BrowseGate -- Internet-sharing proxy server for enterprises on a budget

BrowseGate -- Internet-sharing proxy server for enterprises on a budget

June 25, 2002

If I were to sit down to write a network application today, it probably would not be a proxy server: The market is filled with proxy servers. At their core, proxy servers allow multiple machines on an internal network to share a single Internet connection. Proxy servers are typically configurable so that the manager has a certain degree of control over what types of Internet access local machines are allowed; some proxies also offer caches to store frequently requested Web pages for faster delivery to machines within the intranet.

BrowseGate, a budget-priced proxy server from NetcPlus, does all of these things. Without much fuss or fanfare, BrowseGate is a no-nonsense proxy server that is relatively easy to install, configure, and start using within a matter of minutes. Its trim 4.5 MB installed footprint poses no storage burden, and the installation routine is standard Windows fare without any moments of confusion.

The BrowseGate proxy server can be installed on any machine that has Internet access, regardless of whether that access is permanent (e.g., xDSL, cable modem, or T1) or temporary, such as a dial-up connection. BrowseGate is well-tuned for the dial-up user, with detailed configurations controlling how and when the proxy will dial up the Internet, allowing the owner control in managing potential telephone or access charges. Like any proxy server, BrowseGate requires the user's local machines already be networked together as an intranet, so that each can "see" the proxy server running on the host's machine. Any time a network application on the intranet makes an Internet request, the request is routed to the proxy server, which allows or disallows the request and takes the relevant action from there. Facilities for configuring what types of requests are allowed for each internal machine are powerful but intuitive with BrowseGate. This enables users to limit a machine's access by either protocol or specific Internet destinations, or even by URL keywords.

BrowseGate's status window shows a real-time view of connections passing through the proxy, and a log file of statistics is saved for later analysis. In short, it's easy to see which local machine is doing what on the shared Internet connection. While many configuration options are packed into BrowseGate, its documentation is refreshingly complete and even includes an optional Word format. Relative to the world of proxy servers, BrowseGate is not overly ambitious -- no virtual private networks, or sophisticated inbound firewalling -- but it succeeds at its aspiration: managed Internet connection sharing.

Opening a critical eye, one can certainly pick on BrowseGate's visuals. The graphic icons, from its logo in the system tray, to real-time status, are uniformly ugly and amateurish in appearance, not unlike NetcPlus's Web site itself. Are aesthetics the most important quality in the world? Obviously not, and BrowseGate is a budget-priced product in comparison to many proxy servers with similar features. NetcPlus clearly focused correctly on the core functionality more than on window dressing.

The strongest Achilles heel against BrowseGate is the proxy server principle itself. Proxy servers may have a limited place, but for sheer Internet connection sharing, alternate solutions are rapidly gaining viability. Hardware-based solutions, such as recent products by Linksys and Netgear allow for similar connection management and sharing on an Intranet, with the added benefits of truly independent access for each local machine (without needing to rely on server software running on the host). Hardware solutions are also more economically scaleable. Whereas the cost of BrowseGate nearly doubles in moving from a 3- to 4-user license, hardware sharing devices can often support up to 255 local machines on cascading hubs for only the $150-$200 price of the hardware unit (true, hubs cost money, too, but they are necessary anyway to support the intranet itself).

Pros: Solid feature set • budget price • works as advertised with minimal fuss for sharing and managing an Internet connection among several machines

Cons: Lacks more sophisticated facilities such as VPN and inbound firewalling • less economically scalable to large numbers of shared users compared to hardware sharing solutions

New in v2.80.23: Provides a fix for a reported anomaly that could cause the application to hang in some given circumstances, requiring it to be restarted; Release Notes
Upgrade Meter: 1

New in v2.80.24: Fixed a reported anomaly that caused the server to hang in some given circumstances, requiring it to be restarted; blacklist system no longer contains a bug that made blacklisted site entries act as though the "strict" option was on all the time; Release Notes
Upgrade Meter: 1

New in v2.80.25: Fixed a bug in the blacklist system that made blacklisted site entries act as though the "Strict" option was on all the time; Release Notes
Upgrade Meter: 1

New in v3: Full NAT server functionality; stealth firewall with total administrator configurability; DHCP server; caching DNS Server with total administrator control; support for dial-up and permanent connections; HTTP/HTTPS proxy with built-in web page caching; SOCKS 5 proxy; Web site blacklisting; Internet access rules; Web site limiting; full logging capabilities all Web sites accessed via the Web proxy; Release Notes
Upgrade Meter: 5

Version Reviewed: 2.8
Reviewed by: Aaron Weiss
Last Updated: 8/16/01
Date of Original Review: 9/7/00