FastTrack suffices for small shops

By David Strom

(Appeared in Infoworld, 11/24/97)

Netscape's lowest-cost web server has made some minor steps forward with the release of version 3.01 for FastTrack server. While not the best NT web server, it is simple to setup and operate.

FastTrack doesn't have all the features of Enterprise Server, but it also isn't as costly either. The minimum price for Enterprise is a thousand dollars more. Missing in FastTrack is the ability to manage multiple servers concurrently (what Netscape calls cluster management), use of the new agents and integrated search tools, and native database connections (FastTrack uses ODBC connections only). FastTrack supports 40-bit encryption only while Enterprise supports stronger 56-bit, 128-bit, and 168-bit encryption. Finally, FastTrack is also missing Enterprise's ability called NetShare for multiple users to directly publish their content to a server via the browser.

If you don't need these features, and don't want or can't use Microsoft's IIS, then it makes sense to look at FastTrack.

The version 3.01 adds some new features, and also requires v4 of NT to run (previous versions of FastTrack and current Enterprise v3 servers ran on 3.51). One noticeable addition is support for Netscape's LDAP Directory server: when you install FastTrack, it asks whether you want to use LDAP or your own user accounts to authenticate access. This means that you first want to install the Netscape Directory server and have it working before you make use of LDAP and install FastTrack.

You'll need this Directory Server if you want to synchronize your NT domain user accounts with Netscape's LDAP directory: FastTrack can't do it on its own. Given Netscape's pricing scheme for Directory Server, you might as well buy the entire Suite Spot series and use Enterprise if you need LDAP.

And speaking of access, you have much finer control over access to particular document directories than what was available in version 2, for example: you can specify particular rights (such as read only) down to the directory, user, and group level.

FastTrack makes extensive use of Javascript within a browser for its administration. While it is nice to control your web server from a browser, sometimes the simplest command will take several mouse clicks to accomplish. One thing that was mildly annoying was the lack of any way to browse your own file structure when it came time to add document directories to my web. I was presented with just an empty web form to type in the path name, rather than the browsing method used by Microsoft's Management Console and IIS.

If you know your way around the server's configuration files, you can do a quicker job with a text editor, since these files are nothing more than a series of commands stored in several text files.

It also took me a fair amount of time (say half a minute or more) to bring up the administrative screens, which run as a separate NT service. However, once I got connected, moving from screen to screen was relatively snappy. I tested FastTrack on an NT 180 MHz clone with 32 Mb of RAM running NT Workstation v4 with service pack 3: this is the minimum configuration recommended by Netscape. I used both v3.03 and v4.03 of Navigator for administering the server.

One minor issue is that just about every change in server configuration results in having to restart the server. This could mean users would not get a connection to the server at that precise moment. Having to restart the server is somewhat outdated: competitors' servers, such as Microsoft's IIS, can post their configuration changes immediately and without any restarts. On another competitive front, its logging capabilities are not as numerous as IIS: you can choose common log file format or assemble your own log file by choosing a series of a dozen parameters to track.

I used to like FastTrack: it was simple and did the job. But I'd stick with IIS on NT or use Enterprise on Unix: both have a better set of features for the money.

FastTrack Server

Version 3.01

Netscape's low end web server continues to offer a solid set of services at a reasonable price and across a wide variety of platforms.[

Pros: Simple to setup, better access controls on content, low cost

Cons: Administrative interface fairly cumbersome

Netscape Communications Corporation

Mountain View CA

650 254 1900

650 528 4124 fax

Price: $295

Platform: Windows NT v4, DEC Unix, HP, Irix, AIX and Solaris

Copyright 1997 by Infoworld Publishing Corp.