Avirt Soho -- Yet another proxy server, targeted toward Internet sharing for small LANs
The border between local area networks and the Internet -- that invisible Maginot line straddling the house or office somewhere within the walls -- is swamped with campers laying claim to their plot of the Internet sharing/proxy server/firewall market. Avirt has decided to stake several flags on this territory with a series of solutions ranging from Soho at the low end up to its Gateway Suite on the enterprise level.
Soho is clearly aimed at the small network in a small office or home office environment, hence the name. The product will support a maximum of only five machines, and that explains the product's lower-end pricing of around $60. The aim of Avirt's Soho is to provide Internet sharing and light proxy/firewall capabilities with a bias toward ease-of-setup and use.
The installer begins on this theme, as it offers a tutorial explaining the basics of networking at the first stage. Continuing on, and onto a personal pet peeve, the installer places Soho directly into the C:\Program Files\ path without ever asking the user for an alternate location. Some of us prefer not to install any third-party software in the C: partition, and the behavior of this installer sends a clear message that with Soho, Avirt is aiming for an audience of inexperienced users. Upon installation the user must choose whether Soho will behave as the "server" or "client" on the machine; the server is the machine with Internet access, the client the machines that need to share that access.
With an installed footprint of around 350 KB, Soho is hardly a resource hog. It resides in the taskbar pop-up tray and can be controlled via pop-up menu. Unfortunately some 20% of the menu items are simply access to Avirt, either through its Web site or e-mail contacts.
Soho's best feature is how it handles proxy service. One of the cumbersome aspects of many proxy servers is that client applications must be re-configured to access the proxy server. Avirt works around this problem with some clever behind-the-scenes programming. This programming is so clever that the Soho proxy is "transparent" to client network applications. That's nice. But this is still a limited proxy server in any case. It has no support for gaming protocols, or any low-level capability to control the types of packets passed around.
Similarly, Avirt touts Soho's "firewall" capabilities, but in the fine print it notes that this is an "application-level firewall." Application-level firewalls can be useful, and in some respects have a higher level "understanding" of the type of data that is passing through them. But they are also more vulnerable than network-level firewalls or systems that combine firewalls on the network and application levels. Application-level firewalls are also in some respects highly constraining, as no data can pass from the internal network to the external network unless that data is from a known application. In fairness to Avirt however, this coarse approach may well be the right approach for inexperienced users, and it does help keep the product's cost down.
Soho's very limited feature set though, compared to admittedly more expensive proxy/firewalls, makes it difficult to say whether the product is a good value. With its five- machine limit, we tend to feel that for even a small office, a hardware-based solution may be a more robust solution. For example, the Linksys Etherfast Cable/DSL Router, which can be purchased for a little over $100, offers similar features with much more expandability (up to 253 machines if cascaded hubs are needed) and more independence (shared machines are not dependent on the up-status of the host machine for Internet access).
Pros: Simple installation, 7 Overcomes the hurdle of cumbersome client-side proxy configurations, 7 Suited to the very inexperienced user sharing machine on a LAN
Cons: Lightweight feature set, 7 Limited maximum number of local machines supported, 7 Not terribly price competitive with products that cost a bit more but offer much more, including hardware solutions and even Avirt's own Gateway product
Version Reviewed: 4.2
Reviewed by: Aaron Weiss
Last Updated: 10/5/00
Date of Original Review: 10/5/00