Product Review: Corel's NetWinder
Right away, I was presented with WebFront, Corel's administrative interface for the WS. It took me awhile to figure out how to log in to the administration utility. After chasing through some of the CGI scripts under the /admin directory, I found a reference to /usr/bin/htpasswd.sh which apparently you must run at least once in order to get WebFront to realize your admin user is legit. This script creates the .htpasswd file.
WebFront is a browser-based tool that makes it possible to administer your NetWinder through a few simple forms. You can add, delete or modify users and groups through the interface. The clean, simple interface also serves up statistics on your NetWinder's performance in a graphical form, giving you glimpses of your web site's activity over different time scales.
To get a feel for its performance, I uploaded a few web sites that were done in Microsoft FrontPage. The transfer was very fast, a testament to the NetWinder's zippy little combination of processor and network architecture. I did a couple of these, one for our SF magazine TransVersions and another for a customer's intranet. Both sailed by faster than the “time to go” in FrontPage could keep up. What it estimated would take three plus minutes flew past in less than ten seconds.
Access to the pages was very fast. I fired up Netscape and as fast as I could click links, pages appeared in my browser. It was almost disconcerting. My local Pentium-powered Linux system, which we use as our corporate gateway/e-mail server/development machine, seemed to crawl in comparison. I was starting to get a touch of server envy.
Corel benchmarks with 16 clients connected to the NetWinder at 70 requests per second or nearly 350,000 bytes per second. You can expect as many as 150 concurrent requests per second, depending on client load.
My experience wasn't all roses. One of the things my company does regularly is set up Internet gateway, e-mail server, firewall, dial-on-demand combination systems that give customers inexpensive access to the Internet. We use PPP and masquerading to quickly link up a small office for transparent access. I decided to try this with the NetWinder.
Using the supplied netconfig, I found no option for modifying the PPP interface, so I created one using the Red Hat netcfg utility and tried to activate it. A message to the console informed me, “Sorry—this system lacks PPP kernel support”. No problem, I thought. I'm a UNIX guy. I can recompile the kernel with PPP support and be on my way. It turns out I was mistaken. There is no kernel source on the system, so PPP is impossible at this time.
Another thing I found disconcerting was the lack of an “off” switch. Call me foolish, call me irresponsible, but I find the fact that you can't shut down the machine distressing. While I realize you'll want your network gateway to stay up forever, I'm used to powering down my system every once in a while. If you want to shut down the NetWinder, you can use the standard shutdown command and wait for the “System halted” prompt before disconnecting power by pulling the power cord. That's right. You disconnect power, rather than turning it off. Even then, the FAQ from the netwinder.org site says you should not power down. The NetWinder has no battery for backup of its system clock. What it does have is a “big capacitor” that will hold a charge for about two days—any longer and you may need to reset your clock. When I got my NetWinder for evaluation, it had been off for some time and seemed to think we were already in the next millennium.
One other thing I will admit is fairly minor. I find the fan a bit loud, which is silly since the NetWinder is still quieter than my usual server. Without the hum of the power supply, the disk churning away and all the other noises one usually expects from their computer, the NetWinder's little fan seems, well, loud—bizarre.
A little later, I wrote up a small list of “would-be-nices” to pass along to Corel. I'd like some kind of database. The freeware Postgres would be enough to make me happy. I'd also like that PPP support, a built-in fax modem and the source code so I could hack my kernel when I felt the need to.
The next day, I called Corel's tech support engineers and discussed this. They told me that in early 1999, NetWinder would have PPP support and should include a V.90 modem for access. This pleased me very much. Right now, the NetWinder is designed to sit behind a router with one interface configured for the internal network and the other (most likely the 10 Mbps interface) hooked up to the outside world. This makes it a winner with small ISPs and corporate intranets.
The Corel engineers have already considered many of these things. After chatting with them, I was told that future NetWinders would include full Red Hat distributions which should take care of most of my software concerns. They have some other cool ideas as well. Corel intends to offer customized NetWinders using swappable daughter cards; some would come with ultra-wide SCSI to plug into RAIDs, others with ISDN. Corel is keeping an open mind.
The LC was out at the end of 1998. The WS and DM are available now. Corel is also looking into a TC or thin client. It would run a core Linux OS and take everything else from the network. Because it will be essentially diskless (OS on board), this NetWinder will be completely silent; it wouldn't even need a fan.
Ah, yes, the fan—Corel also thinks the fan is loud and is currently working with different designs to make things quieter.
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