Cobalt Qube Microserver

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All about this compact web server hardware.
  • Manufacturer: Cobalt Networks, Inc.

  • URL: http://www.cobaltmicro.com/

  • Price: $999 to $1449 US

  • Reviewer: Ralph Sims

Solid geometry and writing magazine articles are two things with which I've never quite felt comfortable. My concern heightened when I was asked to write an article about Cobalt Qube for Linux Journal--but I figured what the hey, what's the worst that can happen?

Actually, my relationship with the Qube was not new. I was at ISPCON in Baltimore this past spring and was walking down an aisle daydreaming, when this blue cube with an intriguing green light-bar caught my eye. ISPCON can rather numb one's senses, so this diversion came at a good time.

The chap from Cobalt Networks, Inc. with the 7-inch cube-shaped box described it as a tightly integrated “microserver” that functions as a web server and provides other features such as web publishing, e-mail, private and public discussion groups, and file and text indexing and searching. “Well, cool, but I can do that with Linux” said I. “This runs Linux” said he. Now I was ready for the sales pitch.

The salesman told me this box contained a 64-bit super-scalar MIPS RISC processor running at 150MHz, 2.1GB UltraDMA IDE drive, 10Base-T Ethernet, 16MB RAM and a back-of-the-box LCD panel for quick setup.

The operating system for the Qube is Linux 2.0, ported to the MIPS CPU, complete with the Apache web server. It supports CGI, Perl 5.0 scripting, e-mail via SMTP, POP3 or IMAP4, Domain Name Service and the capability to drag and drop files from their Linux, Windows, Windows NT or Macintosh boxes using SMB or AppleShare.

The salesman also told me how easy it is to set up a browser, that user password control is available, that the Qube took either a static IP address or used DHCP, and that it is suitable for both Internet and Intranet applications. The clincher was the price—under $1000.

As an Internet Service Provider, I'm always looking for hardware which our current and potential customers might find useful. The Cobalt Qube 2700 Microserver could very well fill the need for a solid, easy-to-manage, easy-to-use web server that could be co-located in our data center or placed at a customer location and tied directly to either the Internet or the LAN.

For me, there was only one problem. Since the box is a cube, it is not suitable for most data centers, where rack space can be at a premium. “It would be great if it were available in a rack-mount profile”, I mentioned, and was told they'd look into it. A rack-mount unit is now available, taking up a whopping 1RU (1 rack-unit) or 1.75 inches of space. The Cobalt RaQ Microserver is an ISP's dream come true, with front-to-back ventilation, no-clearance mounting and a low-drain internal power supply. The fact that they actually listen to user input and act on it is impressive.

Ralph contemplates the Cobalt Qube

When I got back to the Puget Sound area, I showed the literature to a couple of folks and the general impression was “Neat. How can we use it?” An evaluation unit seemed to be in order and that's where Phil Hughes and the folks at Linux Journal came into play. While Linux has always provided a platform for the hobbyist and OS adventurer, until recently it has not enjoyed recognition as a player in the commercial world. The Cobalt Qube is doing its best to dissuade the naysayers. LJ got a Qube shipped to me and the fun began!

I had been running Linux since the “early days” and recently enshrined my 0.99pl4 boot disk. I knew a bit about the OS and its capabilities, so I had a preconceived notion or two about what to expect when I opened the box from Cobalt.

Documentation? I don't need no stinkin' documentation! I plugged in the external power supply and Ethernet cable and fired up the Qube. In anticipation of using it, I had already assigned an IP address from my Internet Domain Name Server with a reverse lookup to www.mousepotato.com. I was going to put it live on the Net!

Oops! Out of the box, the Cobalt Qube wants an address via DHCP (actually, the IP address can be addressed using DHCP or the LCD buttons, but remember, I didn't read the documentation). I unplugged the Ethernet and let the setup fail, then entered a static IP address, netmask and gateway. I plugged in the cable and the box dutifully continued its internal configuration and was up—a little over five minutes had elapsed.

I pointed a web browser to the IP and was presented with an opening screen. Having this device completely configurable over a network connection is greatly appealing, in particular for remote management. Linux boxes rarely lock up to the point where they can't be accessed remotely, and folks using the boxes aren't always at a local machine. The Qube doesn't allow for a keyboard or a monitor, so there is no alternative to remote access.

The Setup Wizard led me through host name and system administration functions. I set the time, an administrator (root) password and some basic access rights for a user, and was off and running.

Some of the user services the Cobalt Qube handles are e-mail, web page development, threaded discussions, information services and file sharing/data transfer. It allows for the forwarding of e-mail to an account at another location. In response to user input and needs, the folks at Cobalt have now integrated IMAP4, POP3 and SMTP into the box.

The Cobalt Qube understands the notion of “groups”. A number of users on the Cobalt Qube can be assigned to one group. Each group automatically gets an e-mail address, a public home page, a private home page and a discussion group accessible to the members of the group. For example, the marketing group can have a public site visible to the entire company while maintaining a private site and a private discussion group containing information on group projects.

Document management is also done through the browser using an “Infobase” which can contain text pages, graphics and multimedia files, and URLs, and is indexed on a scheduled basis. Indexing files and text is done using Glimpse in a maintenance event, and searches can be either single-word or phrase-based. Clicking on the returned file name opens that file in a browser.

I've never set up SAMBA before, so I was glad this task was already done. Dragging and dropping from a Windows box really made the day for my teenage boys, who are on their way to becoming good web developers. (I haven't quite gotten them to use Linux for everything.) Macintosh owners can use AppleShare. Everyone can use FTP.

User access to the various services is handled on an individual or group level and is totally under the control of the system administrator.

Maintenance events are handled through the browser interface, and cron does the behind-the-curtain scheduling. Some features include persistent memory and CPU utilization, service status of web, e-mail, file services and a graphical representation of system problems and status. A browser-based backup and restore utility is available.

For those who wish to do things the old-fashioned way, TELNET access to the box is allowed. However, with the way things were laid out and the tight integration of services with CGI, I chose not to mess with operations from the command line. Before using this on a regular basis, I'd take some time to dissect the way things are put together.

For web publishing, there's a built-in server-side web page builder that's not too hard for the beginner. I had some basic problems at first (remember, I still haven't opened the book), but my oldest teenager came to the rescue. (I use him for my Windows tech support, too.) One can also use Netscape Composer or other web page development tools such as Frontpage or PageMill to create web sites and then transfer them to the Cobalt Qube using file sharing or FTP.

How well does the Cobalt Qube perform? I ran it through a rather basic test using a shell script on the LAN, firing off HTTP requests as fast as my Linux box could send them out. The server never missed a beat. However, it never seemed to get out of swapping to disk during the entire time I had it, and I'd suggest getting a bit more RAM to help out there. The folks at Cobalt state the performance is better than a 200MHz Pentium for random file access, thanks to the optimized disk drivers. The Cobalt Qube can serve around 100 web page requests a second (i.e., greater than 8 million hits a day). It can concurrently handle over 140,000 e-mails, 50,000 file transfers and over 250,000 web page requests a day—quite sufficient for most applications.

Performance of the Cobalt Qube was compared with competing products (200 MHz NT box, Whistle Interjet, Web Zerver, Cisco Microweb server, Twister). The performance is roughly equivalent to a 200MHz NT box and two to five times better than other microservers/thin servers.

Strong points are the Linux OS and the Apache web server. Cobalt's use of these products for the Qube shows support for the hard work done by the respective user and development communities and the commitment they have to giving back to those communities. The entire system is based on open, standards-based design. I like the idea of being able to tack on those tools and applications I find useful without being tied to someone else's idea of the way things should be. Cobalt has done an admirable job of anticipating the needs of web developers and system administrators.

The Cobalt Qube is solid. I wound up doing an ad hoc physical stress test by putting one in the trunk of my car for storage and forgetting about it. The roads over by Shelton, WA aren't the best around and slam-and-go traffic during Seattle's rush hour is aggressive enough on its own, but the box survived and the data remained intact. Even my cats pulling out the power cord numerous times hasn't caused a problem. Physically, the Qube is put together well, and Linux can recover from a lot of abuse. The engineers have now figured out a way to keep the power cord attached to the adapter block from coming out.

The Cobalt Qube comes in three flavors. A 2700D model contains web and e-mail servers and a full suite of development tools aimed at web and application developers. It has a 2.1GB disk and 16MB RAM. It is priced at $999. The 2700WG models are targeted at workgroups and have a full suite of services (web, e-mail, file sharing, discussion groups, text indexing and retrieving). The two models have 2.1GB/16MB and 6.4GB/32MB disk and memory and are priced at $1249 and $1449, respectively.

I'd recommend the Cobalt Qube for web developers who are putting together sites for their customers—creating a “web site in a box”, as well as for companies and organizations that need to share data internally on their LAN. The Cobalt Qube is the only product in its category that allows custom CGI/Perl development, an essential for today's interactive web sites. The user interface is uncomplicated and the ability to manage the system remotely gives it high marks. It should make an administrator's life much easier.

Quite a bit of information is available at Cobalt's web site, http://www.cobaltmicro.com/, and it's worth reading to see how Linux is working its way into the mainstream of corporate information services.

Ralph Sims is Vice President of Northwest Nexus, Inc., a Regional Internet Service Provider in the Pacific Northwest. He started using Linux at his company in 1993 on a 386/25 that provided free e-mail and news access under the Waffle BBS frontend. He provides a mirror of the Linux kernels and Slackware release (his favorite of all the distributions) at ftp.linux.locus.halcyon.com. He lives in Shelton, WA with his two teenage sons and a handful of cats. He can be reached via e-mail at ralphs@nwnexus.net.

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