Each day, organizations throughout the world are finding their intranet and Internet sites growing more critical to the core functionality of their business. Companies are diligently searching for ways to upgrade, extend, and expand the capability and performance of their Web sites. Many companies are also looking to bring their Web servers in-house for greater control and integration with other systems.

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One of the key decisions in planning an effective Web solution is choosing the software platform. We will compare and contrast three of the most popular and powerful Web server solutions: iPlanet for Solaris, Apache for Linux, and Internet Information Server (IIS) for Windows NT/2000. We will evaluate these platforms using three criteria:

  1. Performance
  2. Dynamic content
  3. Total cost of ownership (TCO)

In this article, we’ll look at performance, which includes speed, stability, and scalability, and dynamic content, which involves Web scripting support. In a follow-up article, we’ll discuss the issue of TCO, including the front-end costs and the enduring management costs of the different platforms.
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In terms of performance, all three of these platforms have their strengths. In most cases, they all meet minimum requirements in terms of speed, stability, and scalability. However, there are large differences among the platforms, especially in terms of scalability.

The performance of these Web server platforms has been measured in several benchmark studies by organizations such as PC Week, Mindcraft, PC Magazine, and c’t (a German tech magazine). Although some of the results of these studies are conflicting, I’ll attempt to summarize them (except in the cases where I mention a specific study). I place a little more weight on the May 2, 2000, PC Magazine study, since it is more recent and more comprehensive in evaluating different Web server functions. That study also evaluates the more current releases of these software packages.

The benchmarks show that IIS serves up static documents a little faster than iPlanet, with both of them exhibiting excellent speed. Apache lagged behind in most studies, probably due to its lack of multithreading and the scalability problems of Linux. However, in terms of CGI-Bin processing, Apache on Linux performed very well in nearly all studies, and iPlanet performed surprisingly slow in PC Magazine’s study. IIS was somewhat sluggish and occasionally inconsistent in performing traditional CGI activity.

Of course, the e-commerce issue of dynamic content now transcends CGI and relies more heavily on scripting and other advanced programming. This is usually accomplished by API calls from the Web server software to databases and other servers and software. In this respect, IIS natively prefers Active Server Pages (ASP) and Internet Server API (ISAPI) to CGI.

In the studies, ASP performed much faster than similar technologies on the other platforms such as JSP (Java Server Pages), especially in the PC Magazine study. However, PHP on Apache, a new competing technology to ASP, was not tested in these studies.

The stability issue is much more complex and difficult to measure than speed. The general perception is that Windows NT/2000 is not very stable and that all UNIX-based operating systems are essentially bulletproof. However, stability depends very heavily on installation, configuration, and administration.

Because of Windows NT/2000’s user-friendly interface, it is easy for an inexperienced administrator to make ill-advised changes that can cause the system to become unstable. However, the interface also makes it easy for the experienced administrator to fine-tune and manage an IIS Web server, which can make it very reliable.

A UNIX admin who knows just enough to be dangerous can also destroy the configuration of an Apache or iPlanet Web server, making it very difficult for a senior administrator to undo the damage. But an experienced admin can set up iPlanet or Apache to be bulletproof and still experience better uptime than an optimized IIS server can achieve. One of the reasons for this is that Windows NT requires so many reboots. That shortcoming has been improved in Windows 2000, but it is still not up to the high standards of UNIX-based operating systems in this respect.

Finally, no discussion of performance would be complete without addressing the issue of scalability. In a nutshell, iPlanet on Solaris currently blows away the other two challengers in this category—although IIS does scale respectably, and it supports clustering and symmetrical multiprocessing (SMP). IIS also hosts a few of the largest sites on the Internet, such as dell.com, intel.com, nasdaq.com, and of course, microsoft.com.

On the other hand, Apache on Linux doesn’t scale very well, mostly due to the limitations of Linux in enterprise computing. Also, it is not optimized to take advantage of faster, enterprise-class hardware. However, Apache can scale fairly well on more robust operating systems such as Solaris.

Nevertheless, iPlanet clearly outperformed Apache on Solaris in the PC Magazine tests. iPlanet is better optimized for Solaris, which can support up to 64 processors. Although Windows 2000 Datacenter is looking to make a run at Solaris in this regard, it is still a new product, so the jury is still out.

Dynamic content
More and more, Web sites are becoming an organization’s front-end interface to internal databases and systems. Thus, dynamic content has become crucial for the kind of interactivity demanded by e-commerce and other advanced Web activities.

Our three Web platforms are all very strong in terms of dynamic content. Currently, IIS owns the lead in this category with Microsoft’s ASP technology, but JSP on iPlanet and PHP on Apache are making strong moves that could usurp ASP’s top spot.

ASP is the leader because it is widely deployed and supported, has good development tools, and gives developers easy access to the robust Windows API using COM (Component Object Model) objects and ADO (Active Data Objects). This also makes ASP a fast and reliable solution for accessing databases.

In addition, Microsoft is investing heavily in developing ASP and integrating it with new projects, such as Application Center Server, which will extend clustering and content management capabilities to sites using ASP. The drawback to ASP is that it is proprietary technology centered on Microsoft products and can’t be ported to other platforms.

In contrast, both JSP and PHP are portable across multiple platforms. PHP was created as an open-source technology based on C, Perl, and Java that can run on multiple operating systems and multiple Web servers. Nevertheless, it is mostly used on Linux. PHP performs very well and is nearly as fast as ASP, but it’s still held back by its lack of good development tools or a unified API.

Sun Microsystems’ JSP is a newer technology that holds even greater potential than PHP. JSP is empowered by the huge API and class libraries of Java, as well as Java Database Connectivity. However, like PHP, it lacks good development tools. And (unlike PHP), it doesn’t yet measure up to ASP in terms of performance. Although they can run on nearly any platform, PHP’s home court is on Linux Apache and JSP’s is iPlanet on Solaris.

As you can see, the big three software platforms appear to be closely matched in terms of performance and dynamic content at this point. But what about their front-end and management costs? We’ll address these concerns in a separate article. TCO deserves special attention, since it typically has the biggest impact on your purchase decision.
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