The Open Source

SAN MATEO (06/05/2000) - Cybernet Systems makes the NetMAX line of Linux-based server appliance software. Cybernet has taken Red Hat Linux and added a friendly buffer between it and the administrator. It enables people to use Linux as a firewall, VPN server, file and print server, and so forth, without having to deal with the nitty-gritty details of ipchains for firewall rules, Samba configuration files for file and print sharing, and so on.

Cybernet is going to update its product offerings this month, so I don't want to spend much time on the specifics of what's available today. But I do want to mention that I really like the product line. It doesn't quite turn Linux into a line of consumer-friendly "Servers for Dummies" products, but it comes close.

For the most part, you simply install a NetMAX special-purpose server and then manage it from a simple Web browser interface. If you want to get a better idea of how it all works, visit www.netmax.com and follow the link to the online demo.

From what I hear, Cybernet isn't moving a lot of software. I'm not surprised, although on the surface Cybernet has everything going for it. The products are positioned to ride the wave of interest in Linux. Cybernet bases its servers on Red Hat, the most visible version of Linux. And the price is right. You pay only a little more than you would for a copy of Red Hat Inc. As a customer, that seems perfectly reasonable because you get added value.

But I see a number of things wrong with this picture. In the first place, to some extent Cybernet Systems is selling its products in the wrong places to the wrong people. For example, you can purchase these products at a number of computer retailers including CompUSA, Fry's Electronics, and MicroWarehouse.

This doesn't make much sense to me. The ease-of-use enhancements are supposed to make the NetMAX line appealing to a non-geek. But if, for example, a non-technical consumer goes to CompUSA to purchase a firewall for his or her cable modem-based network, I'd wager they won't visit the software department.

They just want to buy a box that plugs in to the cable modem at one end and in to their home computers on the other.

It's possible a moderately technical representative from a school or a small business may visit one of these establishments looking for a simple solution.

Perhaps this is the customer Cybernet Systems hopes to reach.

But I see two big problems for Cybernet in this market: Branding and branding.

Customers who only know enough to be dangerous will gravitate right toward the product with the best brand. That's one thing that makes it hard for Linux to compete with Windows. And that's what will make it hard for Cybernet to compete with the very distribution upon which it bases its products. Unless Cybernet wants to plaster the Red Hat logo all over its box, I don't think most of these customers are likely to feel comfortable buying the NetMAX products over Red Hat itself.

Or suppose a geek like me goes to a computer superstore to tinker together a firewall for my cable modem-based network at home or for a small business customer. I don't need a user-friendly wrapper on top of an older version of Linux. So I'd start by purchasing the latest version of my favorite Linux distribution and work from there.

But here's the real kicker: One of the things that would determine which distribution I'd favor is the friendliness of its interface for doing things like setting up a firewall. In other words, if Linux distributors really get their acts together, the Cybernet Systems NetMAX line will have no reason to exist. The value Cybernet adds to Linux is precisely the sort of value that traditional Linux distributors should be offering in order to differentiate their products and make them worth buying.

If Cybernet truly has real added value to offer (and I believe it does), it should be courting the various distributions with its wares, either to be bought by one of the Linux distributors or to license its value-add software to all of them. In the meantime, I strongly recommend that you take a peek at the NetMAX products and keep an eye out for the new line in June, because taken only on its own merits, the NetMAX line is a hot one to watch.

Nicholas Petreley is the founding editor of LinuxWorld (www.linuxworld.com) and works with Linux Standard Base. Reach him at nicholas_petreley@infoworld.com.

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