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Networking

Hardware

Sutus Business Central 200 review

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One of a new business's first steps is to install office tools for day-to-day communications, including a router with wireless access, phone lines, and a file server. The Sutus Business Central 200 combines these devices in a single appliance, simplifying setup and helping you avoid having to configure multiple pieces of unrelated gear individually.

Some of the Business Central 200's specs are strangely dated, such as single-band, 802.11b/g Wi-Fi; 250GB of storage; and a single gigabit ethernet port. But for the most part, the unified approach works, getting your small business running quickly with minimal configuration hassles.

The Business Central 200 targets offices with anywhere from a handful to 25 employees. It could fit well in a retail shop, connecting to your point-of-sale system or security cameras, or it could serve as the backend communications spine of your service-based office. You can even install another Business Central 200 at a satellite office, permanently bridging phones and files through the virtual private network (VPN).

Depending on the reseller, you can either obtain the hardware preconfigured or have your IT administrator set it up. The Business Central 200's main box attaches to your Internet connection, and you build out your network over its eight 100-mbps ethernet ports and 802.11b/g Wi-Fi. VoIP phones attach to the network, and the device provides power-over-ethernet so you don't need to plug the phones into an outlet. You can even use the included bridge to connect a traditional phone system.

Sutus bases the price of its Business Central 200 hardware on the number of users, even though the license is fixed and doesn't require renewal. The $2199 rate provides basic server and phone gateway hardware for five users. The price for up to a dozen users is $2898, and hardware for up to 25 users costs $3897. VoIP handset hardware and Session Initiation Protocol (SIP) service cost extra.

Installation

Unpacking the gear reveals the main hardware box and an analog phone gateway box. If you order phones--we tested three--resellers typically bundle Polycom handsets. You just connect everything and complete the configuration in a Web browser. In most situations, you'll be able to get through the initial installation in less than an hour, but then you may spend several hours exploring all of the features.

The Business Central 200 is platform-agnostic, working with Macs, Windows PCs, Linux computers, and various mobile devices, including certain phones. You configure settings though a Flash-enabled Web browser instead of through an OS-specific client.

The hardware box runs Linux and is powered by open-source tools. So theoretically, you could put together software with the same features for free. But the product's interface is its real strength.

When adding a new user account, you enter the log-in and password once, and the Business Central 200 will create a phone extension, a private network-storage space, and an e-mail account.

You can also create phone, storage, and e-mail assignments as group workspaces. With a shared, group workspace for the sales department, for example, you can create a phone extension, an e-mail address, and a storage area that are accessible to all members at the same time. This simple, powerful management feature makes the Business Central 200 worthwhile, even though some of its individual specifications disappoint.

Router

The Business Central 200 creates wired or wireless networks simply. Just enter a Wi-Fi password and plug in your cables.

The box has enough ports for basic wired networks, but only includes one gigabit ethernet port (in addition to the eight 100-mbps ethernet ports). If you want the fastest transfers for your network, you'll have to add a gigabit switch right away.

Wireless networking is adequate, too, but similarly less than ideal. The device supports 802.11b/g, not the latest 802.11n interface. Worse, networking options are rigid. The device requires WPA security, so if you install it at a café (for example), visitors must enter a password. A dual-band access point would make more sense, separating public traffic from your private network, but you get only the single wireless connection. And WPA falls short of other wireless security options. Sutus representatives said that an update will eventually enable dual-SSID and WPA2 options.

Otherwise, the router performs well, even if you're shielded from deep configuration. A built-in stateful-packet-inspection firewall filters traffic, and the device comes preconfigured to lock itself down better than an off-the-shelf, consumer router can.

The integrated VPN lets you remotely connect and share files or VoIP calls as if you were in the office. It supports 256-bit AES SSL encryption through IPSec or PPTP, keeping your data secure.

Phone

VoIP phone service requires an additional subscription from a third-party SIP provider. The Business Central 200 is preconfigured to support XO, Megapath, Broadvox, Babytel, and many others. Expect to pay around $150 per month for three concurrent lines of service that you can then share across internal extension numbers. You'll also need to buy VoIP handsets, which cost about $115 each (The system supports third-party VoIP software, which works well on it, but most people will want a real handset, too.). Since the basic Business Central 200 hardware includes a gateway for dealing with analog phone gear, it can automatically route incoming faxes to your traditional fax machine.

With VoIP activated, reception, call forwarding, and other options can make your small business seem bigger. You can configure an incoming call to pass through up to three steps, such as ringing your desk, ringing the receptionist, and then going to voice-mail. You can even route calls to an external number, such as your mobile phone. If you install a second Business Central 200 at another office, you can ring remote coworkers by dialing their phone extension, or you can arrange that only the phones in the East Coast will ring in the early morning hours until your West Coast branch employees arrive at work.

Sutus says that you need only minimal bandwidth to support VoIP features--about 1.5 mbps downstream and 600 kbps upstream for four concurrent calls. The router includes quality-of-service rules to shift bandwidth to VoIP when needed, and it connects through temporary pinholes instead of leaving VoIP ports always open.

Server

With just 250GB of storage shared between two 250GB RAID 1 drives, the Business Central 200 gives short shrift to file-sharing needs--and you can't upgrade the drives yourself by swapping in inexpensive storage alternatives. Other storage features are mixed.

Two USB 2.0 ports let you connect an external drive to handle scheduled backups of the built-in drives, but you can't use external disks for server space, and you can't set the Business Central 200 to back itself up offsite automatically; Sutus representatives say that this feature will come in an update.

Windows, Mac OS, and other computers can easily mount the SMB shared storage in the desktop. Your main account and shared workspaces reveal personal and group areas.

But the Business Central 200 omits drop boxes and public storage, both of which would be helpful for some workflows. For example, you might have an external client who wants to upload big files--with a drop box, you wouldn't have to create a new user account and talk the client through the VPN. Or you might want to publicly host big files that external clients could download. The Business Central 200 doesn't support FTP or any non-VPN method of connection.

The built-in Web server can provide a workaround for hosting external files, but it's less versatile as FTP. The Web server can also host your home page, but it doesn't support databases or scripts needed for complicated sites. Still, if your business needs those features--for commerce, say--you probably need an offsite Web host or much more extensive internal hardware.

For e-mail or for your Website, you can use a free yourcompanyname.sutuscentral.com domain, or you can configure the server to use your own domain. In either case, the mail service uses secure IMAP, keeping messages available on the server no matter how you connect. Server-side spam filtering, aliases, vacation messages, and other e-mail standards are available, too.



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