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Windows Alternates: Cobalt Cube Review

The Cobalt Qube 3 from Cobalt Networks is compact, cute, easy to use and deadly effective.

The Qube 3 proposes to consolidate almost any conceivable network service – from DNS to DHCP to SNMP; from NAT to file sharing (not only SMB, but Macintosh as well) to firewalling; from POP to SMTP to HTTP – into a small cube-shaped box with a beguiling 25-square-inch footprint.

The Test Box

Our Qube test model was powered by an x86-compatible processor running at 400-MHz and outfitted with 64 MB of SDRAM and a 20 GB Seagate UDMA 66 Mbps IDE hard drive. If that’s not enough for you, the Qube 3 is available with up to 128 MB of RAM stock, along with optional SCSI-based RAID configurations. Each Qube comes with two 100 Mbps Ethernet ports, one serial port, one USB port and an additional (expansion) PCI slot. Initial setup of the Qube is facilitated by means of an integrated LCD menu and a series of navigational buttons.

The Qube runs a Cobalt distribution of Linux.

Setting it Up

The Qube 3 was a breeze to configure and set up. We plugged it in, turned it on, punched in some standard network settings (IP address, gateway, subnet mask) on its LCD panel, and within minutes we were tweaking its configuration from a Web browser on a desktop client through a secure SSL link.

Theoretically, the initial setup of the Qube could probably be accomplished by novice users because the Qube’s set to autoconfigure itself with a non-routable IP address during boot. Realistically, a knowledge of networking basics is probably required for setting up DNS, mail, file-sharing and firewalling. Then again, anyone who has a need for a drop-in solution of this kind probably has at least a beginner’s knowledge of networking, which we suspect is all that’s needed to appropriately configure an appliance of this type.

The Qube’s Web-based interface is quite intuitive and helps to greatly simplify the occasionally daunting task of network administration. Similarly, the Qube’s sizeable manual is straightforward and well-organized in both its hard copy and online versions.

Using It

All Qube administration can be accomplished by means of its intuitive Web browser interface: Users, for example, can easily be created, given personalized profiles, and assigned access privileges and restrictions.

Similarly, file space can be allocated and shared between and among a mixture of heterogeneous client machines, regardless of whether they’re Mac or Windows systems. Web pages can be published by dragging and dropping them into a user’s Web folder or –- if dragging and dropping isn’t your style –- uploaded via FTP. Users can create dynamic Web pages by means of CGI scripts written in Perl, C, or Unix shell scripts, or by embedded PHP scripts.

The Qube provides email services for standard email clients as well as for Web browsers (through its WebMail interface), and performs a variety of e-mail niceties, to boot – including archiving mailing lists and remotely retrieving other mail accounts. The Qube’s WebMail interface allows for the reading and composition of messages, along with the creation of contact lists, vacation messages and mail forwarding addresses.

DNS is also configurable by means of the Qube’s Web browser interface. For many sites, a unit of this kind could easily function as a primary DNS server, and – in most environments – a part time administrator should be able to sleepwalk right through DNS configuration.

You can place the Qube as a router between your main Internet connection and your own network of computers. Not only does it ship stock with two discrete network interfaces (which allow it to act as a NAT gateway and firewall), but it also has a high-speed serial interface which enables it to connect to analog modems, DSL modems, or Integrated Services Digital Network (ISDN) terminal adapters.

All network traffic is filtered through the Qube, which facilitates shared access to the Internet and which provides the ability to lock down and protect an internetwork from the proverbial “barbarians at the gate.” In this regard, the Qube’s support for rule-based filters can help prevent unwanted access to your network’s resources and services.

The Qube supports Web caching, which can dramatically reduce the amount of traffic on your link for frequently accessed web pages.

The Qube is also a DHCP server, which makes it easy for you to dynamically add clients to your internal network. LDAP and SNMP are also integrated for centralized user and resource management.

Keeping the Qube’s preloaded software up to date is also easy with BlueLinQ, a portion of the web interface that automatically checks online for updates and new software. Security-minded updates are promptly available and new software options are offered up for your selection. Scheduled and manual backups via SMB, NFS, or FTP allow for peace of mind.

Since it is a Linux system with Red Hat-like package management, we were able to really get under its hood and trick it out using a number of the great open source software packages that are freely available today. Our only complaint is that tweaking of this kind is strongly discouraged and (moreover) supposedly voids one’s warranty (ouch). We probably should have thought of that before we started poking around!

Being the curious control freaks that we are, we had to log in through TELNET and install things like the Secure Shell Server (SSH) and poke around in the system directories. The config files are commented and mostly in standard places, and behind the web page interface hides a slew of well-integrated open source Linux solutions. The Cobalt Qube 3 runs a Linux 2.2 kernel.

Final Comments

Four months and counting, and we’re thoroughly satisfied with our Qube’s performance and have not been disappointed in the least. Our only suggestions would be to add a Web interface for configuring NFS shares (for Unix clients – they are out there) and to incorporate a more comprehensive logging interface other than the rather simplified Active Monitoring.

Our overall impression of the Qube was that of a cost-effective, functional, drop-in solution. We would recommend The Cobalt Qube 3 to someone with a SOHO; to small businesses looking for comprehensive in-house Internet solutions; or to corporations anxious to outfit remote office environments with comprehensive file sharing/NAT/firewall solutions. All things considered, it’s a cheap date – and it really does deliver.

About the Author

Stephen Swoyer is a Nashville, TN-based freelance journalist who writes about technology.

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