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-- by Mark Cohen and Tom Henderson
If you're running NT Server 4.0 but haven't tried Microsoft's Internet server products, surf over to the software giant's Web site. That's where we found the latest beta releases of Internet Information Server 4.0 (IIS4) and Proxy Server 2.0, two major software upgrades for building and protecting your Web site.
IIS4, which should be shipping by the time you read this, boasts several major improvements, including debugging tools for Active Server Pages (ASPs) and extensive wizards that ease Web server deployment.
We installed IIS 4.0 Beta 2 on a 200MHz Intel Pentium Pro server with 64MB of RAM running Windows NT Server 4.0. We configured IIS4 from Internet Service Manager, now a "snap-in" for Microsoft Management Console (MMC), a new management interface that will take center stage in next year's NT 5.0 release. Dozens of hardware and software vendors are expected to write MMC snap-ins. Naturally, Microsoft is leading the way: This beta includes snap-ins for IIS4 itself, Microsoft Index Server 2.0 and Microsoft Transaction Server 2.0.
The Internet Service Manager snap-in offers impressive administration features for your Web sites. That's right, Web sites. IIS4 lets you run multiple Web sites on your NT box using only one IP address. We quickly and easily created a new site in Internet Service Manager, assigned the site a host header name, and added the new DNS entry to our DNS server. The only drawback is that your client must support HTTP 1.1 to find the correct site; otherwise, the browser loads the default site.
For programmers, IIS4 includes Microsoft Script Debugger. The beta version supports any ASP, most scripting languages and some Java capabilities. You can also debug client- and server-side apps.
Index Server 2.0, which comes with IIS4, includes several feature enhancements. You can query a SQL database or substitute your IDQ and HTX files for ASP scripting. Or create search forms using ASP, IDQ or HTX files. An MMC snap-in for Index Server 2.0 replaces and improves on older browser-based administration tools.
Other goodies include a scaled-down version of Site Server and associated tools such as Usage Analyst (for log file analysis), Site Analyst (for checking links) and various wizards for publishing your server remotely.
IIS4 is certainly impressive, but NT's scalability remains an issue. Visit Microsoft's Web site, which often slows to a crawl, and you'll know what we mean. We're also concerned about IIS4's price. Previous IIS releases were free for NT Server 4.0 shops. But when we went to press, Microsoft was still evaluating whether to charge for IIS4.
Assuming IIS remains free-or at least aggressively priced-version 4.0's vastly improved administrative features make this upgrade worth checking out for your own Web server.
Proxy Server 2.0
If you're linking to the Internet and need proxy services, take a look at Microsoft Proxy Server 2.0, which is slated for release within weeks.
Proxy Server 2.0 represents Microsoft's first crack at the firewall market. It includes packet-filtering capabilities (inbound and outbound IP blocking) as well as monitoring via Simple Network Management Protocol (SNMP)
We tested a Proxy Server 2.0 beta release on two servers-a 200MHz Intel Pentium Pro system with 128MB of RAM, and a 150MHz Pentium with 64MB of RAM. Proxy Server 2.0 was easily installed on our servers, which were linked to the Internet as well as an internal network containing several NT Workstation 4.0 and Windows 95 systems.
We updated our PC browsers to reflect the proxy servers' IP addresses. Next, we set out to surf the Web and visited several home pages that have notoriously slow load times. Once Proxy Server 2.0 cached the pages, load times were incredibly fast. Still, caching isn't a good idea for frequently updated sites (such as a Web page containing a stock ticker) because cached information is typically updated every few hours or days, rather than every few minutes.
Unlike other proxy software, Proxy Server 2.0 uses Cached Array Routing Protocol (CARP), a Microsoft-proposed (and not yet standardized) protocol. It caches multiple-user Web requests across multiple proxy servers (known as a proxy array). Proxy servers have become easy places to put commonly requested items, in a pool called "cache." CARP has a hashing algorithm that's different from Internet Cache Protocol (ICP), an alternative offering supported by rival proxy server vendors. It's too early to say whether CARP will catch on as a true alternative to ICP.
Overall, our experience with the Proxy Server 2.0 beta was quite positive. It hastened Web access and shielded our test PCs from Internet eavesdroppers. However, mixed messages from Microsoft about Proxy Server 2.0's security capabilities are cause for concern. Microsoft describes Proxy Server 2.0 and NT 4.0's Remote Access and Router Service as suitable firewalls, yet the company also promotes Proxy Server 2.0 as a complementary solution for third-party firewalls.
The Bottom Line
If you're seeking proxy capabilities and a vastly improved Web server, Microsoft's solutions are more than worth a try. But for robust security, it might be best to look elsewhere.