NetWinder Office Server
Price: $1000 US
Reviewer: Jason Kroll
“How many nets could a NetWinder wind if a NetWinder could wind nets?”--Dan Wilder, SSC Technical Manager
And furthermore, what is a NetWinder? A NetWinder is a StrongARM-based Linux box, built as a network server. NetWinders come in three models: OfficeServer, Developer and ThinClient. Of these, the OfficeServer and Developer models are the familiar NetWinder server boxes, while the ThinClient is a new creation, a graphic terminal the size of a notebook, which one would presumably use with an OfficeServer. The Developer model is an expanded OfficeServer designed, as one might infer, for developers. It has more interfaces and development tools, as well as an active developer community. The OfficeServer, our subject for today, is the standard NetWinder, a device on which to run your networks, whether they are dozens of office computers or just a few terminals around your house.
Any old Linux box can function just fine as a server (at last estimate, more of the Internet was running on “any old Linux box” than anything else), but the NetWinder isn't any old Linux box. The core of the NetWinder is the StrongARM architecture, RISC technology developed cooperatively by ARM and DEC (although DEC was bought by Compaq, Intel now produces StrongARMs). We'll get into the technical details of the chip later, but it's important to appreciate some superficial differences in the processor which enable the NetWinder to be so compact. StrongARM is popular with embedded systems because it runs on little energy and stays cool. Hence, the NetWinder can be tiny and resource-minimal, important factors since it is designed to be on all the time. It is intended to run headlessly; that is, without a monitor. Users need not know anything about Linux to use a NetWinder, and they may never even know which software it's running—it's just a small magic box, exactly what most people want. Before we open up the magician's funny box to see how it works, let's look at what it does.
Late one morning, my co-workers heard me whining quite loudly about my difficulties compiling some software on the NetWinder, followed by, “Good grief! It hasn't even got Netscape!” Needless to say, something had to be done to quiet me, so a fellow suggested, “Why don't you use it how it's supposed to be used?” In honor of this fellow, we shall now use the NetWinder as it's meant to be used; that is, as a headless Internet, file and print server.
Configuration of the NetWinder is fairly simple. As long as you assign the NetWinder a valid IP address, you can plug it in and immediately point a web browser at it. Configuration is supposed to take place under Windows, but it can be done through any browser. I actually prefer to plug in a monitor and keyboard, edit a couple of files and have it up in short order. However, if you know nothing at all about Linux, the web-based interface will walk you through the installation. Although I have heard reports of some people having trouble installing the NetWinder, I hardly had to do anything to it. Perhaps I have a more recent edition.
Once initially configured, the NetWinder will cheerfully perform (well, our last lightning storm that allegedly downed MS's “hacker-proof” box also rebooted the NetWinder), and if you want to make any changes, point your browser to its address and log in. You can log in as a user or as an administrator. The user menu offers directory information, infoplace document organization, discussion group access, user profile access, a search menu and on-line help. What these things do is self-explanatory; they exist for generic users and office people, and the menus are clear and simple.
The administration mode menu is essentially root, with menus for editing user accounts, group data, host information, system management, service availability and network configuration. Again, the submenus are clear, allowing you to turn services on and off at a single click. Using the NetWinder web interface is as easy as accessing the web page of a printer (you may have noticed the curious trend of printers having their own web servers). One might expect a network server to be complicated, but it's not. Maybe that's the point of the NetWinder; it's not necessarily more powerful than a standard Linux box, but it's so accessible it makes the power of Linux available to those who have not devoted years to the study of UNIX-Linux networking power, with point-and-click simplicity.
What can you do with a NetWinder? Let's say you're rich from past mining exploits and you've got a mansion with over 60 rooms, some of which you would like to wire for the Internet. There's been a mammoth copy party and the guests have left computers all over: some Macintoshes from pre-Linux days, a dozen Linux machines, a couple of FreeBSD and NetBSD boxes, and even something running BeOS. An evil spirit that haunts your house insists on running Windows in the attic, so let's pretend you've got an NT box up there. While looking for a solution, you suddenly hear a child's voice say, “Welcome to NetWinder!” (which you'll hear every time you boot). Suddenly, you realize you are now ready to network all your machines.
First, get a really big hub and an ISP account with high-speed access: for example, DSL or cable modem. I recommend not wasting any effort on ISDN. If you already have a LAN, you can add the machine to the network and use the web interface to set everything up. Otherwise, hook up a monitor, keyboard and mouse and try manual configuration, either directly through editing files or with the nwconfig program. As soon as you can get to the NetWinder with a web browser, you can configure everything quickly. Plug the 10 BT Ethernet into your DSL or cable modem (or use the serial port if necessary), the 100 BT Ethernet into your hub's uplink, then plug all your computers into the hub. Configure individual addresses and names for them, and you've got a network.
Presumably, you also want services. The NetWinder menus and manual explain how to set up services. The obvious things to start with would be the Web and e-mail, since these seem to consume most on-line interest. Apache is always running so you can reach the administration menu, but you can also run a generic web site with it through virtual hosts; there's even a web page creator program, although it's not exactly advanced. Hence, residents in your house can have their own web pages. E-mail is simple to set up; just enable SMTP through the administration menu, and point your local mail reader to the NetWinder. To read the mail from your terminal (instead of logging in to the NetWinder as a user), enable POP-3 or IMAP services and tell your local mail reader the NetWinder's address. You can establish e-mail forwarding and filtering and even set up automatic response messages for when you're away.
The NetWinder can do whatever you expect of a Linux box, including file and print sharing across UNIX, Macintosh and Windows machines. Advanced administrators can do various things, from establishing BBS-like threaded discussion forums to rather bureaucratic things such as imposing quotas all over the place. Using the NetWinder as it's designed to be used won't disappoint, but would these machines be viable as home computers?
The NetWinder has almost everything you could want for a home computer, except the software. The OfficeServer has Ethernet ports, serial and parallel ports, PS/2 keyboard and mouse ports, and even an infrared receptor (presumably for wireless keyboards that aren't supported), but it is missing some software. The most glaring omissions are Netscape and gdb, although I am told that Netscape should be ported soon and I suspect gdb was left out by mistake. Also, the NetWinder's distribution is an old Red Hat with FVWM95-2, and that's so passé these days. Debian works on the StrongARM and is now the number-one choice of hackers, so Rebel.com ought to modernize a bit. Anyhow, window managers and the Web enthuse me less than RISC chips, so I thought I would learn about the chip by using gdb, but that was not to be. However, I did find out about the chip through some e-mails and a process someone called “reverse engineering” (writing C programs, compiling with gcc -S, and deciphering the chip from there).