Microsoft makes siginificant changes to your next web server

I wrote about Internet Information Server (IIS) K2 Alpha earlier this year (see "IIS K2 Alpha," February 1997 or http://www.winntmagcom/issues/ 1997/feb/webdev.html). I thought the product was a remarkable step forward for IIS. I loved the direction Microsoft was taking the product-the company was providing more control to administrators in charge of Web sites and Web servers.

In addition to maintaining the alpha version's control features, Microsoft has added even more features in IIS 4.0 Beta 2. What's most significant about these additions is that the company has changed how the software provides all the previously existing features and the new features. Microsoft has added some of its new applications to the IIS 4.0 package. The most notable additions are the Microsoft Management Console (MMC) and Microsoft Transaction Server (MTS). These two applications give IIS 4.0 a nice boost in control and reliability.

Microsoft Management Console
Microsoft has done away with the Internet Service Manager GUI that was part of the alpha version; IIS 4.0 Beta 2 uses the MMC (for information about MMC, see Keith Pleas and Dean Porter, "Microsoft Management Console," February 1997 or on the Web at http://www.winntmag.com/issues/1997/feb/ managementconsole.html). MMC is a container for systems management applications. It provides a single, dynamic User Interface (UI), as you see in Screen 1, for managing services on the Web server. You can integrate an unlimited number of MMC components (known as snap-ins) into this one interface. Out of the box, IIS's MMC comes with snap-ins for Internet services such as the Web, FTP, Network News Transfer Protocol (NNTP), and Simple Network Management Protocol (SNMP); MTS; and the Microsoft Index Server. And I would hazard a guess that more snap-ins will be coming soon.

As with IIS K2 Alpha, you have an unbelievable amount of control over your directories and files (especially compared to previous versions of IIS The MMC takes some getting used to, but it doesn't take long. This part of IIS 4.0 Beta 2 makes sense and provides you with everything you need in one place.

Microsoft Transaction Server
Whereas MMC lets you manage Web services, MTS lets you run scripts and components within a transaction. Everything inside the transaction must succeed; otherwise, the software doesn't commit any parts of the transaction. As with the banking demo I saw at the Microsoft Reviewers Workshop in New York, you want a customer's credit and debit processes both to complete successfully; otherwise, you want to cancel the transaction. What you don't want is to have one part of a customer's transaction (such as transferring money into a checking account) succeed, while the other part of the transaction (such as deducting the same amount from the customer's savings account) fails. This logic carries over to other Web activities that don't involve money.

Another benefit of MTS is crash protection and recovery. If you want to use ActiveX scripting or Internet Server API (ISAPI) programs, you can enable IIS's process isolation integration of MTS on those applications. This feature isolates programs so that they cannot affect the rest of the Web site, thus providing crash protection for your server. To isolate programs, the process isolation integration runs the application in a memory space separate from the Web and other applications. And to top it off, this feature also includes built-in crash recovery. If the application crashes, IIS will automatically restart it the next time it is requested.

Other Key Features
In addition to MMC and MTS Microsoft has added many new features to the latest version of IIS The usefulness of many of these features will vary from shop to shop; still, knowing that they are available is nice.

New search engine. IIS 4.0 Beta 2 also includes a new search engine-Index Server 2.0. The search engine lets you customize your search pages with Active Server Pages (ASP), ActiveX data objects, and SQL queries to search for information on your Web site. The SQL Server demo was interesting until I received the error, "Microsoft OLE DB Provider for Index Server error 80040el4." If you've worked with ASP before, you are familiar with this type of error. Despite this Aggravation, ASPs are much easier to work with compared to the almost cryptic .idq and .htx files required for Index Server 1.1.

Remote administration. IIS 4.0 Beta 2's remote administration via a Web browser is also a nice feature. It won't let you do everything that the MMC does, but it provides you with quite a bit of functionality when a Web browser is all you have. I had lots of JavaScript errors, which meant some functionality was unavailable, and no browse features were available when I was making directory changes. A lot of what seemed to be options in the software are in fact grayed out displays that let you see only the current settings.

Microsoft explained part of this appearance to me. IIS 4.0 Beta 2 offers different levels of access for remote administration. When I was looking at the grayed out settings, I was seeing the view that someone in charge of a virtual server would see. This view makes sense-you don't want someone in charge of a virtual server to be able to change system settings. Unfortunately, I wasn't able to get the remote administration function to work with either copy of IIS 4.0 I received.

Online documentation. The online documentation for IIS 4.0 Beta 2 is overwhelming in the best sense of the word. IIS 4.0 comes with several additional products you can install with it, and Microsoft includes detailed documentation for all these products. The online documentation comes with a lot of HTML pages that cover the basics, and it includes multimedia videos, tours, and demonstrations of IIS in action, for a different feel.

The documentation is completely searchable once you install IIS. Anytime you install a new component to IIS, the software adds the information for the new component to the online documentation's table of contents and makes the new documentation instantly available. Script debugging; The Microsoft Script Debugger that comes with IIS 4.0 Beta 2 helps you look for errors in your ASP scripts. To use the debugger on your Web server, you must first configure the server for debugging, and you must be at the Web server because debugging works only locally.

Microsoft Site Server Express. IIS 4.0 Beta 2 comes with Microsoft Site Server Express, which offers a limited set of the features in the full version of Site Server (a program for managing Web content, visualizing site layout, and analyzing usage data). Although I don't see these features as a major part of what makes IIS 4.0 such a nice product, two features are especially nice to have. The first, Usage Analyst, lets you use predefined reports to turn your IIS logs into usable trend and usage reports. The second feature, Site Analyst, lets you visualize your site and provides link maintenance capabilities.

News server enabled. During the installation, IIS 4.0 Beta 2 gives you the option of setting up an NNTP server on your Web machine. This feature doesn't support news feeds or replication, but it lets you run a newsgroup on your server, and your users can connect to it with a news reader client I'd like to see Microsoft take this feature a step further and make the NNTP server accessible through ASP.

Redirects. IIS 4.0 Beta 2 lets you redirect requests for files in one directory to a different directory, Web site, a different file, or even to an application. This feature helps ensure users don't get lost when you change your Web site.

Web site operators. IIS 4.0 Beta 2 includes a special group of users who have limited administrative privileges on individual virtual Web sites. This group can administer properties that affect their Web site, but not the properties of other Web sites, IIS, the NT server, or the network.

Oh Yeah, Gotta Have It
I doubt most readers will disagree with my opinion about the latest incarnation of IIS 4.0. I think it will be a "must do" upgrade for people running IIS 3.0, and anyone not using IIS needs to give it serious consideration. The only thing that could change my outlook is if Microsoft drastically changes its pricing on IIS, which is currently free. Keeping it at this price doesn't hurt Microsoft a bit because you need NT 4.0 to run the latest versions. Heck, half of what makes up IIS 4.0 will be in NT 5.0 anyway. By the time you read this, Windows NT Magazine's Web site will probably be running on IIS 4.0.