I recently received a beta version copy of VistaSource's new Anyware application server. I was quite excited because the Applixware Office Suite (version 5.0) is by far my favorite office suite—on any platform. So what does this application server offer that the standard suite of tools doesn’t? What would make me want to purchase this server suite when I already have the office suite? Let's take a look and find out.
The Anyware desktop is, simply put, the Applixware Office Suite. If you’re accustomed to the Applixware Office Suite, then you'll recognize the Anyware desktop as the Applix icon bar. The Applixware (from release 5.0) contains various icons that allow you to open all of its applications (Figure A).
|The Applixware Office Suite icon bar lets you open all of its constituent applications from one location.|
Figure A shows four of the 17 available icons. Once an application has been started, you can choose to close the icon bar and retain the running applications by clicking the equals sign [=] in the lower-right corner. You can start this icon bar on your local machine by issuing the command /opt/applix/applix or by clicking a configured menu entry or icon.
The Anyware icon bar is almost identical to the Applixware icon bar (Figure B). The only noticeable difference is the security signature icon in the lower-left corner. The additional need for security is due to the fact that the Anyware server serves up the applications via a Web browser.
|The Anyware icon bar is similar to the Applixware icon bar.|
Before we get into a full-fledged review of the Anyware server, let's install it. The server application consists of a few scripts and server add-ons to the Anyware (once called Applixware) Office Suite. Everything is included on a single CD, and the installation process is as easy as that of the old Applixware Office Suite used to be.
If you are running a Linux distribution other than Red Hat 7.1 (the beta release), you can insert the CD, mount the CD drive, and run the following commands to start the installation wizard:
This installation wizard is really quite nice. You’ll be asked a few questions, including the standard, “Where do you want me to put this beast?” as well as some of the application-specific questions for the Anyware server. One of the things VistaSource did well is to handle the configuration during installation. During installation, certain files must be updated or edited, which can be done by the administrator or by the system itself. This is a very handy option for those with less-than-ideal Linux experience. During the installation, I decided to see if the default options would configure the system properly—and they did! The only thing I had to input was the location of the cgi-bin directory, the html directory, and the httpd.conf file.
Of course, this installation was performed on a Red Hat 7.0 machine with an earlier kernel, gcc, libc, and so forth. When I attempted to put the server on the beta release of Red Hat 7.1, things were a bit different.
On my test machine, I used Beta 1 (Fisher) of Red Hat 7.1, and the installation wasn’t able to finish. Upon informing VistaSource (and it’s amazing tech support crew—a big thanks to Michele) of the problem, it figured out why the application wouldn’t install on the newer release of Red Hat. In order to complete the installation process on newer releases, you must have libc-5.4.44-1glibc.i386.rpm and ld.so-1.9.5-13.i386.rpm, which can be found at Rpmfind. Once you have these packages installed, use rpm to install the files and then use the included setup script. To run this installation, insert the CD into the drive, mount the drive, and run the following commands:
rpm -ivh *rpm
Be warned: The installation process takes a long time to complete.
Once the rpms have finished installing, you’ll have to do a few more things to finish the installation process. Unfortunately, the normal installation not only defaults to /opt/vistasource, it also installs two directories—both labeled VistaSource—in /var/www/cgi-bin and /var/www/html. Within the /var/www/html/VistaSource directory, the Java classes, help files, and template files are actually symbolic links linking to it's /opt/vistasource/anyware/aahttp/docs equivalent. The Anyware.ax file within /var/www/cgi-bin/VistaSource is the executable that starts the server when you point your browser to http://server_name/Anyware.ax. When installing with only rpms, you only get the /opt/VistaSource directory. I attempted to create the VistaSource directories, as well as the internal links, but to no avail. When that failed, I decided to run the normal install (which always failed within the Red Hat 7.1 environment) a final time. The rpms installed, the standard install wizard finished, the VistaSource directories (and symbolic links) were there, and the server worked fine! A little trickery, but it worked, and ultimately that's what matters.
Configuring the Anyware server
Configuring the Anyware server is quite easy—if you're used to configuring Apache. The main configuration files are:
$INSTALL_PATH is the directory where the server was installed. The default install path is /opt.
You will primarily work with the anyware.conf file. Both the /etc/inittab and /etc/httpd/conf/httpd.conf files will be configured for you at installation. The anyware.conf file consists of a group of configuration statements that look like this:
# VistaSource Anyware Server configuration
# Realm name - descriptive phrase used by authentication
# Hostname - if not set it will use SERVER-NAME as set by webserver
# Anyware Starter URIs
# Netscape (or Mozilla) browser-ID (sub) string
# IE browser-ID (sub) string
# Maximum number of users allowed
# Preload classes (All/None)
As you can see, this is a very basic configuration file. This file is where you will provide configuration details including host, browser strings, supported languages, authentication mechanism, aliases, and other minor options. I was lucky and didn't have to run through any script hacking to get the server up and running. I did, however, have to make a few server configuration changes in order for the Anyware server to be able to dole out the Anyware applications.
The other files are primarily left up to the installation to configure. The /etc/inittab file hosts the Anyware server startup strings, which include:
As you can see, there are four applications that must be present for the Anyware server to work. The four applications serve very specific functions. The axnet application is the server daemon for the Anyware suite, axgfxsvr is the Applixware graphics server, axlogin serves up the login application, and aagtwy is the Applixware gateway that allows a client to communicate through a firewall. You won’t need to alter the /etc/inittab file. Fortunately, the Anyware installation is intelligent enough that it doesn’t mess with this critical file.
The last configuration file, /etc/httpd/conf/httpd.conf, is actually the Apache configuration file. At the end of the Apache configuration file, you'll see:
# VistaSource Anyware 2.0
AddType aa-internal/anyware .ax
Action aa-internal/anyware /cgi-bin/VistaSource/Anyware.ax
# AuthType Basic
# AuthName "VistaSource Anyware 2.0"
# AuthUserFile "/etc/httpd/conf/passwd"
# AuthGroupFile "/etc/httpd/conf/groups"
# require valid-user
This is the default configuration for Anyware within Apache. As you can see, most of this configuration section is commented out. The primary entry you will change (if it is not configured at installation, or if a change is made to your network) is the ServerName string. Should you want to make changes to this string, you must open the file in your favorite text editor as root.
Once you have the Anyware server installed, you must check your /etc/hosts file and make sure you are not running your server as localhost. If you are running as localhost, none of your users will be able to log into the server. To fix this problem, you can either edit the /etc/hosts file or you can open netconf (as root) and change the server’s fully qualified domain name (FQDN) to it's real name. For instance, the server that I used for Anyware server was oz.tech.techrepublic.com.
You will also want to make sure that the server running Anyware will be assigned a static IP. This should be an obvious piece of advice (very few will be giving their server IP's out via DHCP), but make sure it's statically assigned.
Getting started with Anyware
First, let’s deal with starting the Anyware server. Upon installation and correct configuration, you will have the four server daemons to start or restart, which are listed above in the configuration section. By running the command:
ps -elf| grep ax
you should see a listing of the four daemons that list the following:
You don’t need to concern yourself with the last entry. It’s the command you ran to pipe the ps output into the grep application. If you have all of the above daemons running, you should be ready to test the server. If you don’t locate the PID of axnet (from your ps -elf command output), run:
kill -1 PID#
(where PID# is the actual PID of axnet), and the four servers should restart.
In order to start the Anyware desktop, you must first connect to the server via a Java-enabled Web browser and then click the Click Here To Start VistaSource Anyware link to open the login box (Figure C).
|This section from the Netscape browser shows the link that starts the Anyware desktop.|
Once you click the Anyware link, you will see the login box (Figure D). This is where you’ll provide your login name and password that are on the server hosting the Anyware suite.
|The Anyware login screen enables you to log in and select the desired language.|
Once you've logged in, the Anyware desktop will start, and you will see the familiar Anyware (Applixware) icon bar. From this point, you’ll use Anyware exactly as you used Applixware.
Benefits and performance issues
While testing this application, I found myself constantly asking, “What is the benefit of implementing the Anyware server vs. installing the Anyware desktop?" The answer to this question is very simple: flexibility and control. Sure, you can install the Anyware desktop on any given number of machines, and it will run fine. But if you need to upgrade your Anyware desktop, depending on the size of your install base, you might very well have a mess on your hands.
It is also becoming more and more common to have to deal with employees needing remote access. With the Anyware server up and running, you will have access to the entire lineup of Anyware office products from any Java-enabled Web browser. In addition, the users will be able to access and save files from the server and their local clients.
End users no longer need to worry which platform they are using. Need to do work from your friend’s iMac? No problem. Stuck in a Linux-only lab? Log in and fire up Anyware without a hitch. Working from a rented Windows laptop in your hotel room? You're there.
Because of the server-centric nature of Anyware, scalability is assured. According to the VistaSource Web site, the Anyware server will scale from a single user to thousands of users. This, of course, can drastically reduce total cost of ownership.
Of course, by the very nature that makes this application so worthy of the corporate environment, users of Anyware Office can easily be hindered by network connections. Working on the TechRepublic LAN, I noticed very little difference between opening the word processing application via Anyware server vs. opening via the word processing program local to Applixware 5.0. Once the browser is open and you’ve successfully logged in, the resulting applications open quickly and run with the stability of a locally-owned program.
Running the application over a 56k modem, however, renders a much different picture. Although the Anyware server is configured to be amazingly efficient (given the nature of a server dishing out graphical applications), a slow network connection can bring your work to a crawling pace. Of course, if you’re planning to do any remote work with the Anyware suite, you probably won't be connecting via a 56k modem.
Of course there’s always a hitch. Although Linux applications are so well known for their "free" nature, it is becoming obvious that within the enterprise sphere, price is going to be a new factor. The current proposed pricing for the Anyware Application Server is $250 per named user. There is maintenance on this perpetual license at a rate of 20% of the purchase price per year, though this rate varies based on volume.
At this point, most old-hat (pardon the pun) Linux users are picking up their jaws from the ground. Remember, at this point, we're speaking primarily to the enterprise level, and at this price point (for the enterprise level), you can't lose with Anyware office. For any IT professional that must have this type of remote access for employees connecting via remote access, the Microsoft equivalent is not only expensive, but also insecure. For the MS equivalent of Anyware Office Server, you must obtain the following licenses:
- Microsoft Windows 2000: $319.00
- Microsoft Office 2000 Professional: $599.00
- Microsoft Windows 2000 Server: $1,199.00
- Microsoft Terminal Server: $749.00 (5 Client Access License pack)
Licenses are listed at street value for a single seat and were taken from the Microsoft Web sites listed above.
So you are looking at a street value of $2,866.00 for a single seat vs. Anyware's cost of $250.00.
If you require a remotely available Office suite, and you happen to have a Linux or UNIX box sitting around, Anyware Office might be just the solution you’ve been searching for. With the amazingly easy set up, the stability of the server application, and the power of the Anyware desktop, the Anyware server makes for one killer enterprise-level application.
For more information
If you’re looking for more information on the Anyware desktop, read my review of Applixware 5.0.
Jack Wallen is an award-winning writer for TechRepublic and Linux.com. He’s an avid promoter of open source and the voice of The Android Expert. For more news about Jack Wallen, visit his website jackwallen.com.