WebCentral Moves Ahead with Windows Server 2003
Published: April 2003
WebCentral already provides award-winning Web hosting services, but it wanted to stay ahead of the curve. The company wanted to provide its customers with a broader range of technical options, including ASP.NET Web Forms and interoperable XML Web Services, while remaining cost-effective. The key issue was ensuring that such technologies could be offered on a secure basis, and in a way that would enhance the reliability of the Web hosting environment. As a result, WebCentral upgraded to Microsoft Windows Server 2003. The enhanced scalability, security and reliability of the platform will allow WebCentral to run more than triple the number of sites per server, and save significant administration time managing less servers and resolving fewer problems with resource-intensive applications.
WebCentral offers a wide range of Web hosting products, from low-end shared hosting packages at budget prices for small businesses and home users to high-end shared hosting for large corporate Web sites. Above this, WebCentral provides dedicated hosting environments for customers who require their own server for security, performance, and greater flexibility; for more complex hosting requirements, they provide tailored solutions to meet the specific needs of enterprise-level customers.
Prior to considering Windows Server 2003, WebCentral was running Internet Information Server (IIS) 5.0 in a MicrosoftÒ WindowsÒ 2000 Server environment. Under this configuration, each Web server supported up to as many as 500 basic Web sites. Occasional issues arising from this setup involved busier/higher traffic sites where there was a high proportion of dynamic content. With these applications being more resource-intensive, they are more likely to place exceptional demands on the Web server if they are poorly designed. Kurt Euston, Product Engineer at WebCentral, explains how difficulties could develop: “Our customers have varying levels of Web development skills and we don’t have any real control over the quality of code that they generate. Some of them are very good developers, but those who aren’t don’t know a great deal about code optimization, and they can develop applications that can place above-average loads on the server.”
In order to detect and resolve the problems caused by poorly optimized code, WebCentral engineers would have to determine which site on the server was causing the problems. With up to 500 sites running on a given server, pinpointing the problem site could sometimes take hours. In some situations, the problems could be sufficiently severe to require stopping the problem site instantly. “If a site is affecting server performance to the extent that other customers’ sites are being affected, we contact the customer and advise them that their site is causing problems. We usually give them some tips on code optimization, or a few suggestions for improving their site architecture. But, either way, we can spend hours working on resolving the problem,” Euston says.
WebCentral looked at running Microsoft Windows Server™ 2003 in a similar configuration to the existing IIS 5.0 environment, with a view to determining what extra capabilities the new system could provide. The prospect was that Windows Server 2003 would enable WebCentral to offer a broader range of technical options to their clients, including Microsoft ASP.NET Web Forms.
The key issue, however, was ensuring that such technologies could be offered on a profitable and secure basis, and in a way that would enhance the reliability of the Web hosting environment. “Our aim was to enhance the functionality that we can offer our customers in a manageable, secure and high-performance environment, whilst ensuring that our services are still cost-effective. With ASP.NET Web Forms, our customers can write compiled code in true programming languages, and there is a spin-off benefit for us as this enables them to optimize the performance of their sites,” says Gene Suna, Group Product Manager for WebCentral. Additionally, with Web Services, WebCentral is able to support greater interactivity between platforms.
Evidence-Based Security Improves Reliability
Windows Server 2003 also offers evidence-based security, enabling WebCentral to prevent unauthorized registry, directory and system variable access, and increase the overall reliability of the hosting environment. “Prior to Windows Server 2003, we had to look at restricting permissions on what customers’ code was able to access on a site-by-site basis. This involved analyzing the requirements of each Web site in order to put in place appropriate constraints to secure the server. Now with the evidence-based security, we can restrict these things within the actual .NET configuration facility, which makes management of Web sites a great deal easier,” Suna says.
WebCentral utilize the system messaging capabilities of Microsoft Message Queuing (MSMQ) to send messages between processes operating on each server machine. The message queue handles communication that enables busier sites to keep a track of the transactions that are occurring. WebCentral will also be promoting Microsoft SQL Server™ 2000 Managed Provider as the preferred method for connecting to SQL Server. The provider offers a native Microsoft .NET Framework method of connecting to a SQL Server so that Web sites can optimize database connection performance.
One-Click Hosting Accelerates Web Site Production
WebCentral currently has two Microsoft Windows Server 2003 systems; one established as a production Web hosting system, and the other servicing customers who have taken advantage of the One-Click hosting package offered by Microsoft to MicrosoftVisual StudioÒ .NET license holders. The Microsoft .NET provisioning strategy enables customers to choose from a list of .NET connectivity software service providers who are offering .NET hosting as a free evaluation service. Customers can then ensure that the technology meets their needs. “A key factor of the service is that, when customers upload their site, we deliver a provisioning letter within a few minutes via email. The process is very efficient for them and, once they have designed their project in Visual Studio .NET, the project can be live on the Internet in a matter of minutes.”
The migration process utilized by WebCentral was relatively straightforward, as the company tends to provision new servers incrementally and move customers slowly off the old servers as they are decommissioned. “Most of the time we don’t immediately migrate sites across when we release a new platform, unless the customers require some of the new features. We have been able to automate sections of the site-moving procedure so that it is a smooth process for a customer’s Web site to be shifted from one of the old servers across to the new servers.”
Interoperability an Important Driver
Improved interoperability with other products was an important driver for WebCentral as it also offers an Exchange 2000 hosting product (WebCentral’s “Managed Exchange”), and was keen to upgrade to Exchange Server 2003. “The Windows Server 2003 Active DirectoryÒ [directory service] environment allows us to begin supporting the enhanced Exchange Server 2003 features that some of our customers are looking for. There are a number of key improvements to the messaging features of the mobile information server which is now a native inclusion to Exchange Server 2003,” Euston says.
As an immediate outcome of the Windows Server 2003 implementation, WebCentral is now capable of running more sites per server, which in turn means that there are fewer new servers being installed in the server farm to manage. “We are expecting to be running more than triple the number of sites per server that we currently operate with. On servers that are running fairly basic Web sites, such as those with static HTML content, we may even be able to look at scaling the number of sites per server even further than what our current expectations are,” Euston says.
Scalability Enabled by Improved Architecture
The performance increase has been partly due to the ability of Windows Server 2003 to isolate all the hosted sites efficiently and securely. Whilst WebCentral has improved the hardware resource slightly, without the isolation of sites, such scalability would not have been possible. “We have upgraded the hardware, but because the Web sites are not affecting each other, we now have less operating system overhead to manage. This gives us much greater scalability in a multi-site environment,” Euston says.
Improvements in Server Reliability
The Windows Server 2003 environment has resulted in a substantial improvement in server reliability, a key marketing advantage in such a competitive industry. “Our customers expect a high level of reliability and are quick to complain if they don’t get it. With Windows Server 2003 we are able to make sure that if there is a problem, we can address it quickly, and whilst our customers will probably not notice the change, from our point of view there is substantially less maintenance overhead and improved administration,” he says.
The solution replaces Windows 2000 Server, Internet Information Server 5.0 and the Microsoft .NET Framework v1.0 solution with Windows Server 2003, Internet Information Server 6.0 and the Windows .NET Framework v1.1. WebCentral are now offering the Microsoft One-Click hosting service on the new platform, to provide Visual Studio .NET users the option of a free trial Web site which supports the Windows .NET Framework.
As WebCentral is still using the older IIS 5.0 on a number of servers, it has been possible to draw direct comparisons between the old and new technologies. When a site is causing problems on one of the IIS 5.0 servers, WebCentral staff can spend several hours trying to pinpoint and resolve the problem. “At the moment, when one of the IIS 5.0 boxes is experiencing problems, our technical team can spend a great deal of time trying to pinpoint the issue. Once the problem site is found, they can spend further hours reviewing the code to see exactly what is causing the problem. With the Windows Server 2003, I would say we are going to have significant savings in man-hours each time we attempt to resolve a site conflict,” Euston says.
Ultimately, Windows Server 2003 is giving WebCentral an enhanced competitive advantage as they can offer their customers the latest technology. By providing a stable platform for the conflict-free co-existence of Web sites on a single server, it improves the quality of the services that WebCentral are offering to their customers.
Suna concludes: “Windows Server 2003 enables us to offer the features that our customers want in a manner that is acceptable to us from a manageability and security perspective. The stability that the platform provides has added value to our business by reducing maintenance, and that value is imperative to moving the business forward. Our senior engineers were getting bogged down troubleshooting Web sites that were degrading server performance, and with Windows Server 2003, troubleshooting is simplified. It frees up a lot of their time, to look at growth and to look at other product offerings that we could possibly make available to our customers.”
Microsoft Windows Server 2003 enables you to create a highly productive platform for powering connected applications, networks, and Web services. Windows Server 2003:
§ Enables you to deliver a reliable, secure, scalable platform for applications and network services
§ Makes it easy for you to deploy, manage, and use
§ Empowers you with a complete server platform to quickly build connected solutions
§ Enables you to maximize business value by leveraging the largest partner solution ecosystem
For more information about Windows Server 2003, please visit:
The Microsoft .NET Framework is an integral Windows® component that supports building and running the next generation of applications and XML Web services.
For more information about the .NET Framework, go to:
WebCentral has become a leader in the Australian Web hosting industry, with state-of-the-art operations around the Asia-Pacific region. WebCentral was judged the best Web hosting company in Australia by APC magazine in November 2002.
Problems were occurring on shared Web servers that were hosting sites with a high proportion of dynamic content. If poorly designed, these resource-intensive applications placed exceptional demands on the Web server. Problem sites were identified manually by engineers, which often took many hours.
Microsoft® Windows Server™ 2003 enabled WebCentral to offer a broader range of technical options to their clients, including Microsoft ASP.NET Web forms. These technologies could be offered on a profitable and secure basis, in a way that would enhance the reliability of the Web hosting environment.
§ Improved scalability provides ability to run more than triple the number of sites per server
§ Consolidated servers reduces maintenance requirements
§ Substantially improved reliability due to the improved isolation of hosted sites
Software and Services
Microsoft® Windows Server 2003 with Active Directory® directory service, Internet Information Server 6.0, and .NET Framework 1.1
Microsoft SQL Server™ 2000
Microsoft Visual Studio® .NET
Microsoft Exchange Server 2000
“We view Windows 2003 as the cornerstone of our strategic direction because it is the ideal platform for our customers to integrate their business systems with the internet. We are expecting a reduction in the total cost of managing our 1300 servers because we can use a more centralized management approach.”
“Windows Server 2003 enables us to offer the features that our customers want in a manner that is acceptable to us from a manageability and security perspective. The stability that the platform provides has added value to our business by reducing maintenance, and that value is imperative to moving the business forward… with Windows Server 2003, troubleshooting is simplified. It frees up a lot of their time, to look at growth and to look at other product offerings that we could possibly make available to our customers.”
Group Product Manager
“We are expecting to be running more than triple the number of sites per server that we currently operate with. On servers that are running fairly basic Web sites, such as those with static HTML content, we may even be able to look at scaling the number of sites per server even further than what our current expectations are.”
For More Information
For more information about Microsoft products or services in Australia, contact Microsoft on 13 20 58. To access information via the Web, go to www.microsoft.com/australia/business.
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