IISA will tell you

You're probably accustomed to seeing the byline of my boss, Tim Daniels, on WebDev. Well, Tim has turned the reins over to me, T.J. Harty, Windows NT Magazine's Web Master. Each month I'll share my experiences in Web development and management. So, please, let me know what you think.

Have you ever wondered how many users access your Web server at any particular moment? I have. In July, we ran a treasure hunt on our site. Participants surfed the Web to find treasure chests on several different Web sites. Each treasure chest gave participants a magic word--a directory name. After they found all twelve directory names, participants had the universal resource locator (URL) that took them to the final entry form.

Within days after we started the treasure hunt, the Web server log file was growing at an enormous rate. Now log-analyzing packages will tell you what was happening earlier on your server, but they can't tell you what you really need to know--what's happening now. So when MediaHouse sent me IIS Assistant (IISA), I thought it was worth trying.

Among other pieces of information, IISA can tell who's on your server and what they're doing. The funny thing is, I find this capability both good and bad: The good part is you get to know how many users are on your machine before you reboot; the bad part is you get to know how many users are on your machine when you have to reboot.

Fast and Flexible
IISA is a statistical package designed specifically for Microsoft's Internet Information Server (IIS). IISA provides a wealth of information about your users and your server. And whereas my dual Pentium 100 machine takes four to six hours to process my weekly Web server logs, IISA gives me up-to-the-minute information.

IISA uses an Internet Server API (ISAPI) DLL to collect statistics live. The client and server communicate through an extended Hypertext Transfer Protocol (HTTP), so you can use IISA from the server, from your workstation on the network, from home via Remote Access Service (RAS), or even from your hotel room.

IISA's user-related monitoring features let you see the current number of users on your Web server, what a particular user is doing while on your site, which browsers your users are using, what sites they are coming from, and which URLs they access the most.

New in version 2.0 is the ability to monitor each of these features on virtual servers. IISA's server-related monitoring features let you monitor the status of the services running on your Web server and set up monitors to watch over the status of other crucial machines.

Installation of IISA server and client applications is a breeze. After you extract the files and start setup.exe, the most difficult part is making sure you type the correct security key for both. (I highly recommend cut and paste.)

During setup, IISA asks for two passwords. One lets the IISA client access the IISA server for the statistics, and the other lets the IISA client perform server administration. As advertised, setting up the server and having my IISA client view live statistics took only 10 minutes.

Web Master Becomes Spymaster
Let's look at the types of statistics you can view and collect with IISA. The Who's On tab shows you the number of people actively accessing your server. If you expand that option, you can see user IP addresses. Then, if you expand an individual IP address, you can see how long the user has been on line, how many requests the user has made, and what the user's last request was, as shown in Screen 1.

This feature came in handy when Windows NT Magazine ran the treasure hunt contest. By sheer luck, out of 200 people on line, I selected the IP of someone who was asking for directories that weren't on my Web server. This person was trying to cheat by guessing instead of playing, so I set up IISA to watch for this person.

The Watches tab lets you monitor certain URLs or IP addresses. The IP watch keeps tabs on what a given IP address does on your site. For example, I set up a watch to alert me if the treasure hunt cheater returned. The next day, my machine started beeping. After I figured out what the beeping was for, I maximized IISA and went to the Watches area. The cheater had returned. So I double-clicked this person's IP address to see more detail. The person was looking again for directories that I didn't have on my server. I could have just locked out the cheater's IP with the Web server. What? And miss all this? No way. This was fun! Besides, the person wasn't even close to guessing the correct directories.

The Usage tab you see in Screen 2 shows the statistics that most people view in their daily, weekly, or monthly Web server logs. But with IISA, you don't have to wait for this information. The stats are there now. You can select a day, month, or year and get the number of users, hits, KB transferred, hits per user, and KB per user.

The Browsers tab shows the browsers and OS people use to view your site. This information helps you determine the types of Hypertext Markup Language (HTML) pages and features (such as Java, JavaScript, or ActiveX) your users can support. These statistics helped verify what I already expected of our audience: 97% run either Netscape 2.0 or above or Internet Explorer 3.0, and the same percentage runs Windows NT or 95.

The Referrers tab lists the sites where most users come from (referring sites). If a site appears on this list, you can assume that site has a link to yours. This list can be informative. For example, one morning on my site, IISA showed the CNN URL as the number one referring site. I never expected to see CNN as the number one spot, because I'd never seen it in my statistics before. Well, a right-click of the mouse and an Open Web Site later, and everything made sense. The CNN site had a story about Microsoft and NT 4.0, and the story referred to Windows NT Magazine and our Web site.

I got another surprise from the Referrers tab during our treasure hunt. Do you know how many Web sites exist only to point people to online contests or giveaways? Let's just say a lot. One week, five of our site's top 25 referring sites were these pointer sites.

The Server Police
Screen 3 shows the Monitor tab, which gets you into the server management portion of IISA. You can set up IISA to monitor just about any machine, such as your Web server, mail server, Domain Name System (DNS), and even an Open Database Connectivity (ODBC) database server (e.g., SQL Server).

To set up a monitor on your Web server, right-click your mouse and select Add Monitor and then HTTP. Name the monitor, enter the IP address or domain name you want to monitor, tell IISA how often to check (10 minutes is the default), and select how you want IISA to notify you: with an audible alarm, a message on an alpha-numeric pager, or--new in 2.0--an email message.

From the Monitor tab, choose Server Management to control the Web server. After you enter your password, IISA brings up the display you see in Screen 4 and shows the services running on the Web server. From here, you can start and stop any services.

You can also reboot the system from this window. This option is great when your server needs a kick in the pants and you're not at the office.

Plugging the Holes
Considering how little information you get from IIS's standard log, IISA fills large gaps. Add to this benefit IISA's system- monitoring abilities and its ability to bring the statistics to you live, and you have one great tool in your hands.

Much of the information that IISA can provide is time sensitive: Finding the treasure hunt cheater was pure luck, but discovering the referring sites information wasn't. If I'd waited until the end of the week to run the logs, CNN might not have stood out so well. But because I could watch activity in real time, I got a better feel for what was happening on my system. Besides, playing Big Brother under the guise of system monitoring is fun.

IIS Assistant (IISA) Release 2 (beta)
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