Best Bets for Web Server Software

The Web server software industry is in the midst of a full-fledged battle for government business. Administrators tasked with putting up departmental Web servers will find dozens of packages, each with different strengths and weaknesses. For most purposes, choosing a Web server should be based on ease of installation, administration and security features as well as performance.

Once predominantly Unix-based, Web servers have traditionally required detailed knowledge of complex commands. Making a simple configuration change required editing files with a Unix editor and, usually, a reboot of the entire system. In less than two years, that has changed drastically.

All the major server players now offer versions for Windows NT. With these packages come server management utilities and programs that enable administrators to control access to their Web servers and conduct secure transactions over the Internet.

Installing these packages was remarkably simple compared with the installation process of their Unix predecessors. None of the packages took more than 15 minutes to install from start to finish, with most installing in less than 10 minutes.

All the Web servers that we reviewed offer support for secure communications and transactions over the Internet via Secure Sockets Layer (SSL), Secure Hypertext Transfer Protocol (S-HTTP) or both. Each also offers support for the Common Gateway Interface (CGI), an interface for running external programs, or ``gateways," under a Web server.

To test these packages, we simulated traffic of five, 25 and 40 hits per second to see how the software would respond. We also evaluated ease of use, ease of administration, features and technical support.

In the end, Netscape Communications Corp.'s FastTrack Server 2.0 emerged as the best overall value at a state and local government contract price of $236-a controversial choice because Microsoft Corp.'s Internet Information Server 2.0 is free. IIS received lower scores primarily because Microsoft provides no free support other than its Web site. At $195 per trouble incident, buyers will quickly rack up in technical support charges what they saved in the initial cost of the software. Additionally, Netscape's package scored higher than Microsoft's package in features, administration and documentation.

But these aren't the only two options for Windows NT users. We also looked at O'Reilly&Associates Inc.'s WebSite Professional for Windows NT and 95, which we found to have a very good feature set and excellent technical support. In fact, WebSite Professional, which sells for $264, came in second place in our comparison, after FastTrack. IIS 2.0 came in third place.

Luckman Interactive Inc.'s Web Commander 1.0 for Windows NT, which retails at $249 with no state and local government discounts, had the most extensive feature set of the group and came in fourth place. In fifth place was Process Software Corp.'s Purveyor Encrypt WebServer 1.2 for Windows NT, which provides extremely flexible security and solid performance. However, at $795, Purveyor Encrypt was several hundred dollars more than the other packages in the group.

There's no reason why you can't run a quality Web server at an affordable price. All the packages we reviewed are good, but we recommend Netscape's FastTrack Server or O'Reilly's WebSite Pro.

-- Catherine Stanton is an Internet specialist and free-lance writer based in Falls Church, Va. She can be reached at cat@feline.org.

* * * * *

How We Tested Web Server Software

To test this software, we used a 90 MHz Pentium PC with 128M of RAM running Windows NT Server, Version 4.0.

Installation/Configuration

We installed and configured each server a minimum of three times, noting installation times and any discrepancies during the process. We then transferred a full set of Web pages to the document root directory created by the software, including 44 interlinked HTML documents and about 100 images.

Administration

We set access permissions on directories, configured additional servers to run at the same time and explored every section of each administrative program, noting how it affected the server. To test remote Web administration capabilities, we accessed the server from a second computer and made modifications.

Performance

We evaluated performance from two other machines via a 10M local Ethernet connection. For performance benchmarking, we used a utility that reads a log file and executes each hit on the Web server, simulating several Web browsers hitting a site at once. We tested the Web servers with five, 25 and 40 hits per second. This shows how fast each server will perform under optimal conditions. When a Web server is running at your site, the slowest link will likely be your connection to the Internet.

Features

We evaluated the variety and number of features for each server. When evaluating complex extras, such as Web page editors and image map editors, we scored the software based on the ease of use, the interface and whether the edited pages and image maps were satisfactory.

User Interface

We noted how user-friendly each interface was, the availability of on-line help and the usefulness of the included tools. After a substantial number of hits were made to the site, we checked the monitoring and log capabilities of each package.

Documentation

We rated the documentation according to its comprehensiveness, tone, ease of use and organization. Packages with minimal or no documentation scored low, as did packages with poorly organized or overly cumbersome documentation.

Support Policies

First we rated the availability and value of the support policies, free and via a contract. We decreased the scores of companies that offered no free support period. We also rated the availability of free support on each company's Web pages, scoring higher for those sites that included searchable knowledge bases and lower for those that had continuously unavailable links.

Technical Support

We made anonymous phone calls to each vendor and rated the response time and helpfulness.

Government Price

We factored in pricing available to state and local government buyers.

* * * * *

Macs Offer Web Server Alternative

While many government facilities are migrating to Windows NT-based networks, there are a few Macintosh-based shops that need Web server solutions as well. We had the opportunity to review two Macintosh-based packages from Quarterdeck Corp. and MDG Computer Services Inc.

Quarterdeck's WebSTAR 2.0 has the most polish and brand recognition of the two packages and, at $80, is less than half the price. MDG's Web Server 4D is a little rough around the edges but includes many innovative features that make it a good choice for administrators who need quick database integration. Regardless of which package you choose, you will reap the rewards of having the Macintosh's intuitive interface and operating system, which will save you configuration and maintenance time and costs in the long run.

WebSTAR comes bundled with Claris Corp.'s PageMill for easy creation of documents. WebSTAR includes many features, including the ability to run server-side Java applets for improved programming capability, remote Web server administration and support for clickable image maps. A WebSTAR/SSL toolkit is also available for organizations requiring a secure Web server solution.

Installing WebSTAR was a quick process, requiring minimal interaction. Once installed, we simply had to start up the WebSTAR server and enter the serial number to get the server running for the first time. From there, connecting to the Web server was immediate, and the default home page placed on our server provided links to more technical information about the server as well as links to support information and mailing lists about the product.

Using WebSTAR was also a snap. The WebSTAR administration utility's simple, menu-driven interface makes configuring and changing settings easy. All our changes took place immediately without requiring a restart of the server. Configuration of error messages, realm information and access control were easy to figure out on the first try, without having to hunt through a lot of documentation. However, all the documentation provided with WebSTAR was clear, concise and straightforward.

Support issues for registered users may be handled by e-mail, searching the company's Web site (or your own default page) for answers or checking out available WebSTAR mailing lists. Our questions were resolved quickly and easily by staff members there.

The one feature that WebSTAR seems to be lacking is the very feature that is its competitor's strong point: database integration. MDG's Web Server 4D includes a host of database features built into the server software that make building forms and databases very easy.

Installing Web Server 4D Version 1.0.4 was just as easy as installing WebSTAR, taking less than 10 minutes and involving the loading of only three disks. After setup, however, we found at least one area in which Web Server 4D could stand improvement: No default home page is set up to help direct novice administrators to more support or information about the software.

Web Server 4D supports a number of useful features and conventions, including redirection of Uniform Resource Locators, automatic tracking of sites by browser type, domain or pages hit, and basic HTTP authentication.

Browser, domain and host exceptions are supported. This allows you to configure a specific Web page based on what type of browser client is hitting your site or based on the host name from which it is visiting. This means that administrators can make table versions of pages available to browsers that support them as well as nontable versions of pages for those that don't. Or one page can be brought up for a site in the .com top-level domain while a different page is presented for a site visiting from a .mil top-level domain.

Guest books and page counts can be created without using CGI forms. A "Weather Agent" gives you the ability to incorporate the weather forecast for your location onto your home page dynamically.

Web Server 4D is packed with interesting features, but it does lack some tools you might need, such as support for SSL or S-HTTP or a remote Web administration tool.

Support for Web Server 4D is available from the company's Web site, mailing lists, e-mail or a long-distance phone call. The Web Server 4D documentation comes in one small, easy-to-read manual.

If database capabilities are your primary need, or if encrypted transactions and remote Web administration aren't too important for the tasks you need to perform, Web Server 4D is a very strong contender.

You can decide for yourself by taking a test run of both packages because both companies generously provide a free timed review of their servers. For more information on downloading your evaluation copy, check out either company's Web site.

Quarterdeck Corp.

WebSTAR Version 2.0 for Macintosh

(310) 309-3700

www.quarterdeck.com/qdeck/products/$80 for state and local government

Reseller: Stream International (Part No. 1016341)

(800) 888-4486

MDG Computer Services Inc.

Web Server 4D Version 1.0.4 for Macintosh

(630) 497-8893

www.mdg.com

$221 direct or $187 to download from the Web

* * * * *

* Full-text analysis of the performance and features of the servers examined in this review

* Lotus Notes managers should consider Domino, a free offering that turns a Lotus Notes server into an Internet server.

* The Internet has never been entirely secure. But two new methods for securing transactions have surfaced with the SSL protocol and S-HTTP.

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