By Steven J. Wolf and Jerry E. Wilkinson
Pictures speak louder than words. Want proof? Just look at the World Wide Web.
Unlike the unfriendly UNIX interfaces that were the norm in the old days, the Web's graphical format gives the user intuitive on-screen hyperlinks-words and phrases, images or icons that point to related content. Clicking on these hyperlinks automatically fetches information from a Web server anywhere in the world to your client computer.
In a recent article (Enterprise Windows, April), Karen Kenworthy explained how to connect a LAN to the Internet, and noted that it's just as easy to create your own Web site. Once you have a connection set up and a URL established, just install a Web server program to have a presence on the Internet.Until recently, most Web servers were UNIX-based. This was a relatively expensive proposition in terms of both hardware and software-not to mention the training required to set up and administer UNIX sites. However, the introduction of low-cost Windows NT-based server applications is rapidly changing the face of the Web. These applications allow virtually anyone to set up a Web server for just a few thousand dollars. In this guide to some of the more important features you'll want in a Web server program, we've concentrated on the Windows NT platform, but most of the programs mentioned have versions for other operating systems as well.
In the absence of hard, real-world data to determine the comparative transfer rate of Web servers, we have made no attempt to evaluate their relative speeds. Your hardware, operating system and type of Internet connection all affect speed, as does the type of data you're providing. Even your Web pages' design will affect server performance. If speed is paramount, request performance data from the vendor-but bear in mind that minuscule speed differences matter very little to the average Web site.
Contrary to common misconception, few Web sites need a powerful, expensive computer. Given the lower cost of today's more powerful systems, however, we recommend that those new to the Web start with at least a 90MHz Pentium system with 32MB of RAM and 1 to 2 gigabytes of online storage. A word of warning: Even with the most powerful Web server, you can't transmit files any faster than your Internet connection allows. Keep this in mind when designing your system, and use the fastest connection you can afford.
Although prices for the products discussed here range from free to $995, be sure to note what you're getting for your money. For example, if you already have Windows NT Server, then Microsoft Internet Information Server (IIS) is free. If not, you will have to factor $699 into your cost for NT Server. Seemingly higher-priced products may be cheaper overall if they run on NT Workstation (less expensive at $319) or Windows 95. If they include accessory programs you need, you'll save on the whole package.
Although there are dozens of public-domain Web server utilities, few are as easy to use as those included with a commercial product. For example, EMWAC is free, but you will need to invest more of your time to bring it up to the level of commercial programs. We found it lacking in the areas of security, ease of setup and log reporting.
Before choosing your Web server program, ask yourself what type of data and files you intend to serve. Think about whether you intend to receive information. Sending simple HTML text and image files is an ordinary procedure for any Web server. These are the staple components of most Web pages.
If you plan on connecting a Web server to a database, you can either rely on its own database capabilities, or purchase a third-party program to manage the information exchange between the Web and a database. If you want to use your Web server's built-in database capabilities, first consider your programming abilities. If you don't wish to program the interface yourself, factor the cost of a third-party product into your overall costs.
The common gateway interface (CGI) is a standard for connecting an external application (a database, for example) with Web servers. You can write CGI programs in various programming languages and execute CGI code with a request from an HTML document. The program performs a function, such as a database query, and sends the output back to the client browser in HTML. All Web server programs mentioned here support CGI scripts.
In addition to CGI, both Microsoft IIS and Purveyor WebServer 1.2 support Microsoft's Internet Server application programming interface (ISAPI). Netscape's Commerce Server supports the Netscape Server API (NSAPI). Both proprietary programming interfaces offer better features and performance than CGI-but also require a separate programming language, which is not included.
Spry SafetyWEB allows access to databases via server-side includes. Microsoft IIS includes an ISAPI program called the Internet Database Connector (IDC). This program uses 32-bit open database connectivity (ODBC) to gain access to any ODBC32-compatible database. Although we found the documentation for the IDC a bit sparse, it was quite powerful and simple to use. The procedures for using IDC with Microsoft Access are described at http://www.winmag.com/ew.
Purveyor WebServer 1.2 provides a graphical interface to ODBC and SQL server databases called the Data Wizard, which allows you to simply select a database and click on the fields you want to include in a form. From this form, visitors can query your databases directly. Data Wizard's capabilities and ease of use make a third-party application superfluous.
All these NT Web server products support a user authentication system for controlling access. Most allow filters for individual users, groups, IP addresses and domains, and restrict access to directories or individual files. Access control can be used separately by assigning user names and passwords, or combined with filters.
Microsoft IIS is currently unique in supporting NT Server log-on security. Purveyor 1.2 adds easy-to-use security icons to the file manager for controlling access.
You can transmit passwords in clear text or encrypt them using the secure sockets layer (SSL). If you plan on exchanging sensitive information, such as credit card numbers, opt for an SSL-compatible server program. To use SSL, you will need a certificate of registration. It costs about $300 for the initial registration and about $75 per year thereafter.
The programs all have easy-to-use setup and installation procedures. And, except for Netscape Commerce Server, all have straightforward dialog boxes or graphical interfaces for administration. The Netscape product is the only one that allows you to use any Web browser for configuration and administration.
If your network is large and consists of many different types of computers, or your organization is scattered over several locations, then you should closely examine the remote access capabilities of your Web server program's remote access capabilities. All programs covered here-except for the EMWAC Webserver-support some sort of remote access. However, some restrict the operating systems that may be used for remote access. Microsoft IIS, for example, provides a graphical administration interface, but requires that you run the interface on another Windows NT Server or Workstation connected to the Webserver by remote-access server (RAS). Netscape Commerce Server and Purveyor 1.2, which you can administer via a Web browser from anywhere in the world, lead the way in remote access.
Web server logs are vital for monitoring traffic, performance and security. They help diagnose problems and provide usage statistics.
All the programs covered here except EMWAC Webserver support the common NCSA and CERN log formats. Some also allow you to customize log formats, log to a database and create graphical depictions of usage statistics.
WebSite 1.1 supports a Windows logging format designed for easy import into Microsoft Excel and Access. Purveyor 1.2 easily leads the pack in logging capabilities. It provides a graphical interface for generating customized log reports in chart, HTML and text format, and formats your data for export to spreadsheets. If you expect to run several virtual servers, consider your Web server program's logging capabilities-particularly if you will require individual usage statistics for each.
Virtual servers are multiple Web sites running from the same computer using a single server program. For example, you might want to set up separate addresses for several different organizations, departments or individuals. If you'd like to give your Internet and intranet sites different addresses, then choose carefully-not all the products discussed here support virtual servers.
Everyone works, thinks and organizes information differently. Therefore, no matter how well planned your Web site, it's nearly impossible to configure it so every file is immediately and intuitively available for every user.
Search engines solve this problem by providing keyword Web-site searches. Enter keywords in the form provided, and the search engine returns hyperlinks to all documents containing those keywords. Some search engines search your entire site on the fly, while others search a previously compiled index. The latter type is considerably faster.
Your Web site should include a search engine, whether you use one included with your server program or purchase one separately. WebSite 1.1 has particularly impressive search capabilities. The program combines an indexing program with its search engine. It is very fast, simple to set up, and the browser form gives you a variety of ways to search your site. The Microsoft IIS search engine is much less impressive-it is not indexed and turns sluggish when used with large amounts of data.
Some of the programs we compared support server side includes, a way to dynamically update HTML documents. For example, you can insert a date, time or page counter into the document each time it is requested. Unlike CGI scripts, SSIs are part of the server program itself, and there are no official standards for them. Some programs include support for text-only SSIs, while others also support SSI scripts. Spry SafetyWEB includes SSIs that can insert SQL query results into an HTML document.
Many of the products we looked at come with such utilities as HTML editors, browsers, image map editors and link viewers. Since several browsers are available free, a browser shouldn't influence your purchase. Similarly, there are perhaps 100 different shareware and commercial HTML editors available, so don't be swayed by inclusion of an HTML editor. Microsoft's Internet Assistant add-on for Word 7.0 is one of the best-and it's free.
Image map editors permit you to create clickable "hot spots" on a graphic that link to other files. Several public domain image-mapping programs are available, but the ones included with server packages have more features and better documentation, and they integrate more easily. WebSite 1.1's image map editor is particularly impressive.
As your Web site grows, it becomes increasingly difficult to track all your documents. Since the Web is constantly changing, external links become outdated quickly. For these reasons, a link viewer is an essential part of any Web site. Several of the products discussed provide such programs.
A link viewer gives you a graphical representation (usually in a directory tree format) of your site and all its internal and external links. Some will verify all your links and provide information on the file type and access information for each file over a specified time period. WebSite 1.1's WebView is particularly notable. It provides a very easy-to-use link viewer, and lets you administer your site from one integrated graphical interface.
All the products in this article-again, except for EMWAC Webserver- are easy to set up and administer. Any one of them will serve the average Web site well. The product you choose will depend on your budget, expertise, the operating system you run and the type of files you need to include. Database access, security and search engine capabilities are the most important factors that should affect your decision.
We were most impressed with Microsoft IIS, WebSite 1.1 and Purveyor 1.2. If you are already running Windows NT Server, you'll feel right at home with Microsoft IIS. Website 1.1 has an impressive package of features and utilities, and its setup takes mere minutes. Its recently released companion, WebSite Professional (list price $495), adds even more functionality: support for SSL and S-HTTP security protocols, a server-side Java development kit, and support for ColdFusion, an ODBC/SQL database integration package.
Purveyor 1.2 is a formidable product, although a bit more expensive than most of the others we considered. It provides everything you could want in a Web server program. Its database access capabilities alone make it worth the price.
With the right tools, building a Web picture worth the proverbial thousand words is a simple matter.
Steven J. Wolf is an Assistant Professor of Botany at California State University, Stanislaus. Jerry E. Wilkinson is a Voice Communications Engineer. Both are Webmasters for California State University, Stanislaus.