Web server clustering for Windows-centric sites

By Thomas Powell, Network World |  Software

"Web Review"High availability and scalability are desirable for any Web site. Unfortunately, far too often high prices for software and hardware, in conjunction with complex implementations, have kept the solution to these problems -- through the load balancing of relatively low-cost servers -- out of reach for many Web professionals.

Microsoft Application Center 2000 promises to bring software-based scalability of Web sites down to the realm of the mere mortal IT professional. Unfortunately, Microsoft hasn't met this promise with the product's recent release.

Application Center 2000 packs an impressive list of capabilities. The core function of the product is to provide improved reliability and scalability of a site through software-based clustering and load balancing. The company claims the product makes it relatively easy to manage a set of servers as if they were a single server, which is true. The product makes it relatively painless to initially stage, deploy and continually synchronize diverse sets of components (such as HTML, image and Active Server Pages files, as well as site and server settings) among all the servers in the cluster.

This is one of the strongest features of this product. Once it's running, the clustered Web site benefits greatly from improved reliability and scalability, as demonstrated during our simulated load tests. However, getting to that point isn't easy or without inherent limitations.

Installation of the product was not smooth. Even with application of the required Service Pack, various Post-Service Pack fixes and carefully following the instructions detailed in Microsoft's documentation, it took numerous tries to install the software. With factory-fresh systems, it's unlikely that the typical "try a clean install" advice would make much of a difference. However, after repeated efforts, we got a stable three-system cluster up and running.

Basic management of the cluster is relatively smooth. Application Center 2000 uses the familiar Microsoft Management Console (MMC) snap-in. Management can be performed from another system using a client installation of the software. A Web-based interface gives administrators real remote access, and a command line interface was available for those looking for raw access for scripting. Interestingly, some important commands appear to be only available via the command line, such as the "clean" command that we issued numerous times after systems became corrupted when removed from the cluster. However, assuming correct operation, the basic tasks -- such as creating a cluster and then adding, deleting and managing the availability and health of servers in the cluster -- are easy to perform from the MMC snap-in.

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