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Programming without programs

Network World, 4/7/97

Joel Snyder

Web servers can do a lot to maximize power with minimum programming effort.

An excellent example is server-interpreted HTML, often called server-parsed HTML or server-side includes. With server-interpreted HTML, the Web server reads the HTML pages as it streams them to the client and may change the HTML on -the -fly.

For example, some footer text may be combined with each page. Because the footer is pulled from another file, changing it means having to change only a single file, as opposed to changing every page.

The best implementation of server-interpreted HTML is in StarNine Technologies, Inc.'s WebSTAR server. WebSTAR includes the normal syntax (based on the National Center for Supercomputing Applications server) along with elegant and powerful StarNine extensions.

For example, using WebSTAR's extensive vocabulary, Webmasters can conditionally display HTML. We put together a sample page which displays either ''this page optimized for Microsoft Internet Explorer'' or ''this page optimized for Netscape Navigator,'' depending on which browser the client is running.

Page counters are another often-desired Web feature. Both WebSTAR and O'Reilly and Associates, Inc.'s WebSite Professional include them in their server-interpreted HTML.

Microsoft Corp.'s Internet Information Server (IIS) has server-interpreted HTML using the same syntax as other Web servers, but it's a particularly poor implementation. To remedy this, Microsoft came up with Active Server Pages, which provide additional features such as conditional execution, call outs to server-resident applications and a simple programming language embedded in HTML.

Database access is another area where Webmasters want to avoid programming if possible. IIS and WebSite Professional do an excellent job of combining HTML and database services with little effort on the part of the developer.

In IIS - a key component of Microsoft's BackOffice strategy - links to databases via Open Database Connectivity (ODBC) are sweet and easy. Webmasters have the flexibility to do reasonably complicated database queries, format pages and return information via HTML, all without stepping into Common Gateway Interface or API programming.

WebSite Professional's power in the database arena is similar. O'Reilly includes Cold Fusion 1.5 from Allaire Corp. WebSite Professional users have the opportunity to upgrade to Cold Fusion Professional for even more database power.

Netscape Communications Corp. doesn't have the same database simplicity that Microsoft or O'Reilly offers, but it does have an ODBC connection tool in its LiveWire development environment. LiveWire lets developers build object-oriented applications in Java that execute on the Netscape server. Along with this capability comes access to databases through ODBC.

We found LiveWire considerably more complex to work with than the IIS or /O'Reilly/WebSite Professional? simple database connectors. Of course, LiveWire gives the Webmaster more than databases; it includes a complete development methodology for sites that have a lot of code executing on the Web server.

Neither Netscape nor Microsoft seems to be willing to leave programmers well enough alone. Netscape is trumpeting an ill-defined ''network-centric application development environment,'' Netscape ONE, which looks more like a product of marketing than engineering.

Meanwhile, Microsoft is propagating sub-APIs and API extensions for its own server. Most Webmasters would be best served by ignoring the hype and simply writing the code they need with the tools they have available today.

Most Webmasters would be happy with any of these servers - all punch out HTML pages over TCP/IP with little muss or fuss, and all turned in solid and reliable performances in our testing. For the developer who wants to go beyond simple HTML, each has something to recommend it.

Apache Group's product offers an unprecedented look at the guts of the server, allowing developers willing to decode the source by themselves maximum opportunity to customize for maximum speed and features. StarNine's WebSTAR brings the power and security of the Macintosh environment to the Web. Most developers will never have to touch anything as pedestrian as Perl or C to build powerful Web sites.

Microsoft's IIS, when combined with other free Microsoft products, certainly is worth more than it costs. However, the fragmented Microsoft documentation and strategy will frustrate developers.

From a developer's perspective, our favorites are O'Reilly's WebSite Professional (for small to midsize servers) and Netscape's Enterprise Server (for large sites).

WebSite Professional boasts the best documentation of any of the Web servers and is a developer's dream. With lots of small add-ons such as extreme control over logging and built-in integrated tools, it is exceptionally easy to develop for.

Meanwhile, Netscape's Enterprise Server lives up to its name with a host of features, such as version control of Web pages, which give the developer the power to build powerful corporate Web sites.

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