Industrial-strength firewall/router/hub for small networks

David Strom reviews the S-box by Sofaware.



Category: Firewall/router/hub
Name of tool: S-Box Safe@Office
Company name: Sofaware/Checkpoint
Price: Various units, starting at $299
URL: www.sofaware.com
Platforms supported: Browser based, configuration software runs on pretty much anything

Strom-meter:
*** = Hey, not bad. One notch below very cool

Key features:
Firewall with four-port hub and router that is industrial strength

Pros:
Simple and easy to use
Powerful and versatile

Cons:
Menu structure and setup of various security options are both somewhat obscure
Pricing options are confusing

Description:
Protecting your small office or home network when on a broadband Internet connection isn't that difficult. All that is required is to purchase a firewall/hub/router (what I call a frhub) and connect up the computers together. But picking the right frhub isn't easy, especially these days as the field has gotten crowded.

Netgear and Linksys have about a dozen models apiece, and there are numerous other vendors including SMC, Sonicwall and Watchguard. Until now there have been two different markets. One market encompasses products that cost less than $200 and don't really provide much more than a few features (such as Network Address Translation, dynamic IP address services, support for point-to-point protocol over Ethernet). Dlink has come out with one for $50 that is a pretty good product, and for that price you can afford to throw the thing away if your needs change. But the more interesting market segment (especially for this audience) includes those units that cost $500 or more and offer real firewalls and stateful packet inspection and other solid features.

Both types of models come in small boxes that aren't much bigger than a standard hub, and both types make use of standard Web browsers to set up their configuration and manage the devices themselves. Actually, there is a third general category of products as well: those frhubs that include wireless, phoneline or cable/DSL modems as part of the package to cut down on the number of overall pieces of gear needed to support a small network. These are just now coming on the market, too.

Checkpoint's Sofaware division is about to change these segments. They offer a frhub at several different price points ($299, $399, $599 and $1199), yet bridge the gap between features and price. That is important. And given that the company is perhaps the leading firewall vendor, this development is worth paying attention to.

The product, called variously the S-box, the Safe@Home, Safe@Office and Intrusion Inc's PDS 500 Series Internet Security Appliance (branding is obviously a big challenge), comes closest in my mind to what Sonicwall is trying to do: provide a solid firewall product in an easy-to-use package. Unlike most of the low-end Sonicwalls, there are four 10/100 Ethernet ports as part of the deal. And unlike the Sonicwall, you can upgrade from the five-machine network license to something bigger without having to swap out your hardware. All you need to do is purchase a new key, and the unit will automatically upgrade itself when you connect to the managed services Web site that Sofaware maintains (or if you buy it from a provider, that the provider maintains).

Unlike some of the lower-end models, you are prompted to set an administrator's password the first time you connect to the box via a browser. This is a good thing and something you would expect from a security company.

Included in part of the security package is antivirus screening for e-mail, a VPN gateway and parental control features, allowing you to block specific kinds of content from reaching your network. All well and good, although I had some problems getting these to work properly and needed to talk to their tech support folks. The trick is that the S-box works in conjunction with a managed services provider, who provisions the potential for various security services on the box. The ultimate network administrator can then enable these via the Web interface. This is a boon for resellers and consultants, but can be vexing for standalone users (there is a way to configure the box for standalone operations, too).

Sofaware's pricing is perhaps the most complex thing about the product. The basic $299 model supports five-node networks. For VPN support, add another $100. The $599 model supports VPNs and 10-node networks, and the $1199 model supports 25 nodes and VPNs. Add another $50 to $250 per year to subscribe to firmware updates and more to replace the unit if stolen or if it dies.

If you can figure out the prices, it is a dandy of a unit and worthy of first choice for a frhub for small offices and home installations.

Strom-meter key:
**** = Very cool, very useful
*** = Hey, not bad. One notch below very cool
** = A tad shaky to install and use but has some value.
* = Don't waste your time. Minimal real value.

About the author
David Strom is the senior technology editor for VAR Business magazine. He has tested hundreds of computer products over the past two decades working as a computer journalist, consultant and corporate IT manager. Since 1995 he has written a weekly series of essays on Web technologies and marketing called Web Informant. You can send him e-mail at david@strom.com.


This was first published in August 2002

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