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The Best Bets for Web Development
October 4, 1999
By Gregory Yerxa
Picking a Web server? The decision is often dictated by legacy software, the network and Web administrator's preference, Web development platform and sometimes even Internet trends.
We set out to compare the most popular Web servers objectively, without losing sight of feature sets, platform support, management and reliability. And we ran more than 100 tests to provide fodder for the true performance junkies. We weren't out to fan the flames of the religious war spawned by years of Microsoft dominance; we wanted to put each Web server through a rigorous regimen to see which would hold up best.
We spent two and a half months in our Real-World Labs® at the University of Wisconsin letting the Big Three market-shareholders--Netscape Communications Corp. Enterprise Server 4.0 (soon to be renamed iPlanet Server), Microsoft Corp. Internet Information Server 4.0 and the open source freeware Web server of choice, Apache Server 1.3.9--duke it out. Armed with numerous existing comparisons, performance claims and independent studies, we ran more than 100 tests on single, dual and quad SPARC and Intel systems (see "How We Tested Web Servers," page 34).
You won't find huge transfer rates and out-of-this-world requests per second in our tests. Unlike other comparisons, we limited our network connections to one Fast Ethernet interface to point out each Web server's efficiencies and deficiencies.
We were looking for the all-around highest performing, most flexible, easiest-to-use and -manage Web server. With the network as the limiting factor in our tests, we looked deep into each Web server's management capabilities as well as its feature set.
With Web-site availability a high priority, it's difficult to recommend any Web server that has an underlying operating system capable of causing such lengthy interruptions.
The Web server's ability to add functionality and control the Web site's content was our next highest priority. Each server had its own way of dealing with Web content. For performance reasons, a Web server's capabilities should be limited in some fashion. Parsing all .html files for server-side directives would surely bring your Web server to its knees. Here, Microsoft IIS's Management Console excelled. It was the easiest to use for configuring and controlling the Web server and making such adjustments. All information was neatly displayed and easy to reach--far superior to the text-based configuration files of Apache and Netscape. Although Netscape's Web interface adequately displays information, and the Apache GUI, known as the Comanche Project, is a good start, neither is as complete as its Microsoft counterpart.
Our clear favorite is Apache and Professional Home Page (PHP) scripting because of its reliability and basic capabilities. For sites that don't need a large, robust Web application, Apache and PHP make an effective combination with superior reliability. Netscape also earns high marks with the best and most complete support of server-side Java technologies. Although its documentation was subpar, it should only get better. Microsoft's close integration with Visual Studio C and Visual Interdev is capable of creating the most complex of Web applications. However, as we mentioned earlier, Windows NT is prone to reliability problems as well as unwanted downtime during debugging and configuration changes.
So, which Web server comes out on top? Although each contender has its own particular strengths in specific situations, it was hard to ignore Netscape Enterprise Server's broad capabilities and support platforms. With loads of development options and decent performance numbers, Netscape earns our Editor's Choice award. Close behind, IIS, with its robust Web development options and speedy performance, edges out Apache Server. If not for IIS's critical shortage of platform support, it would have won the nod over Netscape. Apache deserves a look as well. Although it doesn't have the best performance numbers or the best development options, its nearly universal platform support, extensive documentation and following in the Internet community make it a good bet.
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