An easy-to-use local network sounds like a contradiction in terms. But Toshiba's Computer Systems Group plans to introduce one for the small office and small- to mid-size business market early next year.
The Magnia SG-10 server is designed as an alternative to traditional LAN servers, and a replacement for simple peer-to-peer networks created by connecting Windows PCs. Users without any technical expertise will be able to plug in the server, about the size of two stacked laptop PCs, and create a local network of up eight attached computers and printers. Setup involves running a few wizards-based programs and will take about 30 minutes, according to Andrew McCloskey, director of software engineering at Toshiba's CSG.
Magnia's built-in software supports file and print sharing, and local and wide area e-mail. The device includes a ready-to-use Internet gateway, a built-in 56KBs modem, and a spare network controller slot for high-speed Internet services like DSL. A built-in eight-port switch handles physical connections and the interconnections among the networked PCs.
The server also offers two wireless networking options. One, based on products from Lucent, lets you use an 802.11b LAN, providing the PCs with an 11Mbps, all-directional radio link with the server. The second, based on products from Red-M, a unit of Madge Networks, lets devices communicate via a lower-bandwidth Bluetooth radio link.
Bluetooth, like 802.11b, occupies the 2.4GHz frequency. It's designed as a cheap, simple, efficient way for devices to share data without wires. By late this year, the first Bluetooth interface cards for PCs and laptops, and the first handheld devices with Bluetooth radios, will hit the market. Red-M is one of several companies creating software and hardware to create Bluetooth nets, which allow the devices to connect to corporate nets or to the Internet through the Red-M server.
Toshiba will install the Red-M server software in the Magnia server, and resell the Red-M access points, which are small clamshell-shaped devices, with a Bluetooth radio chip, that attach to a wall. In a small business deployment, a handheld computer with a Bluetooth card connects to the access point in one room, which connects to the server where it can exchange files with a desktop PC in another room or access the Internet.
Toshiba has designed the server as an appliance, suggesting a device that runs itself, with a few knobs and buttons for simple adjustments. "We want it as easy as a VCR," McCloskey says. "Our research found that customers in this space will not buy a server and a LAN for two to 10 people."
To make it simple, Toshiba has written more than 100,000 lines of code that automates LAN operations atop the Linux operating system, the server's heart. The CD-ROM guides you through the set up of Windows 95/98 and NT/Windows 2000 PCs. Separate print documentation acts as a guide for setting up Macintosh clients.
The combination of hardware and software should cut a number of costs faced by small businesses. One small manufacturing company, a pilot site for the Magnia server, consolidated three separate Internet dial-up connections (and accounts) into one, McCloskey says. The appliance approach, if Toshiba delivers, should reduce the need for costly third-party computer and LAN technicians.
The wireless options would lead to interference problems, if the office has other devices that use the same 2.4 GHz bandwidth. Simon Gawne, a marketing executive with Red-M, notes that Bluetooth uses a frequency-hopping technique - it jumps quickly between frequencies in the band to avoid interfering with other devices. But mobile phones and microwaves use the same bandwidth and users could run into problems if the wireless access points are placed to close together.
McCloskey acknowledges that Toshiba is not widely known as a server vendor, but the company has been selling Windows application servers under the Magnia name for four years. "We have some brand awareness [building] to do in this area," he admits.
Part of the Magnia offering will include a training video, Internet-based data backup and, for an additional fee, remote monitoring of the server. Built-in software monitors the fan, the server's temperature and a range of other metrics. A remote Toshiba service technician can read the data to monitor the server's health.
The Magnia server will be released by March 2001. Pricing has not been determined but is expected to fall in the $US1000 to $2000 range to compete with rival offerings such as IBM's Whistle and Cobalt Networks' Qube.