Perform effective log analysis at a reasonable price

Mach5 Software's FastStats 2.69 is a fast and easy-to-use tool for analyzing the contents of Web server logs, and the $99.95 price is reasonable. FastStats addresses the major problem of analyzing log files that can be large and unmanageable and turning the contents into useful information and statistics. Many Web-hosting services frequently use more expensive products, such as WebTrends Log Analyzer, to provide online analysis of your Web site. But if you need to do your own analysis, you might find FastStats more in your price range than full-featured competitive products (e.g., WebTrends Log Analyzer, Microsoft Site Server, MediaHouse Software's Statistics Server). But first, consider the features this product lacks that the full-featured products offer.

I downloaded the demo version of FastStats 2.69 from Mach5's Web site. This free version works for 25 days and has the same capabilities that the licensed version has. If you decide to purchase the product, you can easily add a purchase code to remove the time limit. I used the licensed version for testing.

The installation program is conventional and straightforward. The first FastStats interface you encounter is the Available Reports dialog box, which Screen 1 shows. This dialog box provides a list of reports and operations, such as adding, copying, deleting, editing, and generating, that you can perform on these reports. Because this dialog box doesn't show up on the taskbar, you can easily lose it or forget about it.

To create a new report, you click Add Report and answer the wizard's prompts. You can make the log files accessible from the file system, a Web server, or an FTP server. If the files are on a Web server or FTP server, you can specify a username and password for accessing the files. I tested all three methods and they worked well, even when I logged on to a secure site. When you're using an Apache Web server, you can configure FastStats to look for Apache's multiple-log file format.

The report-editing process is easy to understand. You use the multitabbed Report Editor dialog box, which Screen 1 also shows, to edit the various parameters that you set in the Add Report wizard. After you create an initial report, you can copy and edit the report instead of creating a new report from scratch.

You can configure FastStats to track the frequency with which visitors access files and directories, and you can create filters, such as include and exclude filters, in the reports. Include filters tell FastStats to use certain criteria, such as origination in a particular domain, use of a particular browser, and access at a certain time of day, to track requests. Exclude filters tell FastStats to ignore requests with certain characteristics and uses the same extensive list of options that include filters use.

After editing the report parameters, you must provide FastStats with your domain name and the name of the default document that you're creating because the program will scan your site to create a site map. This map will appear in the report as a graphical tree representation of your site that shows the paths users take through it. You can configure FastStats to read the site from the Web or your hard disk.

After you generate a report, you can view it in the FastStats window, which Screen 2 shows. You launch the FastStats window from an icon on the taskbar. This two-paned window has a series of folders and options in the left pane that you select to display tabular or graphical data in the right pane.

You can configure FastStats to export the report and create an HTML report page, a Microsoft Word document, or a comma-delimited file for importing into a spreadsheet or database program. The HTML report is the most interesting feature, especially when you combine it with FastStats' command-line support. (I had to use the Find function in Help to find the command-line support, which Mach5 barely documented.) You can create a report and set it to automatically export to an HTML file. You can also use third-party scheduling software to run the report periodically to provide nearly real-time statistics that you can view from the Web.

After you create only one report, you can determine when your server is carrying the lightest load and schedule the report to run at that time. Competitive products can run on the server and generate periodic reports in a straightforward manner.

FastStats' reports have five major categories of data. The first category is Visitor Information, which includes browser and OS information and the client's IP address. Referrer Information identifies the pages that users followed to link to your pages, the search engines that referred users to your pages, and the keywords users employed in the search. Access Statistics shows you the pages, images, and other objects on your site that visitors request most; statistics on bandwidth usage; and the most popular days and times that visitors go to your site. In the Tracked Files section, you can specify files and directories for special tracking over time. Finally, in Technical Information, you can see errors that people are receiving on your site, which is a good way to discover dead links to your site from elsewhere.

Mach5 could have extended some features. For example, you can expand the Hyperlink Tree View (which displays the graphical view of your site that shows what path users are taking to your site) to many levels, but the crowded presentation prevents the program from following more than one link at a particular level. This feature could develop into something more readable and useful. Also, FastStats' Most Requested Pages feature sorts and lists pages by the number of hits, but lacks the ability to categorize the users who accessed those pages.

In addition to having features that need to be extended, the product lacks some basic functionality. For example, nothing in the interface responds to a right-click, which seems old-fashioned. The program also lacks clipboard functionality, so if you want FastStats' data in another program, you must export it first. The exported HTML or Microsoft Word reports are far plainer than the interactive report. These reports have all the raw data of the interactive report but in a simple linear dump, which amounted to 140KB for my test site. WebTrends Log Analyzer supports a much larger list of report formats, although WebTrends Log Analyzer's reports don't have much more information in them than FastStats' reports do. FastStats also lacks a reverse DNS lookup feature, which WebTrends offers. This feature is useful when you want to see the domain names instead of the visitors' IP addresses.

FastStats doesn't have printed manuals or printable online documentation. The product documentation is largely in the Help file. The Help file is adequate, and the main page covers broad topics that a manual would. However, you can't print out the Help file in a reasonable manner.

The Mach5 Web site offers a few FAQs that are helpful. The Web site also offers an example log file and two example reports that use the file.

I have some concerns about Mach5 as a company. The only telephone number on the company's Web site is a fax number for orders. Mach5 lists only one email address for support (support@mach5.com), and Mach5 offers no phone support.

If you have a hosted Windows NT Web site, you should find out whether your hosting service provides online site analysis; many providers offer analysis with even their least-expensive hosting plans. But, if you need to analyze your logs, FastStats costs about one-fourth what WebTrends Log Analyzer costs. Given that both products have free limited-function and time-bombed demo versions, check them both out before deciding which to buy.

The FastStats analysis was very fast on my test site, although my site had less than 1MB of log data. If you're looking for a good, inexpensive log analysis tool, try FastStats. The product probably won't blow you away, but you might complete your work with a reasonable investment. However, if you need to do a major live analysis of a Web server and you have an ample budget, evaluate more mature products from established companies.

FastStats 2.69
Contact: Mach5 Software * 941-432-0743 (fax only)
Web: http://www.mach5.com/fast
Price: $99.95
Decision Summary: Pros: Offers flexible report options; is easy to use; performs very fast analysis
Cons: Lacks some useful features of more expensive competitive products; user interface has limitations