Software // Enterprise Applications
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Fred Langa
Fred Langa
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The Explorer: Five New Access-Sharing Solutions

But the folks at Ositis have automated most of that and made setting up WinProxy about as simple as can be. In just five impressively hassle-free minutes, I had WinProxy up and running on my test systems here. While WinProxy does all the things you'd expect a proxy to do -- it provides a firewall, is configurable and so on -- it also offers some substantial extras: it has built-in anti-virus filters, for example, to help keep harmful programs from ever making it onto your local network. It also has a configurable local cache to speed the loading of frequently accessed pages, and built-in content filters that can automatically restrict access to sites with offensive content. It can even, get this, block some kinds of Web banner ads.

The power comes with a price: Starting out is cheap -- the three-user version of WinProxy costs $60, and the prices scale upward to $700 for an unlimited license. But to keep the content and anti-virus filters up to date, you need to subscribe to an update service. The anti-virus updates cost from $30 per year for three users to $1,500 per year for a maximum of 250 users. The content filter subscriptions costs $30 per year for basic filters for three people up to $2,250 for "smart filtering" for a maximum of 250 people.

I like WinProxy a lot -- it's the easiest to set up proxy software I've ever seen. But the pricing gives me pause. It's not that the per-seat cost is all that high in absolute dollars, but given lower-cost powerful alternatives (such as SyGate) and free, lightweight alternatives (such as Win98's "Internet Connection Sharing" application), the price seems disproportionally high to me, especially when you factor in the ongoing costs of updates.

But you can download a free 30-day version from the WinProxy site and decide for yourself.

NetWinder: I love this little box. I also hate this little box. Let me explain:

The NetWinder is a tiny, book-sized computer that runs a special version of Linux on an "Arm" RISC chip. In theory, it's a complete, plug-and-play office network and access-sharing server: You plug the NetWinder to your modem, cable modem, DSL modem, or whatever; and then plug a cable from your network's hub to the NetWinder. You load the NetWinder's software onto a PC out on the LAN: The software lets you remotely set up and administer the NetWinder, over the LAN. Once it's set up, NetWinder not only provides Internet connection sharing for up to 100 people, but also provides a complete office server package with e-mail, a Web server, and file and printer sharing. Those are the part I love.

But -- and you knew there had to be a "but" -- this miniaturized marvel is quite expensive: The base model costs $1,000, and the prices head north to about $4,400 for a full-blown, bells-and-whistles model.

Spending $1,000 for a server might not seem too bad, but connection-sharing isn't a CPU-intensive activity, and almost any PC -- even the "free" or ultra-cheap models -- will do fine. Consider: I'm using a 10-year old, 16MB 100MHz 486 as my primary connection-sharing server here in my office, and most times the load on the CPU hovers between 10 and 15 percent. (It might rise to about 50 percent during long FTP downloads at my cable modem's top speed.) You simply don't need very much horsepower just to share connections.

If you also want to run a Web or mail server, naturally the cost and complexity go up along with the increased load on the hardware. But aside from the "gee whiz" form factor and the trendiness of using Linux, there's little in the NetWinder that you couldn't duplicate for less or equal cost using more conventional equipment and software.

And there are other problems. The basic unit is tiny -- about the size of a modest hardcover book -- but has a fan whose noise is very loud: In fact, it's louder than my full-sized Dell Dimension 550 P3.

Plus, the unit is a "black box," not in the sense of color (it's beige), but in the sense that it's meant to be used without you really knowing what's going on inside.

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