A relatively new product category developed with the entrepreneurial business in mind is the network appliance, also known as the "thin server" appliance. Network appliances are designed to perform a single critical function on a network, such as shared printing, Internet access or internal e-mail.
"What makes [network appliances] very interesting is that a reseller or integrator can come in with a single box, attach the appliance to an existing network, and bring up a number of services fairly simply," says Joe Barkan, a research director with Gartner Group, an information technology advisory firm in Stamford, Connecticut.
Network appliances add functionality that can greatly increase productivity for a company. Moreover, because most businesses have limited on-site support staff and technical expertise, network appliances are designed for easy administration and maintenance. Software contains features that allow you to easily change user capabilities, alert you to existing problems and more.
One example is Intel's recently released InBusiness eMail Station ($699) for internal e-mail. Compatible with 10 Mbps and 100 Mbps networks, the eMail Station can be added to either a peer-to-peer or client/server network to offer a LAN, Internet and dial-in e-mail solution for up to 50 users.
EMail Station has one simple interface and wizards that guide you through the setup process. An on-screen menu is used for establishing users' Internet Protocol addresses, scheduling e-mail deliveries to the desktop for certain times of the day, and other network administration.
The program offers automated retrieval and sending of e-mail, auto-reply and forwarding features, as well as remote support to access e-mail locally when you're on the road. Compatible with all e-mail packages that use the POP3 protocol to download messages (including Eudora Pro and Netscape Communicator), eMail Station also comes with Microsoft Outlook Express, so you don't have to buy a separate e-mail application if you don't already have one.
EMail Station's features aren't fancy, but that's exactly the point. Compared to high-end e-mail solutions like Lotus Notes and cc: Mail, which require substantial technical expertise to install and manage, eMail Station offers a fair amount of functionality at a much lower price.
Print servers are another popular network appliance on the market. By connecting printers directly to a network, print servers allow shared printing for as many computers as the network can support, and they provide faster output than PC- or file server-connected printers.
A solution jointly developed by Hewlett-Packard (HP) and 3Com is the relatively new HP JetDirect 170X OfficeConnect Print Server. At $135, it lets you connect any HP or non-HP color or monochrome printer to a network for seamless network printing. It also gets the work done as much as six times faster than a non-networked machine.
An embedded Web server allows for easy access to printer status via a standard Web browser. The JetDirect 170X is compatible with a wide array of network operating systems, including Microsoft Windows NT, Artisoft LANtastic and Novell NetWare.
Intel also offers a print server in its InBusiness line of networking products. The NetportExpress 10/100 3-port print server ($329) offers shared network printing with browser-based management features that allow for easy maintenance.
The Snap! Server from Meridian Data is another network appliance. This product adds storage to a network. Ideal for growing companies that need to beef up their network resources, the Snap! Server can connect to any Ethernet LAN running Windows NT, Novell or UNIX.
Like other network appliances, installation of the Snap! Server is designed to be simple: It plugs directly into any available Ethernet port (even while the network is running, so there's no downtime). Snap! Servers are available in 8GB ($995) and 16GB ($1,795) models.
Network appliances do have their limitations. Because many are designed to support a certain number of users on the network, Barkan says, fast-growing companies may quickly outgrow the particular network appliance they have and not be able to expand without replacing it.