Servers

Collax Business Server offers appliance-like simplicity but limited flexibility

Linux-based Collax Business Server provides an outstanding Web-based administration system and might be a good fit for small businesses that need a full-featured server but that can't handle a full Linux installation. However, as Justin James explains, it might not be the right choice for larger companies.

Collax Business Server is a Linux-based system designed to act as a "server in a box" solution. The free basic version contains all of the essentials for a simple server in a Windows environment. For an additional fee, Collax offers Exchange-compatible e-mail servers, virus scanning, and more.

Collax is based on the PyNIX generic distribution of Linux. The initial, free license is valid for 12 months; after that, you'll need to purchase a license for the basic business server to continue receiving updates, fixes, and patches.

Installation


Installation of Collax is extremely simple. The only information it asks for is which drive to install to and IP address information (IP address, subnet mask, and fully qualified domain name). The installer handles the rest. Installation was extremely quick as well. One quirk I encountered during installation was that the progress meter seemed to jump around a bit, but outside of that, installation was painless.

Initial configuration


The initial configuration of Collax is also simple. Upon reboot, it presents a standard Linux login screen with a message to point a Web browser at the IP address that the server was assigned and a port of 8001. A license agreement is displayed on this page. After accepting it, you enter a password for the root and admin users, and an automatically generated password is already filled it.

 

 

One slightly disturbing side result of this system is that the passwords are displayed in plain text on the screen when entered because the generated passwords are automatically entered into the password box. Like the initial password creation, the user creation system insists on entering the passwords into an unmasked text box. However, the administration system is protected by SSL encryption, so the danger is only from people viewing the screen and not from malicious users on the network sniffing packets or the browser history.

The administration system contains a number of wizards designed to set up the server for specific roles, such as Internet access, mail server, Web server, and file server. This is similar to Manage My Server in Windows 2003 and is much appreciated. The Collax team has put quite a good deal of effort into making sure that system administrators are free to concentrate on running their systems without getting bogged down with the details of packages, ports, minor configuration details, and so on.

On the other hand, administrators who want to use a package other than what Collax supports are on their own. They'll need to work outside the existing systems and attempt to roll their own configurations. I didn't test whether this can actually be done.

A small issue with the wizard system is that they use defaults but don't allow changing most of them during the initial configuration. For example, the backup wizard asks whether the backups should be performed daily or weekly. But it's only after the initial configuration of the backups that the administrator can go to the backup configuration and select a precisely defined schedule. Administrators who go through the configuration wizards without verifying the settings afterward may find themselves a bit surprised or disappointed.

The system also has a few other minor quirks. For example, because Collax is based in Germany, the administration system asks for the location information of the server and requests the ZIP/postal code before the state/province. Along those lines, a few unwieldy or unusual phrases appear in the administration (such as, "In this case you will need a public DNS entry, a so called MX-record."). Another oddity is that the Done button on wizards is active before the wizard has finished running all configurations scripts.

There are also some very nice and unexpected touches. The wizard system allows to you watch a dump of all of the system messages that the wizard's underlying shell scripts generate. If something goes wrong, these messages are a great resource for troubleshooting. The console also goes into a screen-off mode automatically, another welcome feature for a server that may not be headless, particularly if it's the only server on location. However, it doesn't seem that this functionality can be tweaked to meet your particular needs.

Functionality


Collax has some features that are useful to the SMB market. For instance, it can function as an Internet gateway and router, including VPN access. It also allows the installation of first-party and third-party software, such as virus scanning (TrendMicro and Collax) and OpenExchange (Collax's Exchange-compliant e-mail server). Collax can function as a Web proxy and allows for authenticated users, white lists, blacklists, and regular expression filtering. Blacklists can be downloaded and installed through a third-party source.

Collax can join Active Directory domains and tie its user lists to Active Directory. It also supports adding users through a CSV file. This is a welcome feature for administrators who are looking to set up a large number of users or installing multiple Collax servers. Another nice feature is that Collax supports acting as an internal mail server without an MX record pointing to it. It will periodically pick up e-mails from an external mail server and deliver them internally. This is a handy for those users without their own DNS servers. Unfortunately, the mail server does not seem to handle multiple domain names.

The file sharing system can share files via HTTP, HTTPS, FTP, CIF/SMB, and AppleShare. Strangely enough, Collax does not support the NFS protocol. While SAMBA is available for all major UNIX OSes, it's unusual that a Linux-based system would not support NFS. For some organizations, particularly UNIX-only shops, this may indeed be a showstopper. The system does support backups (manual and scheduled) to tape, SMB shares, and CIF shares. On the note of storage, Collax does not support software RAID.

All expected services are included in Collax: HTTP (Apache supporting PHP4 and Perl), FTP, file sharing, printing, firewall, VPN access, DNS server, DHCP server, Web proxy, e-mail (SMTP, IMAP, POP3), spam filtering, Web filtering, virus scanning, gateway scanning, fax, SMS, MySQL, SNMP, and NTP. Some of the features require a license key to be purchased from Collax, or for the TrendMicro integration, from TrendMicro. Some of the features, such as the e-mail server, support basic functionality, but a purchased license key can upgrade them to a more powerful version. Overall, the licensing is unobtrusive, and the server is quite functional without it. As previously mentioned, the base server does require a paid license after 12 months.

Collax doesn't seem to understand multiple domain names in many areas. The Apache configuration system doesn't handle virtual domains, but it may be possible to manually configure them through the httpd.conf file or the administration system's "extra options" editor for Apache. Likewise, the e-mail server doesn't allow the configuration of multiple domains or even subdomains. These kinds of limitations point to Collax as being oriented to an extremely small business.

One unfortunate problem with Collax is that its command line/shell is more of less crippled, to the point where the man pages are not installed. The usual compilation tools (gcc, make, etc.), package management tools, and CVS tools are not installed, so it's not possible to manually install software. The command line is not useful for any but the most experienced Linux administrators who need to perform simple tasks, such as manual troubleshooting of problems (nslookup, reviewing logs, and so on). The shell was also odd in that it seemed to be set up for a non-US keyboard.

Conclusion


Outside of offering an outstanding Web-based administration system, Collax does not distinguish itself from any other Linux distribution. Indeed, it is a rather crippled business server. If the software or functionality doesn't come from Collax, you won't be getting it. Although it may be possible to use binary packages from PyNIX to install additional functionality, the effort doesn't seem to be worth it. If someone is willing and able to go through that amount of work, they'll most likely be better served by a more flexible Linux (or some other UNIX) distribution.

On the other hand, for a small business that requires a full-featured server but doesn't have the time or in-house knowledge to handle a full Linux installation, Collax is a good fit. Experienced UNIX administrators will be frustrated by Collax's limited shell and inability to do much more than can be done through the Web administration.

In the places where it comes up, the default German settings are aggravating. It would have been preferable to have been asked during installation what country the server is located in and alter the system as needed. Overall, Collax is a usable choice for small businesses looking to add servers with an appliance-like simplicity to them, but administrators in bigger companies will probably prefer the flexibility of a true UNIX or Windows server.

About

Justin James is the Lead Architect for Conigent.

3 comments
chrisdunn
chrisdunn

Check out the Office Appliance "The Helm" turnkey server models. Hardware and proprietery software put the Collax to shame. We have been running a Helm for three years, but they had a limited release. I heard they are launching a new campaign for 2008.

JodyGilbert
JodyGilbert

Does Collax sound like it would fit your needs or would its limitations make it inadequte for your organization? Do you have other "server in a box" solutions you'd recommend?

chrisdunn
chrisdunn

Collax small business servers solutions area suspected German copy of the Office Appliance Server, which truly is a proven turnkey solution with amazing software and support. The price is too good to be true and the features are amazing. Also check out the new hardware specs. Good luck

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