Making Remote Access Smarter and Easier

Test Track: ENT and Client/Server Labs review remote access server software

The past few years have seen unprecedented growth in home office/remote worker environments. These workers need remote access to corporate resources, a capability that Windows NT 4.0 has delivered in less than stellar fashion. You could add up to 256 serial ports to one NT Server, but managing so many accounts and modems would be a serious pain in the network administrator’s neck.

This review looks at three RAS manager packages capable of managing a Windows NT RAS system anywhere in the enterprise, in one NT domain or within trusted domains. In performing the review, we looked at how each product integrated within NT domains and other features and functionality, and how each worked with large RAS environments.

The three products reviewed were RAS Manager 4.5 from NTP Software, Remote Access Manager from Acotec San Francisco and Acctrol for RAS from SpartaCom Inc.

NTP’s and SpartaCom’s product was furnished on a CD-ROM and came with printed documentation. The Acotec product, which was supplied in a gold release, was on its way to manufacturing. The documentation for Acotec was located on the CD-ROM.

The systems and network used to test the RAS managers included a Microsoft Windows NT Server 4.0 with Service Pack 4 (SP4) installed, running on a dual-processor Pentium 200 with 256 MB of memory and a Fast SCSI-2 disk drive.

We extended the server by installing a new AccelePort RAS 8 board from Digi International Inc. (www.digi.com), into the system (see sidebar). This installs much like a network adapter, with drivers for the adapter and modem drivers for the ports themselves. We had the RAS card installed and rebooted the server within minutes, adding eight v.90 modem ports.

Testing

When comparing each product, we looked at what was installed, where it was installed and how easy it was to remove the product when it came time to do that task. NTP’s product installed like a charm, but removed itself without restarting the RAS Server service. Not a big problem, but this last step would have been a nice way for the product to complete the task.

SpartaCom’s Acctrol also installed easily, but the company only provided a 10-user limited copy for evaluation. This limitation prevented us from exploring the entire ISP test site we use for evaluations like this. Acctrol comes with a runtime version of the Microsoft Access database, in which user information is stored. The install time was slightly longer than NTP, but just as smooth.

Acotec’s product got off to a less-polished start. We received what was supposed to be final release code of the new 2.1 version of the product, and the install seemed to go well. It installed the latest data access objects (DAO) software, and updated the server with dynamic link libraries for the new product. Different from NTP and SpartaCom, the Acotec product forced a server reboot after installation because of files that were in use by the system. We subsequently ran into some problems getting the license key to work. It turns out we had been supplied beta code. Acotec promptly provided the finished product, which fixed all of the problems we encountered. In the process, we had the opportunity to test Acotec’s support department, which had a flawless response and fast actions.

Key parameters for the operational aspects of each product included ease of use and flexibility of reporting on user issues. NTP’s RAS Manager plugged itself into the User Manager for Domains tightly, but lacked the kind of resource control that SpartaCom’s Acctrol product offered for controlling the modem. NTP provided a straightforward view of RAS users and gave us the usual control over the users that User Manager for Domains does, but it consolidates the users into one manageable set of screens. We enabled and disabled users, granted access by day of week, and many of the normal access controls found in native NT.

SpartaCom extended the control over the users to time-of-day, day-of-week, and granular limitations upon modem usage. We could control the modem resource, assign an IP address to either the modem or the user and reserve the allocation of the modem for a specific user. SpartaCom’s product also includes reporting, such as amount of time online, byte count of the connection periods and disconnect codes as to why the connection ended.

After we installed the final release of Acotec’s Remote Access Manager 2.1 product, we were treated to a superb product that let us create policies of nearly any type, use, or control over users and ports. We could assign an IP address per user or per port. Aside from policies, we gathered the two RAS servers together and managed them as a whole. This was RAS management at its best. To test the product, we defined a RAS event that said "Notify the system administrator when user ‘Tony’ makes two MPP connects at the same time." This event is important since it means this user now consumes four modems that all are eating up connect time.

NTP’s software was a slim and trim product giving quick and easy administration of RAS users. If you need a fuller and more complete product, SpartaCom did the most thorough job of managing our 68 RAS users, despite the trial version’s 10-user limit. We deleted some users and added others with ease, the kind of administrative capabilities that would help any burdened administrator. The SpartaCom product is geared toward accounting and strict control over RAS users, while NTP’s product is a slick and easy tool meant to enhance daily general management of RAS users. Acotec’s product gave us tremendous power and flexibility in policing the user base and the modems, better than either NTP or SpartaCom.

All three products met their stated objectives, but we felt that SpartaCom and Acotec had the edge for their better granularity of user controls and reporting. In the final analysis, Acotec proved to have the better controls and policy usage by a slim margin over SpartaCom.

AccelePort RAS 8 Modem Board

Digi International Inc.’s new eight-port integrated PCI modem card is a superb new product that includes v.90 support on one full-length card. List priced at $2,495, the product is worth every penny as it eliminates external devices usually needed for modem pools. We plugged eight phone lines into the back of it, and we were off and running.

RAS Manager 4.5
NTP Software
Manchester, N.H.
(800) 226-2755
(603) 641-6937
www.ntpsoftware.com

Pricing:
RAS Manager 4.5, Unlimited Ports - Full Media Kit, $1,175
RAS Manager 4.5, Unlimited Ports - License Only, $1,045
RAS Manager 4.5, eight Ports - Full Media Kit, $690
RAS Manager 4.5, eight Ports - License Only, $620

Acctrol for RAS
SpartaCom Inc.
Duluth, Ga.
(770) 622-2820
www.spartacom.com

Pricing:
A 10-user license is $395; volume licenses available on a per-seat basis.

Remote Access Manager 2.1
Acotec San Francisco
San Francisco, Calif.
(415) 778-0100
www.acotec.com

Pricing:
Acotec RAM/8 (one to eight ports/channels), $395
Acotec RAM/16 (up to 16 ports/channels), $595
Acotec RAM/24 (up to 24 ports/channels), $795
Consult Web site for higher port counts