Choosing A Server Platform

Nik Silver, director of professional services with Web agency Hyperlink, says, “The Intel platform can be very quick to develop on, because of the tools and because it can be easier to integrate your Web applications with databases and applications you already have, especially ones developed using Microsoft tools. Unix boxes may be less user-friendly, but they offer advantages in terms of scalability and supplier independence.”


As Silver adds. that’s not to say you can’t achieve scalability on Intel platforms: Microsoft’s own Website demonstrates that But it may be more demanding technically.

If you decide to go or Unix, there are further choices to be made. Silver says, “Many buyers will go for commercial suppliers such as Sun or Silicon Graphics, vendors with a great deal of experience in this area and with excellent back-up and support. But again, a surprising number will choose the free Linux platform. It doesn’t have corporate backing but there’s a lot of information on the Internet and it, too, has good tools in areas like security.”

Whatever server architecture you go for, there’s a variety of ways to use it. “Some of the best, most scalable solutions in terms quantity of information and manageability are those that use a three-tier architecture,” says Silver.

Developments in load a balancing software mean that it may be better to put your information on a number of smaller servers rather than one large one, says Adam Twiss, director of server software developer Zeus Technology. whose achievements range from Global One’s site to the UK Godzilla site.

“Hardware suppliers may encourage you to buy the biggest server you can, but it’s often cheaper and more effective to have several smaller machines,” he says.

Twiss claims suppliers of Unix boxes favour larger servers because they are more profitable – they’re not competing with NT workstations the way they are at the lower end of the range. “Further up the range, they can pretty well add an extra zero to the price,” he says.

Ideally you should choose a Web server architecture that will support not only what you want to do today but what you’re going to be doing in a couple of years’ time. This should be the case even if your initial experiments with Web technology are just that – experiments.

One of the most important questions to ask is who the site is intended for. Some sites that begin life on the corporate intranet are later thrown open to the public on the Internet. This possibility should be thought about from the start. Twiss says, “If the server’s a corporate local area network environment you know how many users you’ve got and the network’s fast. On the Internet, you have to think about what happens if all 15 million users start trying to access your site simultaneously with slow modems.”

It’s also important to consider the type of functions you’re likely to want in the future. The hardware requirements are vastly different for a reference site with essentially static data compared to an interactive site where customers are placing orders and can look up stock levels on your live system.


If you don’t know how the site will be used, building or buying a prototype is a sensible way of finding out more about what you can do with Web technology. But some users treat the prototype as a throwaway rather than try to adapt it once they’ve learned more about what they want.

Remember that although Internet technology is meant to be open, some architectures may make your options more proprietary. Silver says. “If you’re not careful, it’s easy to find yourself using specific features of your development platform. That may leave you with a need to rebuild a significant amount if you move to another one.

“It’s difficult to find a suite of software that runs equally well on both Unix and Intel platforms, although individual products do.

“We’ve addressed that problem by building an object library that abstracts the function from the platform,” he says. We built one service on Solaris and wanted to reuse some of the functionality for an Intel platform. It wasn’t a trivial task, but the fact that we’d used the object library technique made it much easier.”

Boring as it may be, sticking with what you’ve got can be a rational solution as well as the line of least resistance.

“A lot of people want to integrate their Web system into something else,” points out Twiss. “If the something else is an Oracle database, say, then it might be best to use the same type of hardware that’s running the Oracle database. If you’re mostly Microsoft. it may be better to go with Windows-based architecture for your Web server.

Not only does this avoid the problems of integrating two different platforms, but you’ll have access to some of the skills you need.

In practice, many organisations consult professional advisers or suppliers. If you are asking an Internet service provider to host your Web site, then the choice of platform is usually the provider’s. If you go to an agency like Hyperlink, it will work with you to choose the right platform for your needs.

You have the choice of managing it or paying the agency to do it for you. Consultancies also exist to help you make the choice; as always, it’s important to check how independent the advice is.

Questions to ask

* Who is in the audience and how many people are in it?

* What are the upgrade paths if the site is used more than anticipated?

* How serious are the consequences if the server fails?

* How much will it cost to add resilience if the server becomes more important to the business?

* Do your staff have the skills to run the server in-house?

* Will the server interface easily with your existing systems if required to do so?

* Is this site purely for use on a corporate intranet, or will you want to go public in the future?

* How easy will it be to manage the server remotely, if that’s the intention?

* What are the pros and cons of splitting the application over several servers?

Bookseller sticks with Sun servers

Blackwell’s recently revamped its Online Bookshop with different software, but decided to stick with Sun hardware. Herbert Kim, general manager of the Online Bookshop, says, “Given that we already have a Sun shop and that the software we wanted to use was compatible with Sun, it made sense to stick with it.

“Having made that decision, we’re happy with it, and have no major problems with Sun’s hardware or software,” he says.

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