Windows NT is fast becoming the platform of choice for Web sites on the Internet. Superb connectivity, formidable security, and true multiplatform compatibility make it a favorite of Web professionals. To join the mad dash to the Internet and start your own World Wide Web site, the easiest and most feature-rich way is to purchase one of the growing number of commercial Web servers. Be aware that they are not all the same.
Different Web servers have different strengths and weaknesses. Most provide the basics: They speak Hypertext Transfer Protocol (HTTP) and Hypertext Markup Language (HTML); and they support the Common Gateway Interface (CGI) and some sort of user authentication. (To expand your Web capabilities and connect custom applications, CGI lets you execute programs external to the Web server and return the data to your browser.) Otherwise, Web servers are as varied as the Internet itself.
Remote administration is important if you plan to update information remotely. If you plan to charge a fee for using your Web site, you'll need a mechanism to differentiate between paying and non-paying customers. And so on.
To help you choose among the options available, the Windows NT Magazine Lab reviewed available commercial Web server packages for Windows NT. All offered excellent performance and reliability. We look forward to future versions of each. Our recommendations, however, are based on our own experiences of the needs of a typical Web site. If you have more specific needs, your choice may differ from ours.
Infobase Web Server
If you use Folio Views, the Infobase Web Server will be irresistible. Folio Views lets you collect, index, and store data in files called infobases. You can retrieve, annotate, and customize that data with various clients. Many commercial CD-ROM reference libraries use this engine.
The Infobase Web Server from Folio Corp. is an extension to its flagship product. Based on the European Microsoft Windows NT Academic Center (EMWAC) server, the Infobase Web Server has many Folio enhancements. It is a full-featured Web server that lets you serve infobases over the Internet.
We tested a beta version of this product, and installation was routine. You run NTSETUP.EXE to copy several files to the hard disk. It installs three system files into the SYSTEM32 directory; other files go into the data directory you specify, default files in C:\win32app\webserve\. A program group is created and several icons installed.
Since the Infobase Web Server primarily supports Folio infobases, you use the Data Source Manager to add any infobases to be available on the Internet. You will want a home page as well. The Web server creates a default home page, but it's just to test your infobases.
Once you add the infobases and create your home page, you can change default options. The Control Panel contains the Professional Web Server. It is used to set access control, virtual paths, proxy-server information, etc.
You can access the Infobase Web Server with any Web browser on any platform. It converts discrete portions of infobases to HTML in real-time, then passes the translated information to the Web browser. Real-time conversions of the infobase reduce your bandwidth requirements. Instead of an entire infobase, you only receive portions of it in HTML pages. Since it remains in native format, it retains the dynamic capabilities of Folio Views. Local users update the infobases in real-time, and the new information is available immediately to anyone, local or on the Web. If you use Folio Views to publish information, the Infobase Web Server is an inexpensive way to connect your remote locations.
What you see on your Web browser is familiar to Folio Views veterans and simple enough for the uninitiated user. An expandable and collapsible Table of Contents, hypertext links, and a querying facility allow you to find information quickly and accurately.
The Infobase Web Server supports HTTP 1.0, CGI 1.1, and HTML 2.0 protocols. It can act as a proxy server for HTTP, Gopher, and FTP requests-a nice bonus for the security-conscious. Support for virtual paths and directory browsing make it a full-featured server. Its drawbacks? It lacks both remote-administration capabilities and any extended statistical information. However, if you publish information with Folio Views and want to make it available on the Internet, the Infobase Web Server is really the only package to consider.
If you want to publish information on the Web but you don't have HTML expertise-or the inclination to learn-relax. NetPublisher from Ameritech Library Service enables you to publish WordPerfect, ASCII text, or HTML documents on the Web using drag and drop.
The setup program asks for the standard items, such as IP addresses, domain names, target directories. You also need to know how many Z39.50 (a client/server search/retrieval protocol) connections you want and what port numbers you want to assign to the Web, Gopher, and Z39.50 .
Flat Learning Curve
NetPublisher includes toolbar buttons, graphical menus, drag-and-drop assembly, and a template wizard in its bag of tricks. These tools virtually eliminate the need to know HTML. To publish a WordPerfect document, you drag it from File Manager into the Publication window, and voilà, you're on-line.
NetPublisher supports both HTTP and Gopher so you can provide information to both simultaneously. You need not maintain two sets of data; NetPublisher uses the same data for both.
This Web server is best suited to displaying large amounts of indexed information. It lets you catalog items in your publication so you can search through them with your own forms or with standard Internet search engines, such as Jughead. Catalogued items appear as abstract information and are displayed differently depending on the type of client requesting the information. This makes NetPublisher a natural choice for publishing course catalogs, speeches, books, or magazine collections.
NetPublisher organizes information into Publications (i.e., files containing all the information to be published on the Internet). Publications also store catalog information and content type. The editor creates and manages them and displays Publication information in a window in either item view or tree view. Item view displays each Publication item; tree view shows its actual structure or flow. NetPublisher doesn't create content; it organizes it into items: files, image maps, menus, directories, foreign links, and form items.
NetPublisher works particularly well with forms and searches. Ordinarily, you need an external program to index and search your Web site. NetPublisher provides a Dynamic Link Library (DLL) that lets you search the indexes stored with each item. You can associate forms with DLLs that Ameritech provides to search the entire Publication or log form data to a file. Quick, easy, and no CGI!
An excellent image map editor complements NetPublisher's toolset. With it you can easily create the point-and-click images you see on the Internet. Select your .GIF file, drag the mouse to create a hot spot, associate an item with that hot spot, and you're done.
NetPublisher administration is performed with Monitor; its tools start and stop the server, view log files, and set security for user access. Monitor lets you do reverse DNS lookup on each individual transaction. While it may save some processor time, I found it cumbersome.
The lack of remote administration bothers me on this product. But to get up on the Web fast without learning CGI or HTML, NetPublisher fills the bill.
Netscape Commerce Server Netscape Communications Server
If you're on the Internet, you've heard of Netscape. These Web wunderkind made the Netscape Web browser, arguably the most used program on the Internet. Netscape has offered servers for other operating systems for some time. The NT servers are basically the same as the UNIX server. Designed to handle heavy loads, Netscape Communications/Commerce Servers perform well even at busy sites. The difference? The Commerce Server offers enhanced security.
Netscape has made a name for itself by pushing the envelope of conventional Web standards. The installation program is no exception. To install either server, run the setup program to initiate the browser which then loads a set of forms. All setup and configuration is handled via HTML forms. Installation is straightforward and routine; help is offered at every step of the way.
You need to know a few things before installing the server: Are you running DNS? Where is your home page located? What user account do you want the service to run under? What TCP/IP ports do you want to assign to it and to the Administration Server? By using forms to manage Netscape's installation and configuration, View Source lets you see how true HTML magicians construct their forms. They do things in the install program that I never knew were possible with HTML.
Netscape provides the best server administration of any NT Web server available. The approach to server administration is unique: It's done on an Administration Server, a separate HTTP server that runs as a service and must be started before configuration. You can access the Administration Server in various ways: You can allow access to only certain users and assign them passwords; you can also deny access based on IP address or host name (see "Is the Internet a Safe Place to Live?" on page 29). You can use wildcard patterns to specify who can access the Administration Server (e.g., *.winntmag.com allows access only to those machines in the winntmag.com domain). With HTML forms, you can administer the system remotely exactly as you do locally. Any machine with an HTML browser can be used for system administration.
Netscape offers a rich set of commands to help you manage your Web site. You can control user access, change the location of your HTML documents, modify the number of threads available for the server process, rotate the log files, index directories, and more.
Managing a large Web site is not a task for one person. Many companies make each department responsible for its own little piece. However, it's not realistic to allow every departmental Web master to access all administrative functions; so, Netscape uses dynamic configuration. You can control home-page access and customize error messages without CGI or parsed HTML if you use individual configuration files.
Many of a Web master's tasks involve adding new pages to the Web site and applying a standard set of options, such as access control or file logging. Netscape lets you configure templates with access restrictions and access logging once and then apply them to as many pages or directories as needed. HTML forms are used so you can perform these tasks locally or remotely.
Netscape seems to have applied the knowledge gained from managing one of the Internet's largest and busiest Web sites to its servers. Here are a few of my favorite administration features:
- Logs access: It logs IP addresses and performs reverse DNS lookup to turn those IP addresses into host names.
- Records usage: It records the browser and version that a Web client is using.
- Creates trailers: It creates trailers for HTML documents. (Think of a trailer as you would a footer in word processing; typically, it would be used for copyright and author information.)
A Web server isn't complete without CGI. The Netscape servers support CGI 1.1, but the Netscape API (NSAPI) lets you integrate programs at the server level. The Netscape servers come with a programmer's reference. You can write and integrate custom applications to extend the functionality of your server without CGI's risks and limitations.
The Commerce Server also offers secure transactions, something no other server currently has. SSL transmits private data across the public Internet to and from SSL-enabled browsers. This server comes with a list of certificate authorities for the digital signatures necessary to implement SSL.
If you are planning a commercial venture on the Internet or plan to have a large Web site, then Netscape is for you. Its superior administration capabilities coupled with the powerful server engine make a potent combination. If rock-solid stability and cutting-edge performance from the state of the art company in Web development appeal to you, these servers are a "must see."
The first commercial Web server available for NT, Purveyor from Process Software, is based on the EMWAC freeware. Purveyor adds many features that are conspicuously absent from the EMWAC server but maintains compatibility with it, ensuring an easy migration path.
Installing Purveyor was simpler than any of the other installations. It comes on one floppy disk. Run the setup program, enter some company information and product serial numbers, and you're halfway there. Enter Purveyor's directory, click on Continue, and you're done.
To configure various server options, run the Purveyor applet on the target machine's Control Panel. To access server-control features, configure the user database. Be aware that installation modifies File Manager. It adds server-administration features to the screen.
Purveyor runs as an NT service. It supports CGI 1.1 and HTML 2.0. It also acts as a proxy server for HTTP, Gopher, and FTP. If you plan to set up a firewall (see the sidebar "Up Against the Wall" on page 31), this capability is important. Purveyor filters all incoming and outgoing traffic, so you can control which users get in and where they can go. No more bandwidth-hogging trips to the Louvre or network-clogging Sports Illustrated Swimsuit Issue downloads!
Configuring Purveyor as a proxy server is easy. Click on the enable proxy server button on the Control Panel applet and add the client information. Purveyor's proxy server is very complete. You have many options that you can configure, such as caching and security for inbound or outbound client requests.
When you define your Web site's root directory, all the other files must exist in that directory. Users can't usually stray outside this directory structure. Occasionally, you may want to provide access to external information. Purveyor provides virtual paths to real directory paths. For example, if a virtual path of marketingstuff were mapped to g:\marketinginfo, you could access the file, g:\marketinginfo\pricing.htm, by using http://www.servername.com/marketingstuff/pricing.htm.
Purveyor supports basic authentication data (username/password) as well as access control by username, group membership, and IP address filtering. You can set these options from the File Manager. Just highlight the directory or file you want to set security on and click on the corresponding toolbar icon.
Because Purveyor is based on the EMWAC server, you can migrate most of your CGI scripts to Purveyor with little modification. This feature is nice if you want to establish a Web presence.
Process Software has a variety of customer-support options. It has a Web site and phone support and for a fee you can get support 24 hours a day, 7 days a week. The company also offers engineering and consulting services ranging from minor assistance to full-blown Web site design and implementation.
Purveyor is a good choice for existing EMWAC Web sites looking to upgrade. I like the easy migration from EMWAC, the built-in proxy servers, and the commitment to customer support. However, I would like to see remote administration and more statistics.
Among the Web server packages available for NT systems, WebSite has the most fanfare. It takes an approach different from the others: It integrates all the tools you need to create, maintain, and serve data on the Internet. You still need your own graphics editor and HTML editor, but WebSite provides the rest of the tools you are likely to need.
The install program asks for the standard directory type information, but it also asks you for your fully qualified domain name (e.g., www.winntmag.com) and the email address for your Web master (e.g., email@example.com). And you need the server root path (the directory of your home page). That's all there is to it! You're ready to run WebSite! Total installation time: 5 minutes.
WebSite is a true 32-bit application that runs either as a service or as an application. The server is adequate for small, medium, and large Web sites, and complies with HTML and CGI standards.
What sets WebSite apart from most other server packages is WebView, which provides a hierarchical tree view of the documents, scripts, and links that make up your Web site. WebView also allows you to create user groups, apply security, validate HTML documents, check and fix internal and external links, index all the text on your server, view logging and activity statistics, create image maps, and preview your handiwork. WebView really flattens the learning curve for those inexperienced in the ways of the Web.
On the Web, it seems that the importance of the information you need is inversely proportioned to the number of menus you must traverse to get to it. WebSite provides two programs for full-text search and retrieval. We were amazed at how well it works. Our test Web site (90 HTML documents) was indexed in about 3 minutes. Using the tutorial, we created an HTML form to search our index and retrieve any document on our server. Total time to complete: 10 minutes!
WebSite supports three modes of CGI: Windows CGI allows you to run Windows programs written in Visual Basic, Visual C++, or other Windows programming environments; Standard CGI provides support for the standard UNIX scripting languages such as PERL and the Korn shell-handy if you are moving from a UNIX server to WebSite; DOS CGI supports your legacy applications. WEBFIND.EXE, a DOS CGI program, comes with WebSite. If there's an application you want to run, chances are WebSite can accommodate you.
WebSite is not just a server application; it is also a suite of utilities blended into one killer application. If you need to get on the Internet now, WebSite is for you. Its full-featured management tools and extensive CGI support ensure you the ability to easily and effectively provide and manage data on the Web.