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A Web server for every site

By Kathy Scott
Network World, 4/7/97

The first step in selecting a Web server package is determing what you need it to do and what type of server will best fit with your existing infrastructure.

When you get right down to it, choosing a Web server software package shouldn't be all that difficult. In fact, all the products in the chart provide similar features with only slight variations, making your job one of sniffing out the package that matches your needs.

So, rather than diving into a technical evaluation, you should look for a Web server that will fit into your existing infrastructure, says Thomas Nolle, president of CIMI Corp., a technology assessment firm in Voorhees, N.J. Resist being drawn in by claims of superior performance or some other nifty feature because you may wind up having to implement new management practices and operating systems support strategies.

Furthermore, figure out the size and scope of your Web site as well as how it will be integrated into your business. ''Choosing the right product will become more complicated if you have a popular Web site that gets hundreds or more hits per hour or your content is mostly dynamic,'' says Eric Rose, senior consultant at Database Technologies, Inc. in Newton, Mass., a Web site data integration and database consultancy.

Rose says there is no simple formula for calculating the type of horsepower you'll need for such sites but thinks you should consider Web servers with throughput enhancing features like Open Market, Inc.'s FastCGI.

Only four of the products in the chart currently support FastCGI, an extension to the Common Gateway Interface for executing programs within a Web server. Its proponents say FastCGI reduces content retrieval time and chews up fewer server resources than basic CGI, which is supported by the vast majority of products.

With FastCGI, Web servers start a process to handle all requests for data from external sources such as a database and keep it running. With basic CGI, a separate process must be started for each data request. Once data is retrieved, that process is shut down.

Rose says basic CGI's constant starting and stopping of processes results in longer data access time and drains the server's computing power. With FastCGI, he says, the server is not burdened with the extra load, and overall performance improves.

Web server APIs such as Netscape Server API and Microsoft's Internet Server API are similar to FastCGI but they are typically tied to a specific programming language and Web server platform. FastCGI, Open Market claims, can work with applications written in different languages and will run on just about any Web server.

The scalability a Web server supports can also be a throughput enhancer. ''Many times, companies make Web server choices without adequately considering the options for making slower servers seem faster,'' says Constantine Spathis, applications development manager at Poppe Tyson Interactive in New York, an interactive marketing communications and technology company.

One way to do that, Spathis says, is to stack up multiple servers and let them share the load. A number of vendors including C2Net Software, Inc., Connect, Inc., Lotus Development Corp., Microsoft and Mustang Software, Inc. indicate their Web servers work in a load sharing environment.

If you'd rather not load share, take a look at any of the 11 products that run in a symmetrical multiprocessing environment. Sometimes, throwing more processing power at software that tends to operate slowly can make it seem to fun faster.

Spathis also advises that you leverage your IT infrastructure. For example, he says, if you have a Windows NT shop, rather than jump ship to Unix-based offerings that may boast better performance, more scalability and tighter security, you might do better to get an NT-based Web server. That way you avoid a learning curve for some functionality you may never need.

Examining the type of content you'll provide will also steer you in one direction or the other. For example, if you will be pulling data from DBMSs, you'll want to look over the type of external database connections Web servers provide.

Only seven of the products listed in the chart do not provide some sort of external database link. The most popular method is to include support for Microsoft's Open Database Connectivity protocol.

O'Reilly has a slightly different approach. It includes Allaire Corp.'s Cold Fusion application development tool with its WebSite Professional 1.1. The tool enables developers to code data access commands into HTML pages. When those pages are requested, the Web server automatically executes those commands, brings back needed data and plops it into the page.

One person hot on Cold Fusion is Kevin Tolly, president of The Tolly Group, a consulting and testing firm in Manasquan, N.J. He says it is easier to use than PERL or Java and more powerful and faster than basic CGI.

Security will also be an issue, especially for encrypting transactions between the browser and server. The Secure Sockets Layer (SSL) seems to be picking up more support in this area than the competing Secure HTTP protocol that offers similar functionality.

Lastly, don't forget to factor the type of hardware you'll use into the equation. ''Any hardware that reduces the fetch time of your Web content usually through caching, huge memory or other specialized hardware will typically improve your response time,'' Tolly says.

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