GB hard drive is achieved by creating folders which then become available to users. There is no file level security, though it is possible to limit access to folders to certain users, or to assign read-only access. Again, limited security like this will work in certain environments and not in others.

Connecting to the shares once created is as simple as mapping to the drive or printer from within the workstation OS. In our tests we had no issues connecting to the Taurus or accessing any of the resources. Although we didn't do any load testing, responsiveness of the device in our tests was excellent.

Configuration of the other features of the appliance is much along the same lines as the user and file serving configuration, so much so that describing the configuration process in detail would be redundant. In basic terms, you select the appropriate tab from the GUI, click a few buttons and fill out a few fields. It couldn't be simpler.

Groupware Software
The groupware software included with the Taurus appliance is accessed by connecting to the device and appending 'intranet' to the end of the URL. After logging in, all of the groupware features are accessible from a single front end, shown in Figure 2.

[The Brush Palette]

Figure 2. The front end of the groupware application.

Certain features, like the browser based email application, are straightforward and much like you would find in other application suites. Other features, such as the Project application and web forms, are imaginative in their approach and likely to appeal to people who had not considered using tools like this before. It's no substitute for a stand-alone full-blown project planning application, but then again it doesn't pretend to be.

Options allow the user to tweak content in the front end interface where relevant to produce a more relevant interface for them. As the name implies, collaboration is the thinking behind the software and it's easy to find how one part of the suite links to another to create a rounded, co-ordinated feel. In particular, the discussion forums, projects and web forms are particularly useful. It could be argued that some of the features (email, calendaring etc) are offered in other applications just as well, but there is a sense of continuity and co-ordination to the suite which makes the applications feel tightly integrated and easy to learn.

Simplified Administration
Perhaps the single most beneficial thing about the Taurus, and other appliances like it, is that it doesn't take a genius (or even an expensive server administrator) to get the appliance up an running. The administrative interface, in the case of the Taurus, is simple enough that anyone who understands the basic principles of the services being configured can get through it. A good example of this is the DHCP server configuration which consists of just three boxes. Such a simple configuration system could mean that a small business can have all the network features of a fully featured OS without the need for understanding underlying hardware, dozens of configuration utilities and any of the associated paraphernalia or knowledge.

It's not all wine and roses.......
Impressive though it is, like any other appliance, the same thing that make products like the Taurus attractive to some users are also it's downfall to others. For example, the box does what it does, and although it may be possible to download and install new applications, it will not be as simple as it might be for a 'standard' server. Also, hardware modifications such as the addition of second drives, setting up a fault tolerant disk configuration, or adding some other hardware device is out of the question. Sure, there are ways around this, be they all negate the point of the single box solution.

Summary
Overall the Taurus did nothing but impress. It's small form factor, simple administration, wide array of features and faultless operation all lead you to believe that you are dealing with a quality product. Provided that certain limitations, such as expandability and configurability, won't become an issue, the Taurus is quite capable of providing the complete computing resources for a small business, workgroup or even a moderately sized organization.


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Last modified: 23/04/03