Axentra HomeSeries Net-Box

By Gerry Blackwell

November 12, 2004

Building backup, Web page server, e-mail hosting and more into a combo NAS/wireless router seems like a good idea, but this product might be a bit ahead of its time.

The HomeSeries Net-Box from Axentra, a new kind of all-in-one home network "appliance"—a combination LAN/Web server and wireless cable/DSL router—is a good idea and the product has lots of impressive features, but we think Axentra might be a bit ahead of the curve in terms of what people actually want and will buy.

The Net-Box lets you set up a wired/wireless local area network and share a broadband Internet connection among all the computers in your home, as well as printers and data stored on the integrated hard drive. It also lets you back up or synchronize attached computers to the Net-Box hard drive, plus host your own Web site and e-mail service.

Even with the reasonable prices the company is charging—$500 for an 80GB, 1.3GHz Celeron model (H-70) or $700 for a 160GB, 1.6GHz AMD-based model (H-90)—there's probably not a lot of home and SOHO users, the target market, buying into Axentra's idea of server-based computing, even though there is something to be said for it.

The concept is just a little too sophisticated. The remarkably simple install and initial set-up procedure masks a fair amount of complexity. This is basically a Linux network server with a deceptively home-friendly hardware design—one that very deliberately echoes the white plastic and gently curved contours of the latest Apple Macintosh computers.

To take full advantage of the Net-Box, you would need to host your own e-mail and Web site, set up Internet/intranet portals and switch basic functions such as personal information management from familiar, and more fully featured, products such as Outlook to Axentra's Linux-based network applications. I just don't see the advantage, though computer-nerd control freaks and aficionados of open source computing may like the idea.

The hardware comprises off-the-shelf components integrated into a box small enough to sit on a desktop or stand up on the floor on the included plastic legs. It measures about 13x16x4 inches, so it's significantly more compact than a typical tower PC. Its one crucial flaw is the very noisy fan. This is not a trivial problem. You likely would not want to place the Net-Box in a room where you were going to work all the time, and certainly not near sleeping areas.

Inside the Net-Box, there's a hard drive, the wireless (802.11b/g) router and an Intel-compatible processor running the OEone Server Operating Environment 2.1 for Net-Box based on RedHat Linux. On the back, there are two Ethernet ports, two USB ports (only two is a little stingy), a parallel printer port and wide area network port (where you plug in the Ethernet feed from the cable or DSL modem).

The real heart of the Net-Box is the Linux-based application suite developed by Axentra. It includes eight primary modules:

- Portals provides an easy-to-use Wizard for creating pages for Web or intranet sites with various "portlets"—page elements that display a Blog, recent e-mails, addresses, etc.

- E-mail lets you set up and host your own internal IMAP4 (Internet Message Access Protocol) e-mail service to which you can forward mail from an existing POP (Post Office Protocol) service provider account. It includes instant notification, spam filtering and vacation auto response features, and the Jabber server software Axentra uses can be configured as an instant messaging server.

- Addresses is a rudimentary contact database. It lets you import data but only from Mozilla/Netscape 7 or Outlook Express. Not allowing you to import from a flat (comma or tab-separated text) file, which would make it possible to do one-time import of data from almost any contact manager, is a serious shortcoming.

- Calendar is a calendar applet with nothing special about it, although like most of the Axentra applications, the screen designs are attractive and utilitarian.

- Bookmarks lets you organize your bookmarks under pre-established topic headings—its main virtue is that it allows you to include bookmarks on an Axentra portal page.

- Files does most of the things Windows Explorer does, helping you organize, share, backup, compress and move files stored on your Net-Box hard drive.

- Notes is a simple applet for inputting text notes that will show up in a Notes portlet on your portal page.

- Publish helps you create and publish simple Web pages. It includes a template for a photo page, but the template doesn't let you import photos from other computers on the network, only photos already stored on the Net-Box hard drive.

The Axentra applications look good, but are not as slickly designed or fully featured as the common Windows or Mac applications they would replace.

In my testing, response times compared to native Windows applications running on a local computer were slow. There was always a slightly longer delay than expected when changing application modules or making menu selections—and I was using Internet Explorer on a computer connected to the server by 100 Mbps Ethernet.

The best feature—and possibly worth the price of admission—is the backup function that lets you synchronize data on attached computers to the Net-Box. It requires that you download and install a small applet on each computer. The applet lets you select which folders on the local drive to synchronize—though it doesn't let you select individual files or types of file extensions. You can tell it to synchronize every so many hours or minutes, synchronize at a particular time of day, or whenever you log in and/or log out.

Our out-of-the-box experience with Net-Box was reasonably good. Axentra includes a very good quick-start sheet similar to what you'd get with a home PC or printer. The only slight complication is that some PCs or devices you might want to connect by Ethernet cable require a "straight-through" cable and some require a "cross-over" cable. Net-Box comes with two cross-over cables because most PCs will require them.

I did have trouble reinstalling an IP voice gateway (for a Vonage service), but this turned out to be confusion about which port on the back of the voice gateway and which type of cable to use—the Vonage documentation gave misleading advice.

The Net-Box Wi-Fi networking functions worked flawlessly. Signal strength in some locations seemed higher than with my Netgear router, even though I had the Net-Box on a low shelf in a built-in shelving unit.

Bottom line: If you like the idea of hosting your own Web site and e-mail service, you should definitely consider the Net-Box. It makes the process of doing this easier, if not actually easy, and it's a relatively inexpensive solution.

If you need centralized backup for a number of computers around the house, Net-Box should be a candidate, though it's not the only or even the cheapest way to do it—you could also buy an inexpensive wireless cable/DSL router and use Windows XP or third-party backup software to back up to an external hard drive attached to one of the network computers.

If all you want is to share Internet access with wired and wireless computers, and have place to store shared data, Net-Box is probably overkill.

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