The new breed of email server appliances

By David Strom

Prepared for Technauts, May 1999

In the past decade, email has become the lifeblood of modern business communications. Email has evolved from being the exclusive province of geeks and technocrats to a necessary and essential business tool. It is as important as the telephone for the average working man and woman, and in some cases, more important than any other communications medium for connecting far-flung empires across time zones and cultures. We now send more email than postal mail, exchange drafts of reports via email, schedule meetings via email, and close deals via email. Email matters big time to us, and staying in touch without any email access is unthinkable today.

Until recently, setting up an email network wasn't for the average person. Small business owners in particular were faced with too many technologies to choose from, some that use Internet standards and some that don't. There are installation and configuration issues, and ongoing maintenance chores too. Trying to sort all this out was difficult, and meant spending lots of unproductive time, time that could better be spent answering one's daily load of emails.

This has changed with two new email server appliances, small computers that are designed exclusively for this purpose. The two products are the Intel InBusiness eMail Station (available since last fall) and the Technauts eServer.mail, which began shipping this month. (We reviewed a 0.6 beta version of the firmware.)

Both products offer everything you'll need to setup and run an email server in a single box. They both run a series of Internet standard protocols, including POP and SMTP, and can be managed via a recent web browser version that supports Javascript. They easily connect to your Ethernet local area network and to the Internet as well. And they cost less to purchase and operate than most email server software solutions.

Why use an email server appliance?

There are many ways to deploy corporate-wide email services. Many small businesses obtain individual email accounts from an Internet Service Provider for their employees, and equip them with separate modems to establish an Internet connection. Not only is this costly in terms of equipment and maintaining separate phone lines, but users have to spend the time connecting and checking their email. An email server saves the time involved in connecting through a pre-established schedule, and eliminates the need for individual phone lines to each desktop.

You could purchase some software, such as Eudora WorldMail, Lotus Notes or Microsoft Exchange, and try to install it on an NT server and set it up properly. But setting up Notes or Exchange will take an experienced administrator; indeed, there are many consulting firms that make a good living doing nothing but these kinds of installations. Moreover, Notes and Exchange don't speak the native Internet protocols, although both have come a long way towards tolerating the Internet. And these products can be costly, ranging from $1,000 to tens of thousands of dollars to purchase.

You could obtain a copy of Linux, which comes with sendmail server software, and install that. While the price is minimal, there are drivers to install, programs to configure, and hardware incompatibilities to track down.

Or you could make use of any of a wide number of free email service providers, such as Yahoo Mail, Netscape mail or Hotmail, and setup your accounts there. While the price is attractive for the service providers, many companies are uncomfortable having them host their email traffic and would rather have more control that an appliance offers.

The email server appliances avoid the configuration hassles involved in installing separate software products, since they come ready-to-run with the right combination of Internet services pre-installed. Since they are 100% pure Internet products, they can operate with a wide variety of email client software programs such as Netscape Messenger, Microsoft Outlook Express and Qualcomm Eudora. And frequent travelers can use both servers to collect their email. And they cost less than the software solutions, too.

Setup and configuration

It took us about an hour to get each product configured and running in our office. There are two parts to setup: first, getting your IP networking parameters entered and then getting your users and mailboxes setup. The two products have very different approaches in how they do the initial setup. Intel has tried to make things simpler but hasn't succeeded. They have a confusing series of steps that depend on whether or not your PC currently runs IP. If you have a fixed IP address, you will need to reconfigure your PC and reboot before connecting to the Intel box. That isn't a good situation.

Technauts' device has a much better system for initial configuration. It actually has two methods: The one the company recommends is to run its own small software setup program, which didn't have the problems we encountered with the Intel software. Or, you can connect a PC keyboard and monitor to the box and type in the information quickly. Both are much easier for novices than the Intel configuration.

Once your IP network is set correctly, you can connect to either device with a web browser and enter the user information, a very simple and intuitive process.

Both companies take some effort to explain the several different methods you can use their servers to send and receive email. This is the hardest part about using these products, given the wide variation in situations and how email will be deployed in corporations.

You have two basic decisions to make. First off, should you setup mail accounts on your email appliance server or at a server on your Internet Service Provider? If you have just a few accounts, you might want to keep them at your ISP -- this way the email appliance can save the time and expense of multiple connections. You can also have a single "master" account at your ISP and add or delete users when you need to without having to bother your ISP with these chores.

Second, how should mail be delivered to your email appliance server? This will depend on the protocols used by your ISP and the speed of your Internet connection. In some cases, you might want to periodically dial up your ISP and collect your mail. In other cases, you might already have a continuous Internet connection and thus mail can flow continuously between your ISP and your network. And in other cases, you might use one ISP for your connection and another for maintaining your mailboxes.

Common features

Technauts' product, as shown in the screen capture, goes into more details about these connection choices and is more flexible than Intel's. Both products come in about the same size, the size of an average hardback novel, and both use the same small hard disk drive to store their operating system and mail files. Both offer a series of common features, such as being able to set a limit on the total size (in bytes) of any individual mailbox. You can set up vacation or auto-reply messages, and you can forward all email to another mailbox. With both products, the administrator can create mailing lists or groups of users with both internal and external mail accounts. That is a nice feature if you routinely correspond with people both inside and out of your corporation.

Both products include both Dynamic Host Configuration Protocol and Domain Name Servers that are easily set up with a few web forms. This makes it easy for users new to IP to more easily setup a working network, as well to manage these servers remotely.

Finally, both offer the ability to act as a dial-in server, meaning that users out of the office can dial into the external modem on the server and exchange email. However, neither products' documentation is very clear on how either the server or client side has to be set up for this task.

What we liked about the Intel eMail server

Overall, Intel had better documentation, particularly when it came time to connect the server to our network. Intel's documentation includes pictures of the back of its server and clearly shows where various cables have to go and why. It also goes into more detail about ISDN connections, and has a separate "Networking Basics" booklet that is a good general starting point for users new to networking. (We examined an early copy of Techanuts' manuals, however.)

We also liked that a version of Microsoft's Outlook Express came bundled with Intel's software CD. This makes for a more complete package, and Outlook Express is a solid Internet email client program.

What we liked about the Technauts eServer

Overall, there is a lot to like about the eServer and it has superior features and more flexibility when compared to the Intel device. We liked the layout of the user controls and menu trees in the eServer better than the eMail Station, although that is more a matter of taste than anything else. And the eServer has some attractive features, including that each user can consolidate email from up to three external mail accounts, compared to just a single external account in the Intel server. The eServer also runs Linux: if you are conversant with this operating system, you can make whatever changes you require using a command-line interface, including the ability to use Telnet to connect to the box. (Telnet can also be disabled for improved security.)

The Technauts server also has a parameter to set an overall maximum message size limit for a single message. This comes in handy when email networks are swamped with multiple copies of annoying electronic greeting cards or other huge files that could take too long to download. You can also view the size of the mail file occupied by each user, something absent from the Intel product.

As shown in the two screen captures, the eServer's logging functions (right) are more useful. Intel's product (below) has seven different logs maintained by the eMail Station, and it may not be immediately clear which one to examine when something goes wrong. Technauts' product has a better system for viewing logs, including the ability to record them on the severity of the particular activity and to examine them based on date ranges, as well as to filter them based on particular events.

The eServer has better mail handling options. This includes the ability to collect email directly from a mailbox on external domain, to keep internal mail from making the round trip to an ISP (so internal users can receive mail faster), and to direct misaddressed mail to the mail administrator. And the eServer is more efficient with its disk storage: when the same message is sent to multiple local users, it keeps a single copy while the eMail Station stores each message in its own file. All of these bring big usability benefits.

You can upgrade the firmware with both products using their built-in File Transfer Protocol (FTP) servers. However, the eServer has a simpler process that walks you through the steps, while the eMail Station makes you download the firmware file, then transfer it to the server, then reconfigure the box with your mailbox settings and other parameters. Technauts has a nice feature whereby you maintain these settings after the upgrade, which is very helpful for inexperienced administrators.

Finally, the eServer has a superior backup option to the eMail Station: you can save your data to any FTP server. The Intel product can only send a copy of the data file via email.


Both email servers will do a nice job of delivering a corporation's email and are good alternatives to running email servers on NT or Unix. We tended to like the layout of the controls and user interface of the Technauts' product, along with several other features such as upgrades, backup and mail handling. Given that it is less expensive and more feature-rich than the Intel product, the eServer is the best all-around business choice for corporations looking to deploy an email appliance.

Product info


Technauts eServer.mail

Intel eMail Station






Up to 200 accounts, 2 GB of disk storage

Up to 200 accounts, 2 GB of disk storage

Back panel connectors

Keyboard, VGA, mouse, Ethernet, modem

Ethernet, modem

About the author

David Strom is co-author of the recent Prentice Hall book, Internet Messaging and a long-time contributor to numerous computer trade magazines, including Computerworld, Infoworld, and PC Week. He was the founding editor-in-chief of Network Computing and runs his own consultancy based in Port Washington, NY. He currently publishes the Web Informant series of essays at