Axentra Net-Box SOHO 400 review

£699
Price when reviewed
Smaller than your average PC, and more attractive than an Apple notebook, this is where servers and chic collide. There are three Net-Box appliances in Axentra’s range, tailored for use at home or work, with the SOHO 400 at the top of the tree. The casing is pure white, with an opaque plastic front through which three lights indicate power and network activity. Under the hood there’s an AMD Sempron 2600+ processor, 512MB of RAM and a 200GB hard disk. These are conservative specs, but they’re more than enough to drive the SOHO 400’s customised Linux OS, and plugging a USB flash drive into one of the rear-mounted ports will quickly – and seamlessly – expand your storage space.

The SOHO 400 is built for teams of up to 50 people, and provides a range of network services. The most obvious is the web server, which ties in to a range of dynamic IP services so you can host an unlimited number of domains from home or office. To get you going, Axentra throws in a free domain (.com, .net or .org) of your choice, plus a year’s subscription to TZO’s IP management service.

Beyond that, though, it’s an IMAP mail server and LDAP directory server, a DHCP server, a hardware firewall, a virus killer, a spam filter, a print server and a wireless hub, and still costs less than £700. Installation is a doddle thanks to a well thought-out wizard that launches when you first switch it on, after which you just plug it into a consumer or business broadband line. We tested it using a £17.99 per month ADSL service without a fixed IP address, and still found that at times the sites we were hosting under a desk at home actually loaded quicker than those being stored by professional third-party hosting companies.

The only slight downside is that the web server is a little basic. As a security precaution, only users with administrator rights can host PHP scripts, and even then, more demanding applications could trip it up: some PHP scripts failed to work. However, for general page-posting requirements it adequately fits the bill.

Other parts of the system, though, can only be described as excellent. The content-filtering features can block whole swathes of the Internet based on warez, porn, gambling and a host of other undesirable content, and customised safe lists will let through any unintentional false positives, such as health education sites packed with bare flesh. It’s not entirely arbitrary, though, as the Net-Box tracks every machine on your network, which means it can filter content on a PC-by-PC basis, giving some machines free run of the Web while restricting others; for example, those used in a public place, or by children.

Likewise, general user management is robust and allows you to assign members to groups, dole out specified storage quotas, email all members and run a centralised backup process, archiving all files in their home folders. Of course, this could very quickly eat up your drive, so Axentra has built plug-and-play features into the Net-Box, which will treat USB flash drives as native extensions of its primary storage. This will come into its own should you choose to use the synchronisation tools, which will watch folders on local PCs and copy any saved files onto the server at specified intervals for greater security.

While these services all run as background processes, users will interact with the box through a browser-based suite of applications that manage time, contacts and communications, as well as providing the necessary tools for publishing basic web pages. Far from being proprietary systems, each of these modules will integrate with standard Windows applications such that the address book can share contact data with Outlook, and the calendar uses standard ICS-format files. The mail client also has an integrated spellchecker.

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