Technology Spotlight: Cybernet Systems Corp.

Cybernet Systems Corp. is a manufacturer of Linux-based thin servers that were designed for small to medium-sized businesses that are looking for an inexpensive and simplified way to gain an online presence.

The NetMAX pre-configured Web server for Linux product, which Cybernet boasts can be installed in 15 minutes, is based on the Red Hat Linux distribution, and includes Apache, an FTP server and the sendmail e-mail server.

In this exclusive interview with the E-Commerce Times, Armando Pauker, vice president of network products for Cybernet, discusses e-commerce and the power of Linux.

Q What is the background of your company and its involvement with Linux?A The company started in 1988, and its mission at the time was to do contracts with the U.S. Government. The terms of the contracts were that while the government had first dibs on the technology, Cybernet was also free to commercialize it. That’s how the company began.

Most recently, in about 1996, the company began its first commercialization of a product. This was the force feedback product that’s now used in joysticks. Cybernet invented and had first patents in that area. About a year ago, Cybernet licensed the patents to a company called Immersion. They went off and licensed everybody in the world, including Microsoft. So, we licensed that in return for a piece of Immersion.

Most of the company’s history has been developing products in virtual reality, imaging or networking. Some time ago, there was certain dissatisfaction expressed with the use of Microsoft products. From there, the company decided to try to do something better, and that’s where there was a desire to develop the products that eventually became NetMAX.

The guiding principle behind this development was to come up with products that were based on something stable like FreeBSD [Free Berkeley System Distribution] or Linux, but that were also as easy to use as the Microsoft products.

Q What can you tell our readers about each of the NetMAX products?A We have four products, three of which are what we call thin server products, and the other is the professional product. The products come with the Linux operating system and are installed for you. So, you get a CD and it automatically installs Linux for you and our application on top of it. These all run on X86 Pentium-based computers.

Additionally, all of the products have a Web-based interface that totally hides the command line from those users who are not comfortable with it. But it also allows users to go in and modify things from the command line if they are comfortable and wish to work that way. We have kind of a system administration environment.

The first product is a Web server. It’s very easy, through using a Netscape browser, to set up Apache, Sendmail or FTP. We also have the File Server product, which allows users to share files between Mac, UNIX and Windows clients. It also has backup, printer sharing and many other things, including the ability to set up RAID volumes. Then there’s the Firewall product that allows the user to very easily set up common rules, common exceptions to those common rules and to get a firewall going.

Many people use the product to connect to DSL lines and cable modems, and it can also be used for WAN and T1 connections.

Then we have the Professional, which is the sum of all those three products plus some other features, such as the ability to do discussion groups, newsgroups and some other system administration features.

Q How important was your recent deal with Navarre and what other distribution arrangements have you made? A The deal with Navarre is very important to us. They are one of the top distributors in the country and they are actively involved in pushing Linux out to various retail centers around the country. Some of the top stores in the U.S. for our type of product only buy from Navarre. We now have distributor relationships with Navarre, Ingram Micro, Frank Kasper and Tech Data.

Our products are being featured in several retail outlets, including Fry’s, MicroCenter and CompUSA. We, of course, hope that this will increase with Navarre’s help.

Q Why should e-commerce professionals choose Linux, and what does Cybernet offer them? A Linux offers a number of things that are really neat for e-commerce. One is that Linux is very stable and very mature. There’s a lot of development that comes from the UNIX history, which has been 30 years in development. The code is open, and so many of the bugs are fixed very quickly and any security holes are quickly spotted. There’s not some hidden trap door for somebody to come into your system. So, from that point of view it’s very, very solid.

When you go into e-commerce, you need to be up all the time and have very high reliability. In our system, for example, we haven’t had an operating system-related crash in about two years. We’ve only had two crashes. The first of those crashes was because of a bad hard disk and the other was because of bad memory. So, those were hardware issues as opposed to anything to do with the operating system or the software.

The other thing is that by using open-source, either FreeBSD or Linux, you can have access to code that has been thoroughly tested by lots of people, and it’s free — or near-free. It can dramatically reduce the cost of implementing a system. Right now, we’ve seen the beginning of e-commerce components coming out into the market on Linux.

For the NetMAX line of products, again we have the Web Server, the File Server, which can run Oracle on the back end, and the firewall. Sometime in April, we’re going to have a new product that will allow users to connect to VPNs [virtual private networks].

Later in 2000, we will have kind of an e-commerce storefront with a credit card authorization system that totally runs on Linux. That will be available for e-commerce professionals. What we will do is dramatically reduce the price of entry to set up an e-commerce system. Right now, the cost is astronomical. The product will offer the ease-of-use and the ease-of-configuration that NetMAX allows with the low cost and stability of Linux.

Q What distinguishes your products from other market offerings? A We have competitors or entrants into our market space in a couple of areas. Firstly, there are just the raw operating systems, including Red Hat, Caldera and many others. They’re really good, very flexible and general tools. You can do anything that our product does with those products, but from a command line.

What we do is reduce the time it takes for users to configure the firewall and to be able to manage a Web server. Users can do it very easily and have a Web server running in less than 15 minutes. That’s what we provide versus the raw distribution, but we also include the raw distribution.

Secondly, there’s appliances, such as Cobalt machines and some other ones that bundle both software that’s very much like ours — very easy to use out-of-the-box, with a Graphical User Interface [GUI] — and their own hardware. We, however, allow users to choose their own hardware.

For instance, they can choose very fast machines or even very low cost machines, depending on where they want to be with regard to performance. Users can also service and upgrade their own machines — for instance, if they want to add more memory or add more disks, they can do that on their own without having to deal with the hardware manufacturer.

Q What are the most significant factors that are driving the current Linux market? A There are several things. Clearly, there’s an anti-Microsoft movement. Beyond that, competing products must have technical merit. As I talked about before, there’s technical merit in having something that’s open-source, free and stable.

Q In lay terms, what does the open-source model represent?A There are basically three models. First, there is the proprietary model, which I think we’re all very familiar with. Companies like Adobe and Oracle, for instance, have products and they control them. Control is both good and bad.

A downside of control is that they have pricing power and they can choose their pricing to some extent.

The good thing about the proprietary model is that they can choose the features. They can go out, survey the markets and select opportunities. For instance, let’s say that one million people are going to buy a product. A company working with the proprietary model can develop features for those people and target the products for those people.

On the other side is open-source, a model developed by a technical community that is trying to solve needs primarily of that technical community. The neat thing about that is that you can have a mass of people that are involved in the development and testing phases, looking at and fixing the bugs and looking for security holes in that code. It’s a global effort, and many people can put energy into doing that.

The result can be both free, since everybody participated in it, and stable. But it may not be so targeted to a specific group outside of that technical community. The features don’t come from a marketing perspective. Instead of targeting a specific group, they target maybe specific problems within system administration or computing, and that doesn’t necessarily translate into value for the user.

Then maybe there’s another model, which is what we have. We use the open-source base, then we add some proprietary things that allow you to target for some specific group. But because we use open-source, companies like us — and there are many others — won’t be able to charge very much, because you’re compared against something that’s ultimately free.

Q How have the huge Red Hat and VA Linux IPOs changed Linux? A It has focused everyone on the possible financial upside of doing Linux or being involved in Linux ventures. Previously, a lot of this work was done for pure recognition and for the general, common good. But people are seeing that money can be made and might perhaps be focused on IPOs, and so forth. There are other distributions competing against Red Hat, and I’m sure that they are considering what they are going to do, given that they are able to raise public funds.

Q What are your thoughts on the findings of performance tests that have pitted Linux versus Windows NT? A I’ve read Microsoft’s side, and I’ve read all the counter-arguments against it. All I can say is that Linux is improving very quickly. No matter how it is, it’ll be able to improve faster than Microsoft will be able to improve their Windows software.

Q Where do you see Linux and Cybernet one year from now? A I think that we will see a lot more applications move to Linux. For example, now we’re seeing Corel move their graphics applications. When some other larger companies start moving their applications to Linux, it’ll fuel further market expansion.

Right now, you can’t get PhotoShop on Linux. But if that ever moves, that’ll be a big thing for the Linux community, to be able to have the same tools that are available on other platforms.

For us, as I mentioned earlier, we see ourselves moving into more of an e-commerce position where all our products are components leading toward providing this full e-commerce system. I think that will be very useful for the consumer and many people. Visit the company online at www.cybernet.com.

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