Tip

NNTP server software eases workgroup communication

Category: Discussion server software
Name of tool: SmartNewz
Company name: Oakley Data Services
Price: Varies depending upon version: Evaluation and limited use are free, full version about $50
URL: www.smartnewz.com

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Windows platforms supported: 95, 98, NT, 2000, ME, and XP
Quick description: Network News server for all versions of Windows

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

Key features:

Pros:
Extremely easy and straightforward to use.
Allows setting up access controls to allow reading and posting to newsgroups.

Cons:
User access lists could use some improvement.
Free server is limited to supporting a single newsgroup.

Description:

Most of us are wedded to our e-mail software and depend on it to communicate with the rest of the planet. And while e-mail is great for one-to-one tasks, it falls apart when it comes time to send out messages to many people at once. Your inbox can become overwhelmed with responses on top of responses. What you need for these many-to-many situations is a discussion group server, once called groupware.

Groupware has fallen out of favor, mainly because the original products used proprietary clients like Lotus' Notes or Novell's Groupwise. But there are a series of discussion products that make use of Internet standards, and the client software is part and parcel to Outlook Express and other e-mail products that are already on your desktop. These products are called NNTP servers, after the Network News Transport Protocol that is used. These servers are great ideas for corporations that need a quick, dirty and still capable way of fostering communications among their workgroups -- but don't want or need the entire groupware business that a Notes installation entails.

Back in the old days of the Internet, NNTP was strictly a Unix thing. The venerable INN software is still with us, and a standard to which all NNTP products should aspire. Then Microsoft came out with NNTP servers for NT Server as part of its Internet Information Server software. An NNTP server can still be found in the Windows 2000 Server operating system, although you will have to hunt it down as it isn't installed by default.

As a result of Microsoft's efforts, there aren't many commercial versions of NNTP servers that run on Windows. There is Dnews (netwinsite.com) that costs about $500 for a fully featured version. But a better idea is from a small British company called Oakley Data Services and its SmartNewz software.

The nice thing about SmartNewz is that is inexpensive, capable, and loaded with just enough features that make it a workable solution for small workgroups of people who work for different companies or who are widely distributed geographically, and people who have overlapping but not exactly the same interests.

The entire download can fit on a floppy, something that I find almost charming these days. It takes about 10 minutes to get it setup. Once you install it, the software automatically brings up your NNTP client software (typically Outlook Express), connects to the server and displays the sample newsgroup included. That is a nice feature. If you need more information, the help file is quite useful and makes up for the lack of any additional documentation.

You can run SmartNewz on just about any version of Windows. What's more, if you have NT or 2000 you can run it as a service rather than as an application which will improve performance and reliability and let you run it on a pretty low-end machine. I was using a 200 MHz Dell Pentium running Windows 2000 Professional with 64 MB of RAM and it worked comfortably in this configuration.

Setting up a new newsgroup takes about 15 seconds, and adding the necessary access controls will take about another minute if you understand what you are doing. Access controls are important with discussion servers because you may want to restrict which users have access to particular groups. For example, your finance department may want to restrict only members of their department to read and post messages to the finance newsgroup.

You can do this with SmartNewz but it isn't as capable as Microsoft's NNTP servers, which make use of NT's user authentication services and access control lists. For SmartNewz, you have to set up your own user lists and passwords. That can be cumbersome if you have lots of users with varying access controls.

The myriad of choices you have to make in order to buy this product is another drawback. When you first download the software, you have 14 individual days (not necessarily consecutive, if you don't use the server on intervening days) to try the product in all of its glory to create an unlimited number of newsgroups on your server. After the 14 days are up, you need to either pony up the cash for a license, or make do with the server operating in Free mode, which supports just a single newsgroup. Regardless of which mode you operate, SmartNewz will append a tag line to all of your messages, which is a minor annoyance in an otherwise fine product.

Still, if your users are tired of pruning their e-mail inboxes with overloaded lists of messages, setting up a discussion server is a good idea. SmartNewz is a nice and simple solution to this problem, especially if you don't want or can't run the Unix INN or Microsoft servers.

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.

Bio: David Strom is president of his own consulting firm in Port Washington, NY. 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 email at david@strom.com.


David Strom Web Informant http://strom.com
938 Port Washington Blvd., Port Washington NY 11050 +1 (516) 944-3407


This was first published in September 2001

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