Do you want to set up a web server as quickly and painlessly as possible? Then I recommend you look at Macintosh System 8.5.
Yes, the Mac.
Before I explain, I have to confess that my use of the Macintosh has decreased over the years. When I was at Network Computing magazine in the early nineties, we relied on a Mac network for art and production. I also used the Mac extensively when I started my own business six years ago. But despite its ease of use, I gradually moved over to Windows, as more and more of the software I needed to test for my clients ran on that operating system. Today, I rarely turn on my Mac.
But I'd heard a lot about the new features in OS 8.5, particularly its web server (which installs by default when you upgrade your Mac to OS 8.5). And knowing only too well how difficult it is to set up the built-in web servers that come with Linux, NetWare 5, Windows 98 and Windows NT, I decided to give the Mac another go.
As always, the Mac makes things simple. You go to Control Panels, start up Web Sharing, and specify a folder on the hard disk where your documents are located. That takes about a minute, and then the server starts right up. If you want to get fancy, a preferences screen lets you easily set document types and do other things usually found only on full-featured web servers.
The rival web servers I've worked with are nowhere near as straightforward. The problem is you must know a great deal about the operating system, the underlying command syntax, the web server configuration parameters, sometimes even all three. Windows 98 comes closest to the Mac in terms of ease of use, but still requires careful study and planning; and its menu structure is more complex than that of the Mac.
But Linux, NT, and NetWare are at the other end of the ease of use spectrum. Linux requires you to understand file permissions, and to read several 'man pages' of online help in order to configure the built-in Apache web server. Windows NT makes you install the newest Options Pack and Service Packs to get the latest 4.0 version of IIS up and running, and you have to reboot several times in the process. And Netware, I'm disappointed to report, ignored the web and Internet apps for too long, and it shows.
Despite making it significantly easier to install the Netware operating system, Novell missed the boat with its web server. Setting up the Netscape web server that runs on Netware takes a lot of time, even for experienced users. To add insult to injury, you must first install the Novell client software on the Windows 95/98/NT desktop before you can setup the server.
Now, I am not saying that you should use the built-in web servers instead of a full-featured one -- quite the contrary. There are plenty of good web servers available, including WebStar on Mac, IIS on NT, Apache on Unix, and Netscape on both NT and Unix. But for a test machine that can come up quickly to share a bunch of documents, my money is with the Mac.
If you opposed the Mac for religious reasons, there's one other choice: Internet appliances that are devoted to the job and which come with the web server software already installed and running. Apexx, Cobalt, Encanto, and Technauts are just some of the companies offering these devices. (You can read a report I co-authored on this topic.)
Once your web server is running, the next question is how you're going to get content on the server, and that means figuring out some kind of network connection. Your choice is to use Internet standards such as File Transfer Protocol (FTP) or else use the native Macintosh or Windows networking protocols. I prefer FTP because you have a wide variety of tools to choose from, both to setup your server and to setup your client software. Also, FTP works across the Internet, no matter where you are when it's time to update your content.
Linux and NT both win out here because both come with their own FTP server. NetWare does, too, but it's rather buried. The rest don't, and you'll need to buy or try something else. Fortunately, FTP servers aren't difficult to get running: the hardest part is specifying the security and user authentication to prevent unauthorized users from trashing your content.
I tested the Windows program WFTPD and the Mac program Rumpus Pro. Both are simple FTP servers that can be quickly installed and configured. But it is an extra step. If you use WebStar on the Mac, it now comes with its own FTP server software, a nice plus again for the Apple crowd.
And while you are looking at Mac OS 8.5, take a look at how Apple integrated searching the Internet into its operating system, called Sherlock. I like it a lot. Apple should get some credit for continuing to make things easy, especially when it comes to the Internet. Maybe it is time I moved more of my daily computing life back to the Mac.
I wish all of you a happy and healthy holidays.
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