Vendors expand Web server options

Even as federal agencies become more sophisticated in their use of the World Wide Web to distribute information or to host intranet applications Web server technology itself is maturing.

For the most part the earliest crop of federal Web servers has consisted of home-grown solutions in which organizations retooled their installed server hardware with Hypertext Transfer Protocol (HTTP) software - the basic Web server protocol - from Microsoft Corp. Netscape Communications Corp. or the Apache Project along with tools selected to meet the requirements of specific applications.

But setting up and managing these developed-from-scratch sites has not always been a picnic for federal Webmasters according to Rich Kellett a Webmaster at the General Services Administration. "You need to be a specialist not just in one operating system but in other OSes the Internet systems administration content development and programming environments like Perl script and Java " Kellett said.

The problems with building and maintaining home-grown Web servers are exacerbated by the new generation of Internet and intranet applications. Web servers are catapulting into areas ranging from mapping within top-secret military intelligence operations to public distribution of patent census and environmental protection information and Java-based scientific simulations.

Users cite requirements for better support of video content more robust security and the need for transactional database applications.

In response systems vendors are increasingly offering highly targeted turnkey systems combining server hardware with specially selected Web server software and tools across a wide range of price/performance categories. Options run the gamut from Windows NT-based systems offered by several vendors to mainframe or massively parallel systems from IBM Corp.Most vendors bundle Netscape's Enterprise Server software which combines content management centralized administration and application services. Enterprise Server Pro adds a choice of relational database software options and Web server-to-database connectivity.

Although vendor-specific differentiators also abound systems vendors point to scalability and price as key factors distinguishing Web servers.

Unix vendors emphasize the ability of their systems to support large numbers of simultaneous users over the Internet and large intranets because of proven support for symmetrical multiprocessing and because of the overall robustness of their systems. They also tout high input/output and clock speeds large memory capacity for interactive and transactional database applications and fault-tolerance features.

For example Digital Equipment Corp. touts its AlphaServer for its very high clock speeds set to reach 600 MHz next month as well as 64-bit processing to support applications with very large memory requirements according to Hill Carter senior technical consultant in Digital's Federal Government Region Tech Support Group. "Both of these features support large database applications " he said.

Silicon Graphics Inc. also offers Web servers at different performance levels based on its three main computing platforms. The different tiers are based on SGI's WebForce software which includes Netscape Enterprise Server as well as SGI's Intranet Junction application server Cosmo authoring tools and other tools. SGI offers WebForce-based systems with its O2 server at the low end Origin 200 for midtier applications and Origin 2000 for very high-end applications. The WebForce servers are widely used within military intranets for top-secret mapping and video applications according to Gary Havenstein technical manager within SGI's Federal Business Development Group.

"The Internet grew up in the Unix world " noted Tim Dougherty the program director of network computing for IBM's RS/6000 lineup. IBM is offering RS/6000 Web server bundles ranging from a $4 995 system based on an RS/6000 43P up to multimillion-dollar SP2 machines. Capable of supporting up to 512 nodes on a single machine the IBM SP2 is being used in federal agencies that include the public Web site of the Patent and Trademark Office.

IBM offers Web servers in three classes which vary in disk storage memory and bandwidth. For example Standard starts at 50M of storage shared memory and 2G a month of bandwidth. The Professional version on the other hand starts at 1G of storage 32M of expandable memory and 5G of bandwidth. Professional DB scales up further and adds a database capability.

To meet the needs of highly specialized Web applications many vendors also offer specialized hardware add-ons - such as video servers Redundant Array of Independent Disks storage and supporting software features - as options for their turnkey systems. At the highest end for example Digital can provide a solid-state disk and up to 12 processors according to Carter.

For some agency sites scalability can be a critical factor and Unix tends to be the platform of choice.

The Environmental Protection Agency for example recently moved to Digital AlphaServer 2100 and 4100 servers for all server-based applications including the Web. The EPA has created a publicly accessible data warehouse known as the EnviroFacts Warehouse operating on an Oracle Corp. relational database management system running on an AlphaServer 4100-based Web server said John Shiry a project manager at the EPA.

The Agriculture Department uses a Sun Microsystems Inc. server outfitted with Netscape Enterprise Commerce Server as its main Internet server as well as to host the Internet sites of some of the 29 agencies within the department. Other USDA agencies though have opted to create hot-linked Internet sites on their own Unix or PC servers using a potpourri of Unix and Windows-based tools said Laurie Renner the branch manager for the Network Service Branch.

Windows NT Option

IBM like other vendors offers Windows NT-based Web servers in addition to its Unix versions. IBM bundles Netscape's Enterprise software with its Windows NT Web server. However Windows NT 4.0 Server software now includes Microsoft's own Internet Information Server (IIS) which offers basic Web server functionality.

Microsoft is now developing IIS 4.0 which is an updated edition that will add HTTP 1.1 compliance as well as significant management enhancements according to Microsoft. Microsoft plans to announce packaging and pricing for IIS 4.0 when the product ships.

Hewlett-Packard Co. offers a lineup of Domain Enterprise Servers that includes HP-9000 for high-end Web applications. HP's Domain Web servers are based on HP-9000 servers and come with Netscape's SuiteSpot as well as HP's own OpenView network management environment and OpenMail.

But HP offers Windows NT/Intel Corp.-based systems with IIS for intranets and smaller Internet sites observed Bill Dwyer senior technologist in HP's Government Business Unit.

Likewise Digital is taking a similar strategy with its product lineup offering Netscape Enterprise Server for Unix-based AlphaServers but it offers IIS-based servers for its Windows NT-based AlphaServers and Prioris servers. Additionally Digital offers Web server software called Purveyor for its OpenVMS-based minicomputers.

While agencies have a range of systems from which to choose the combination of Windows NT and Intel processors is emerging as the platform of choice. According to a recent study about 45 percent of all Web servers at federal sites are being run on Windows NT/Intel platforms said Milford Sprecher a program director with IDC Government a Falls Church Va. market research firm.

Rather than sell scalability vendors of so-called "Wintel" servers tend to stress ease of use and affordable pricing in terms of hardware and software. Microsoft's decision to bundle Web server capability in Windows NT Server has been a big plus industry observers said. "Free is hard to beat " noted Rich Frichera an analyst at the Giga Group.

Intergraph Computer Systems is leading the way with its InterServe family which is based on Windows NT and Pentium Pro chips. According to Jim Flowers systems marketing manager for Intergraph the Windows NT/Intel platform offers excellent performance because of the large amounts of memory and disk storage.

The four members of Intergraph's InterServe family range from the entry-level InterServe Web-30 a desktop model featuring one or two 133 MHz Pentium processors and up to 256M of RAM to the Web-630 with two to four 200 MHz Pentium Pro processors and up to 1G of ECC RAM.

In addition to Windows NT 4.0 and its integrated IIS Web server Intergraph's Web servers are bundled with Hypertext Markup Language authoring tools Simple Mail Transport Protocol Post Office Protocol and Domain Naming Service.

Unix vendors are now starting to fight back against Microsoft's perceived advantages with regard to price/performance as well as ease of use.This month SunSoft Inc. announced plans to extend beyond its current Netra I and Java-enabled Netra J turnkey Web server devices with another alternative: Solaris for Intranets which is the first in a series of four new variations of Solaris capable of running on either Sun SPARC-based servers or Intel-based Windows NT servers. Code-named Webtone the new series of Solaris systems also will include Solaris for the ISP (Internet service provider) Solaris for Enterprise and Solaris for Power Desktop said Brian Kroll SunSoft's director of product marketing.

"We'll be competing head-on with Windows NT " Kroll acknowledged. Retail pricing is $1 290 for server software supporting five users. Solaris for Intranets also is expected to be available through turnkey systems from value-added resellers and original equipment manufacturers.

Sun has achieved "the fastest implementation of [Java Virtual Machine] ever " according to Sanjay Sinha the marketing manager for Solaris Server. Other built-in features will include Sun WebStart for remote Web-based administration Sun Internet Mail and SunLink for seamless connectivity to outside environments such as Novell OS/2 and the Macintosh.

"Netra I and Netra J are single-function Web server devices designed for ease of use. Solaris Server for Intranets on the other hand offers more flexibility with the ability to support non-HTTP as well as Web environments and to integrate with outside databases as well as with tools from vendors like PeopleSoft.

HP and Sun each offer "secure" editions of their Unix operating systems which can enhance Web server security. Sun's new Trusted Solaris 2.5 is billed as the first trusted operating system to support the Common Desktop Environment.

Other capabilities include advanced multithreading and support for symmetric multiprocessing.

Trusted HP-UX a secure operating system co-developed with SecureWare Inc. is available with a Virtual Vault option designed to extend beyond B1-level security according to HP's Dwyer.

SGI's WebForce turnkey systems are optionally available with Trusted Information Systems Inc.'s Gauntlet firewall as well as with SGI's MediaServer video servers and Intranet Junction software for quick intranet site development said Marc Trimuschat product line manager for WebForce.

-- Emigh is a free-lance writer based in Boston.

* * *

At A Glance

Status: As the Web server industry matures agencies are able to buy turnkey packages rather than build solutions from scratch.

Issues: Unix-based Web servers tend to emphasize scalability while emerging Windows NT offerings provide Webmasters cost-effective solutions.

Outlook: Excellent. Vendors continue to beef up their solutions with new features including security options while improving the price/performance ratio.

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