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pwsFeaturing a powerful web server and a flexible Web publishing component, Idonex AB’s Roxen Platform is a comprehensive and highly extensible suite of tools for building and maintaining a busy Web site.

Roxen Platform 1.3 Release 2 is one of the most complete Web server packages we tested. A former Best of Comdex winner, Roxen Platform earned an Analyst’s Choice designation with its latest release.

The Roxen Challenger Web server has many of the strengths of the popular freeware Apache Web server, such as modular extensibility and wide platform support, but is much more easily managed and configured through its excellent browser-based interface.

These capabilities, coupled with a solid publishing component, an excellent feature for building searchable site indexes and thorough administration capabilities, make Roxen Platform an excellent choice for running even the most complex and heavily trafficked Web sites.

Roxen Platform, which was released this month, has proved capable of doing just that, not only in a lab but also in the real world. In tests it easily outperformed Apache on the same hardware while running on Linux. In addition, it is used to run high-volume sites such as the home page for Real Networks Inc.

Roxen Platform is priced at $11,800 – expensive for a business seeking only a Web server, but a relative bargain considering the package’s capabilities for management, extensibility and publishing. Roxen has excellent platform support, running on every flavor of Unix and also under Windows NT.

Roxen is built on Pike, a C-like programming language developed by Idonex. Pike can be directly called within scripts in Web pages. Most important, Pike can be used to create modules that can extend the core functionality of Roxen Platform, allowing businesses to create unique capabilities. Roxen also includes a variety of modules that can be added to the server, enabling capabilities from secure connections to Lightweight Directory Access Protocol support. However, it has nowhere near the same number of available modules as Apache, which benefits from its large open-source community.

Addition is as easy as ABC

Adding a module to a server is simply a matter of clicking on it within the administration interface and handling any necessary configurations for that module. Modules can be added without having to restart the server.

Using Roxen Platform, we were able to quickly configure multiple Web servers on a single system, assigning open port numbers to each server. We could define very detailed configurations for each server, down to the access controls, programming languages and resources allowed. It was also possible to define variables that affected the entire Roxen Platform.

The administration interface also provides useful tools such as an automatic configuration troubleshooter, path resolution, and an easy interface for automatically upgrading the Roxen software and modules.

SiteBuilder, another component in Roxen Platform, enables surprisingly powerful Web publishing capabilities that rival those included in many Web content management packages. Using SiteBuilder, we could enforce the site layout while providing a means for users to easily edit or add content to a site. We could define user and group publishing rights to the server and define how and where users could make changes.

A comprehensive view

Within SiteBuilder, we could view all information on pages in a site, viewing all edits to a page. We could restore a page to a previous version and could also control some of the metadata within a file (see screen). The biggest weakness in SiteBuilder is the lack of a workflow model, although a user could build a module to create workflow capabilities.

Also new in Release 2 is the Application Launcher component, which lets users edit any content on the site directly from a preferred editor application. However, this application relies on the freeware Samba to access server content, which makes setup difficult and raises some security concerns. Roxen now supports HTTP 1.1, and Idonex should have used that language, rather than Samba, for access controls.

Businesses building highly dynamic and database-intensive sites can get a lot out of Roxen’s Roxen Markup Language, a server-side, tag-based language that provides flexible Web application capabilities. This is a good scripting language, but it isn’t portable outside Roxen. Businesses that need portable apps should base them on more standard tools such as CGI or Java servlets, both of which are supported in Roxen.

Roxen Platform’s LogView log analysis tool delivers comprehensive reporting through the browser administration interface. Roxen also provides some basic real-time status reporting.

wbtLIKE CARS, WEB SITES NEED REGULAR maintenance to keep them running smoothly and looking their best. But you don’t need to empty your wallet or hire a Webmaster to help keep your pages in top shape. These handy tune-up tools and add-on services make polishing your site painless–and they’ll cost you next to nothing.

Clean Up Your Code Building basic Web pages doesn’t require a programming degree or special skills–WYSIWYG editors such as Microsoft FrontPage 2000 help you create and maintain Web sites easily. However, using these tools to design your site doesn’t guarantee it’ll be in top form. Browser incompatibilities, broken links, and slow-loading pages are frustrating to visitors and can occur no matter what Web editor you use.

Modern HTML editors have built-in spelling and link checkers, but a host of other helpful (and free) utilities exist that offer similar collections of tools, such as Andover.net’s HTMLWorks, MSN LinkExchange’s Site Inspector, and Netscape’s Web Site Garage. With just a few clicks, you can check how quickly pages download, validate your HTML syntax to ensure your pages work correctly, and test the compatibility of your pages in several browsers.

What varies between these services is the number of Web pages and links you’re allowed to check at one time for free. If you’d rather service your entire site in one shot, HTML Toolbox lets you tweak as many as 400 pages weekly, biweekly, or monthly (prices start at $9.99 a month for up to 50 pages).

Optimize Images Large Web graphics, animations, and sound files increase download time–and if your site takes more than 30 seconds to load, you’ve likely lost a visitor. The smaller the images are, the faster your Web page will load. You can decrease download time without sacrificing image quality by significantly compressing GIF and JPEG images.

NetMechanic’s Gif Wizard¬† and GifBot are two of the best free tools for fixing image bloat. These services look at every graphic on your site and show variations of the same image at different color depths and compression ratios. You choose the best combination of small size and good looks, and then replace the current image with the optimized one.

Still, it’s best to make a habit of trimming the fat from your graphics before they go live. Web-savvy image editors such as Jasc Software’s Paint Shop Pro 6¬† can help you with this.

Don’t forget to use commonsense tricks to decrease page size. Reducing the dimensions of large pictures, ditching the funky backgrounds, and removing unnecessary animations or sound files can greatly improve your professional image online–and trim download time as well.

Serve Up Big Business Extras Clean, consistent looks; searchable content; and interactive features will help enhance your online credibility and keep customers happy. These features weren’t always easy for neophytes to implement with HTML, but now there’s no reason to skip the extras when they’re easy to add for free.

First, provide a search utility for easier browsing. There’s no need to do a complicated server-side installation when companies such as Atomz.com, SiteMiner, and PicoSearch can do the indexing for you. Simply place a search form on your site; when a visitor enters information, the utility sifts through the site index and builds a list of links to related content.

Next, give your site a community feel by providing ways for visitors to interact with one another and with your business. Urbanite’s ToolZone lets you add a “clip-on” chat room that’s HTML-based, so there are no fancy Java applets to download.

Although guest books aren’t as flashy as live chat, they let visitors leave a permanent mark at your site with comments and questions. Guestbook4Free and GuestBook.com offer tools that that let you set up a guest book in as little as 5 minutes.

For the ultimate in interactivity, turn visitors into customers by becoming an online merchant. E-commerce is no longer just for the Amazon.coms of the world–anyone can set up a no-cost shopping cart online at FreeMerchant.com. Your online catalog is configurable. Freemerchant.com will even let you use a CyberCash account for customers to make instant credit card transactions.

Need to know what your customers think of a new product or service? Poll them. A service called EZPolls designs customized Q&As, complete with the code to put them online; it then tracks the answers and displays the results as a bar graph.

mwmpWeb sites are a magnet for Murphy’s law. If there is the slightest possibility for something to degrade site performance, it will. In interviews with large companies (those with more than 500 employees), the HTRC Group found that 54 percent of the respondents named hardware failure-mostly of servers and some network equipment-as the cause for outages and service degradations.

By maintaining multiple data centers, however, site owners can not only improve their sites’ performance by moving content closer to users but also gain protection in the event that an equipment failure disables one or more data centers. Such a solution, however, is expensive to deploy and manage. Recently, content delivery service providers have stepped in, with their global network of data centers and load balancers, to offer an outsourced solution. Now a new kind of service provider is arriving with a more focused service: global load balancing for companies that deploy their own data centers.

Global load balancing is the key to leveraging multiple data centers. When a Web user requests content by typing in a company’s Web site address, a domain name system (DNS) server directs the request to the company’s global load balancing device-assuming the company’s Web site has one-which in turn redirects that request to whichever of the company’s data centers will provide the best Web site experience. The load balancer accomplishes this by taking into account a variety of network metrics, such as latency, Web server persistence, static mapping and origin server load balancing.

To provide their sites with global load balancing, content providers and Web site professionals historically have been forced to purchase and operate software and/or hardware from a variety of vendors. These products include global load balancing applications, such as those from Resonate Inc. (Sunnyvale, Calif.), that are designed to run on general-purpose operating systems. Switch-based global load balancing products include WebOS from Alteon WebSystems Inc. (San Jose, Calif.), which resides on the vendor’s Alteon 180 and AceDirector switches. They also come in the form of appliances-network devices built specifically to perform a single function-such as the 3DNS load balancer from f5 Networks Inc. (Seattle). The prices for product-based solutions range widely. Market leader f5 Networks’ list price for its 3DNS load-balancing appliance is $27,500 each or $60,990 for an installed two-appliance redundant solution. The costs of product-based solutions do not take into account the staff needed for around-the-clock operations management, maintenance and monitoring, as well as for decisions regarding DNS configurations, load balancing metrics, algorithms and weighting based on network performance.

With its network of DNS redirection servers, probes and hundreds of content delivery servers, however, Speedera Networks Inc. (Santa Clara, Calif.) is poised to create waves in the market by offering global load balancing services that Web site owners can subscribe to, instead of sinking a ton of capital into a product-based solution. Typical pricing for Speedera’s global load balancing services for two data centers ranges from $5,000 to $7,000 per month. Using Speedera’s service, Web site owners can configure data center load balancing preferences and policies through a Web interface.

Other service providers will no doubt follow Speedera’s lead and begin offering similar services, either by reselling or by building out the infrastructure to offer the services themselves. They may not be able to repeal Murphy’s law. But when it comes to fighting Web site degradation, global load balance service providers stand to profit by helping content providers protect themselves from old man Murphy.

abnapRunning start inc.’s articleBase 2.0 is a powerful high-end Web content management system with highly flexible workflow and user role management capabilities.

Even now, we’re impressed with the product’s broad range of capabilities and its ease of use. In fact, like many of its competitors, ArticleBase can pretty much do or be anything a company wants it to do or be because it is an advanced Web application, designed to run on top of Apple Computer Inc.’s WebObjects application server.

Running Start, which released ArticleBase last month, sells both products and related support and will customize ArticleBase to fit a company’s specific needs.

Herein lies the greatest obstacle facing companies such as Running Start that function more like traditional consulting firms than software vendors: Any business with extensive in-house WebObjects expertise could either customize the system itself or build comparable functionality from scratch with no help at all.

Likewise, ArticleBase’s price scheme bears more resemblance to a consultant’s bill than a receipt for a software product: Medium to large organizations can expect to pay roughly $100,000. A base installation can cost as little as $25,000.

The product is also limited, as are most content management solutions, by its dependence on a particular scripting language or application server. If a company uses WebObjects, ArticleBase is a good fit. But if it is committed elsewhere, it will buy something else, such as FutureTense Inc.’s Internet Publishing System, which is built for the Sun-Netscape Alliance’s Netscape Application Server.

Extras on demand

It’s a question whether Running Start is a consultant building customized applications or a vendor of a complete software package. The company is willing to build in any feature that a buyer needs, arguably making ArticleBase a complete solution.

We tested what most would consider a standard installation in order to best evaluate the product as it stands. Even in the test configuration, ArticleBase has impressive capabilities. The browser- based interface for administration and content control was very clean and intuitive, and we could easily access necessary features.

Management of users and their rights was also very good, although we would have liked a way to synchronize with an external directory using Lightweight Directory Access Protocol or Windows NT. (Developers can build directory synchronization functions within WebObjects.) We could create as many roles as we needed and easily define sets of editing rights for each. Users could have multiple roles, and we could control each user’s access to various parts of the test site.

Work flows smoothly

Setting up workflow in ArticleBase is very straightforward and sensible. In its most basic form, it is simply a matter of defining an action, such as Tech Edit, assigning which roles can perform the action, then selecting another action as a routing response for the initial action. A scripting language also makes it possible to add more advanced automatic workflow capabilities.

The main user interface for ArticleBase is a classic workflow interface. Each user has an in-box that shows every new and pending task that needs attention. From here, users can approve content, take additional actions or assign tasks.

Creating content is simply a matter of inserting text into proper fields in a form or uploading files into the form. While the workflow interface is very good and intuitive, we would like to see options to view a hierarchical map of site content and to see which items have been checked out for editing. (Not surprisingly, Running Start officials responded to this observation by saying they’ve built just such capabilities for some of their clients.)

We could easily view all previous versions of a file and also see a history tracking all actions. However, ArticleBase has no feature for direct comparison of versions-a capability found in competing Web content management products such as MKS Inc.’s Web Integrity.

Document templates are created within WebObjects through the use of specific ArticleBase classes defined in the product’s online documentation. The process works well but is not as quick and simple as the straight tagging systems used by many other content management systems.

Because it is based on WebObjects, ArticleBase has better stability and scalability than content management systems not based on an application server. ArticleBase has good platform support that, not surprisingly, mirrors that of WebObjects. The product runs on Windows NT, Solaris and Mac OS; works with most Web servers; and supports Microsoft Corp.’s SQL Server and databases from Oracle Corp. and Sybase Inc.

We tested ArticleBase on Windows NT with Oracle8.

mswCall it a new kind of performance anxiety. Spurred on in part by an ever-brightening media spotlight examining how well popular Web sites are performing, a growing number of service providers are bundling third-party site and network measurement services as part of the menu of hosting and management items they now offer to their business customers.

“These metrics provide valuable insight for the service provider,” says Joel Yaffe, an analyst with Giga Information Group (Cambridge, Mass.). “Providers are beginning to use these services as an early-warning system to let their business customers know if site performance is meeting expectations.”

At the same time, Yaffe says, the companies providing these statistics are finding service providers to be a lucrative new marketplace as they try to expand their own customer base beyond traditional enterprise clients.

Two companies actively touting their performance monitoring capabilities to hosting companies and carriers are Keynote Systems Inc. (San Mateo, Calif.) and Visual Networks Inc. (Rockville, Md.), which offer Web site tracking and network measurement services, respectively. A third, Service Metrics Inc. (Boulder, Colo.), a division of Exodus Communications Inc. (Santa Clara, Calif.), focuses on providing Web site performance services to enterprise customers, but it expects to begin offering Web site performance monitoring to service providers within the next year.

Keynote has attracted more than 40 carriers and hosting companies, including Digex Inc. (Beltsville, Md.) and UUNet Technologies Inc. (Ashburn, Va.), as customers in the two years that it has actively wooed providers, says David Talovic, director of Keynote’s service provider business. “We had historically been successful in selling performance data to large sites such as Dell and Lycos,” he says, “and through that we attracted attention from service providers.”

Providers wanted a crack at studying Keynote’s performance data for two reasons, says Talovic. First, they wanted to keep their own tabs on how well the sites that they hosted performed. Second, they wanted to use that performance data as part of an enhanced service offering aimed at business customers. With this approach, a hosting company could wed Keynote’s Web site performance data with carrier-provided consulting expertise that would help a business customer improve site performance, for example. The bottom line? Additional revenue and, just as important, a differentiated service.

Still, many service providers have yet to sign up for third-party measurement services. Some, like Genuity Inc. (formerly GTE Internetworking, Burlington, Mass.) and Qwest Communications International Inc. (Denver), have eschewed outside performance monitoring services thus far in favor of internally designed applications that provide the same level of service.

“We feel we’ve been very successful in meeting the needs of our customers using our own tools,” says Kris Alexander, product manager of Genuity’s e-business hosting group. The carrier relies on a mix of apps from Tivoli Systems Inc. (Austin, Texas) and BMC Software (Houston) to provide Web site performance monitoring. Genuity currently has no plans to add third-party stats to its own offering, says Alexander.

On the other hand, dozens of other service providers-including AT&T, GlobalCenter Inc. (Sunnyvale, Calif.), UUNet and Digex-do use outside services to enhance their current performance monitoring offerings. AT&T is tracking the performance of its recently introduced remote access virtual private network (VPN) service using Visual Networks’ IPI network performance app to track whether users are connecting to the VPN within a guaranteed amount of time.

GlobalCenter, meanwhile, bundles Keynote’s performance app as part of a package dubbed GlobalCenter Advantage. This package weds performance data with diagnostic tools aimed at helping its hosting company customers avoid slow downloads, which may be caused by sluggish Web servers or complicated graphics. “Being able to translate those raw numbers into something meaningful is something that a company like GlobalCenter can address and provide to our business customers,” says Laurie Priddy, GlobalCenter’s chief operating officer.

Priddy says GlobalCenter Advantage has only attracted a small number of customers in the six months since the service was released, but she expects that number to grow as GlobalCenter adds more monitoring capabilities, such as a capacity planning tool. “Once that level of functionality is available,” she says, “more companies will likely ask for the service.”

To help service providers like GlobalCenter meet their customers’ needs, Keynote crafted a package of Web site measurement offerings. Offered under the Web Perspective moniker, these measurements let providers take Web site performance data and add enhanced capabilities that can pinpoint-and even resolve-any potential problems.

“It’s especially useful for providers that offer services beyond basic network connectivity,” Talovic says. “If there are any disruptions, they can pinpoint whether it’s a network or server fault and then proactively resolve the problem.”

Keynote keeps tabs on site performance through the use of more than 300 measurement computers, dubbed agents, that are deployed on backbone providers’ networks worldwide. The agents track both the performance-how quickly a Web page is downloaded-and availability of Web sites, as well as associated support systems, the performance of the infrastructure supporting that site, including the Web server, and even the site’s design.

Still, Talovic sees the current collection of offerings as merely the beginning. Keynote plans to add more agents (he won’t say how many) in an even greater number of backbone networks in order to obtain more precise performance data.

Keynote also plans to make it easier for service providers to gain access to the raw data collected by the agents. That will let service providers incorporate Keynote’s data as part of robust Web-based management tools designed to provide a wide variety of real-time performance metrics. A corresponding open application programming interface (API) will also let service providers craft their own suite of customized offerings-marrying Keynote’s external Web site monitoring with their own internal traffic statistics.

In contrast to Keynote’s Web site-centric approach, Visual Networks has thus far concentrated on network performance monitoring, based on its line of Visual Uptime frame relay and asynchronous transfer mode (ATM) network performance measuring devices. The company now plans to broaden its product suite to include Web-site and application monitoring in the months to come, based on technologies it will get through its $415 million purchase of Avesta Technologies Inc. (New York).

Avesta’s eWatcher, which simulates the performance of an e-commerce Web site under various load conditions, “will validate how a user’s Web site is performing before it goes online,” says Jason Fiske, Visual’s vice president of marketing. This will help companies avoid any potential disruptions due to traffic flow or heavy consumer demand. That service, slated to be available later this year, will be joined by others that Visual plans to release within the next 12 months, covering digital subscriber line (DSL), cable modems and application-specific services such as VPNs.

“Application-specific performance metrics will be a key area,” Fiske says. “We are seeing more and more service providers wanting to differentiate themselves by offering service performance reporting and by offering application performance guarantees.”

Service Metrics is also examining ways to tailor its performance measuring service to hosting companies, says vice president Bill Merlo. With its data collection agents placed either on the providers’ backbones or at data centers operated by major hosting companies, Merlo says, Service Metrics could let service providers not only measure their own Web site hosting activities but also gauge how other providers’ networks are performing.

“The other area we are looking at is a testing service that tells providers the best way to optimize their infrastructure to deliver specific services to end devices like WAP [Wireless Application Protocol] phones and other personal digital assistants,” Merlo says.