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Battle of the Network Web Servers



Although there's plenty of cheaper competition, these two Web servers are more capable and dependable than ever.
BYTE Magazine, 1995

By Barry Nance

Netscape and Microsoft are lusting for your Web-server business in a dense marketplace crammed with over 200 other competitors. Moreover, the current market leader, Apache, doesn't cost a dime. Should you plunk down cold hard cash for Netscape's SuiteSpot or Microsoft's Internet Information Server (IIS)? If so, which one?

A year ago, comparing Netscape's and Microsoft's Web server suites was easy -- Netscape's product was feature-rich, ran on multiple platforms, and was almost as fast as IIS 3.0. But IIS 4.0, which was in final bet a form during this review, has pulled even with SuiteSpot 3.0 in many areas -- and surpassed it in others.

I evaluated IIS 4.0 and SuiteSpot 3.0 on an intranet consisting of Pentium Pro-based NT Server 4.0 machines, an Ethernet LAN running TCP/IP, and a variety of clients (Windows NT, Windows 95, OS/2 Warp, and Macintosh System 7). I compared features, performance, ease of administration, reliability, and suitability for running (or developing) transaction-oriented business applications.

SuiteSpot proved to have a better messaging server, streaming audio server, and groupware server. However, IIS had a slightly better search engine, a better transaction-oriented business application environment, and more-effective administrative tools. A forthcoming Microsoft proxy server also proved to be superior to Netscape's.

IIS 4.0
IIS is a part of Windows NT Server, while SuiteSpot is a separate product. Each contains a different mix of software components. To compare similar functions across both, I arbitrarily added Microsoft's NetShow (freeware) and Proxy Server (beta version) to the evaluation. As this article went to press, Microsoft wasn't sure whether it would bundle Proxy Server with NT Server.

Microsoft's IIS 4.0 is a significant upgrade over its predecessor. Version 4.0 makes Active Server Page (ASP)-based applications even easier to create and manage. IIS's debugger for testing ASP pages, the Microsoft Management Console (MMC) interface, and Transaction Server all simplify the management of ASP-based applications. Web pages produced from ASP scripts can now be part of a transactional system, which helps ensure data integrity.

IIS is the first product to use MMC, which will be standard in Windows NT 5.0. MMC gave me greater control over Web server settings than Netscape's tools did, and I liked being able to set properties such as access controls with a simple mouse-click. The basic IIS logging function now supports the W3C Extended Logging standard, so administrators can capture just the data they want.

Management of secure transactions remains a highlight of IIS, allowing businesses to easily secure Web pages and directories. You see files, directories, and applications in an Explorer-like interface and can view properties simply by right-clicking. Configuring rights and security settings was child's play. In addition, when I ran several Web sites on one server, I could specify how much server bandwidth to give to each site.

One item often overlooked in evaluating IIS is that, in contrast to Netscape's Internet-oriented servers, NT Server can be both a file server and a Web server at the same time. Referring to a remote drive letter and printing to a shared printer haven't yet gone out of style.

IIS 4.0, which complies with HTTP 1.1, has a certificate server for creating and managing digital certificates. It also comes with a search engine, a news server, Micros oft Transaction Server, and SiteServer Express (stripped-down log- and site-analysis tools for Web-site managers).

The new certificate server made it easy to create and distribute small numbers of digital certificates. It's appropriate for small companies or departments but needs more sophisticated management tools to maintain large numbers of certificates.

Microsoft's new Web server has a number of new features that should make it a more stable application server. I could run programs as processes in address spaces separate from those of the Web server. This means a badly behaved application is less likely to crash the Web server.

Proxy Server 2.0, despite its bias toward Windows clients, bested Netscape's. The new fault-tolerance and reverse-proxy features impressed me. I was able to chain multiple Proxy Servers together for redundancy and load balancing, a feature Netscape's Proxy Server 2.5 also supports.

However, Microsoft surpassed Netscape's distributed caching by introducing th e concept of arrays, which enables multiple Proxy Servers with the same name to run as mirrors of one another. I configured Proxy Server both to republish Web pages from protected Web servers and to publish multiple Web sites on a single server using multihoming support for multiple URLs and IP addresses.

I liked the way Microsoft has integrated Proxy Server with Remote Access Service (RAS) to allow access to the Internet for dial-up connections. An entire network can share a single ISP dial-up connection. Wizards helped me configure Proxy Server as a router that would dial the ISP each time a client accessed a remote site.

The Index Server component of IIS tested slightly better than Netscape's Compass Server. While neither is as well endowed as, say, Infoseek's Ultraseek Server search engine, both provided basic, useful search tools for locating information on the test intranet.

I especially liked IIS's ability to handle different document types, its programmability, and its ease of administration. Index Server successfully indexed Office 97 (Excel and Word for Windows) files and Adobe PDF documents in real time. It allowed full-text and HTML field searching by word or phrase and integrated closely with NT Server. But Index Server has no natural-language interface and doesn't support proximity searching. It does, however, support seven national languages.

Microsoft's NetShow (which is freely downloadable) integrates closely with IIS to serve up streaming audio, video, and Web-enhanced presentations. While NetShow's authoring tool gave me a time line that helped me insert audio, graphics, and URLs accurately, I couldn't insert video clips directly. In fact, NetShow is rather rudimentary, with no tools for capturing audio or video. To convert audio or video files into Microsoft's .asf format, you must first use a separate tool to make your source material conform to the frame and bit rate you select. I preferred Netscape's Media Server to NetShow.

SuiteSpot 3.0
The standard Edition of SuiteSpot 3.0 includes Enterprise Server 3.0, Calendar Server 1.0, Messaging Server 3.0, Collabra Server 3.0, and Directory Server 1.0. The Professional Edition adds Proxy Server 2.5, Media Server 1.0, Certificate Server 1.0, and Compass Server 3.0. Both versions of SuiteSpot also include LiveWire Pro 1.0, Informix OnLine Workgroup Server, and NetObjects Fusion.

SuiteSpot remains a work in progress; only the Enterprise, Collabra, Compass, and Messaging servers (which make up the critical core) represent updated software. It also lacks a single administrative interface. From Communicator 4.0, I could use Netscape's new administrative tool to manage only the updated servers. The tool centralizes common tasks, such as maintaining user accounts, via the Directory Server component. When I added a user or group, the change propagated automatically to the other version 3.0 servers. However, I had to use the version 2.0 administrative tool to update the down-level servers, making changes one server at a time.

The Collabra and Messaging servers carry new version numbers but haven't changed greatly. Only Enterprise Server and Compass Server offer significant improvements, such as Web Publisher, a Java applet for remotely managing content on a Web server. The new Enterprise Server also offers server-based agents. I configured the agents to monitor intranet pages and perform daily searches. Because the agents are server based, I could access them from multiple systems.

Compass Server (formerly Catalog Server) is a customized version of the Verity search engine. I liked Compass Server's support for more than just HTML and plain text, its personalization options, and its easy administration. However, as with IIS, Compass Server lacked proximity searching and a natural-language interface.

In my tests, Compass Server accurately indexed Microsoft Office (Excel and Word), PDF, and WordPerfect files. Netscape claims that Compass Server can also catalo g Rich Text Format (RTF), PowerPoint, Interleaf, Lotus Word Pro, and FrameMaker files.

Compass Server allowed me to specify words and phrases with Boolean operators, and it performed phonetic look-ups and synonym matching. I could locate documents based on metadata entries I had placed inside the HTML, and Compass Server let me categorize my documents into topics ( taxonomies in Netscape parlance). The categorization made search responses immensely more relevant.

Compass Server let me painlessly create what Netscape calls a personal interest profile subscription . Thereafter, each time I updated Web pages or documents, Compass Server's indexer automatically used my URL classification rules and taxonomy designations to prepare and send me, via e-mail, a My Compass newsletter, containing the updated Web content I'd expressed an interest in.

The Messaging Server adds tools such as receipt acknowledgement and encrypted messaging via Secure Multipurpose Internet Mail Extensions (S/MIM E). I would have liked Messaging Server more if it incorporated some Exchange and Notes features, such as server-based rules for filtering messages.

SuiteSpot's mail server has an Internet e-mail underpinning, supporting SMTP, Post Office Protocol Version 3 (POP3), and MIME. Exchange and Notes have only recently embraced these standards.

Calendar Server, which Netscape has licensed from Corporate Software and Technologies International, adds long-awaited group scheduling to SuiteSpot, along with yet a third administrative interface. Calendar Server lets you schedule people and resources so that you can manage time, events, and to-do lists. Collabra is a groupware product that supports ad hoc discussions, searching across forums, and virtual forms. Netscape plans to integrate Collabra to run as an LDAP process. Currently it, too, requires separate administration.

Netscape Directory Server is an LDAP-compliant server supplying a universal directory service for enterprise-wide management of use r, access-control, and server configuration. (LDAP is a subset of X.500, a directory-services standard.) Netscape has a lot of work to do to improve Directory Server and integrate it with the other SuiteSpot components. When I set up a group list, I had to enter the cryptic LDAP query syntax. Netscape needs to provide a better interface.

While Netscape wants developers to use JavaScript, Microsoft touts VBScript and JScript, its own take on JavaScript. Microsoft's Java version, J++, also contains proprietary extensions (if you discount the fact that Microsoft has handed ActiveX over to a standards body). From a developer's point of view, using Microsoft tools for cross-platform applications is like walking a very thin tightrope. Active Server Pages is a more compelling technology than Netscape's servlets, making platform selection for developers even more difficult.

Perhaps the answer to this dilemma lies in Netscape's announced Open Network Environment (ONE), a cross-platform architecture that employs an object model (Netscape Internet Foundation Classes) and offers support for distributed objects through the CORBA-compliant IIOP protocol. Although ONE competes directly with Microsoft's OLE/ActiveX/DCOM architecture, Netscape says that ONE will include ActiveX technology and will be compatible with Oracle's NC Architecture.

Media Server consists of server software, a set of conversion and audio-editing tools, and client-side software. It also includes the Netscape Media Converter, the ToolVox voice encoder and client, Navigator, and the Media Player client. Media Server did an excellent job, compressing and distributing audio almost as well as RealAudio. Like RealVideo, MediaServer can deliver different files for users with different bandwidths. I also found that MediaServer can serve on-demand or live audio feeds, either multicast or unicast.

While IIS is only for use with NT machines, SuiteSpot comes in versions for NT, Sun Solaris, IBM AIX, HP-UX, SGI's Irix, and Digital's Unix.

In short, SuiteSpot provides remote Web content management with version control, and its centralized directory holds great promise. However, Netscape needs to better integrate the disparate server modules, especially the administrative tools.

M or N?
For many Webmasters, server software comes down to a choice between Microsoft and Netscape. The decision is an easy one to make if you already have NSAPI-aware (Netscape) or ISAPI-aware (Microsoft) applications. If you're developing a Web-based system, I believe that IIS's ASP technology is the way to go. And IIS is much easier to administer.

On the other hand, if all you're looking for is a server for distributing static Web pages, then either one, or almost any of the other 200 competing products, will do.

Product Information

Internet Information Server 4.0 (included with Windows NT Server)
Microsoft Corp.
Redmond, WA
Phone:    800-662-6796
Phone:    206-882-8080

Netscape SuiteSpot 3.0
Standard Edition, $3495 for 50 users
Professional Edition, $4750 for 50 users
Netscape Communications Corp.
Mountain View, CA
Phone:    800-638-7483
Phone:    415-937-2555

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