Image Management With TrueSpectra Image Server
With all the complicated server software on the market (application servers in particular) it was a pleasure to work with a server that does something that can be described in a single sentence: The TrueSpectra Image Server dynamically renders images. TrueSpectra Image Server is unique enough to be describable in a single sentence: It dynamically renders images. This simple functionality goes deeper than that summary though. For starters, instead of making copious versions of an image, one image is all that's needed -- a huge boon for organizations with image-heavy Web sites.
Basically, you can take one image resize it, copy it, watermark it, frame it (and more) as much as you like, and it will all be delivered to Web pages by the TrueSpectra server. Instead of making copious versions of an image, one image is all that's needed.
It's a simple approach, and one that is well-executed by Image Server, which can pay off handsomely for Web sites that have high-image traffic.
Although Image Server can run on an Apache Web server computer as a plug-in, the typical high-volume uses that are very appropriate for TrueSpectra Image Server renders a dedicated server de rigueur.
Installing and configuring Image Server is straightforward (whether on Solaris or Windows) and requires nothing more than familiarity with Web protocols and general Web server operations. The Configuration Manager is used for most of the setup. It's unusually well-designed and easy to use. The documentation also deserves kudos for clarity and good design. We particularly liked the "How To ..." guide, which shows by example how to use many of the server's features. In many cases, this will be all the Web designer needs to integrate his or her work with Image Server.
An Image System
Image Server can perform a number of tricks with images, but the two things that give it real clout are its cabilities to deliver lots of images quickly and to modify images on the fly. An exemplary application would be a retail catalog site that must display hundreds (or thousands) of product images -- including zooms, close-ups, and marketing information. Instead of making hundreds of near-duplicate derivative images for each product, Image Server can take a single image and resize it, as well as add text, frames, and other enhancements -- thus saving designers a lot of work and reducing the overhead of maintaining so many images. Image Server supports a wide variety of image formats, including: PSD, JPEG, GIF, TIFF, BMP, FPX, PCX, PNG, and EPS.
Just as it's typical for data to be processed by specialized software on a dedicated server, Image Server provides this feature for images. We found that, in general, its greatest performance enhancement comes from it being a dedicated server rather a Web server from which images are loaded. This is especially true if you are using Image Server to manipulate the images. Scaling by using multiple servers appears to be possible, but it seems to fall into a customized use of Image Server with third-party hardware and software (e.g., Akamai and Exodus), and it isn't fully covered by the Configuration Manager.
A Development Tool Suite
TrueSpectra Image Server doesn't create images, but its suite of tools provides the Web designer with a number of ways to alter and combine images for dynamic presentation. The suite includes: Browse Tool (for viewing altered images from Design Tool), Design Tool (for adding image enhancements), Image URL Generators (for making the link to Web servers), Layer Editor (for image overlays), and Publishing Tool (for converting images to flashpix format).
The key to TrueSpectra's approach is disarmingly simple. Take an "image URL," for example, http://your_server/casualwear.fpx?wid=250&cvt=jpeg. This is an HTML query string that contains all the information needed by Image Server to locate and manipulate an image and return it to the Web server. The approach makes it possible to work within HTTP and HTML without the use of scripting. The Image URL Generator makes formulating these URLs relatively easy.
The various special effects and image manipulations available through Image Server can be manually added with an image URL, but most users will prefer to use the Design Tool. Here you can design and view visual watermarks, drop shadows, resize and crop images, overlay text (this can be linked to an external database), and perform other enhancements before adding them to Image Server URL.
The Layer Editor is a tool that will be most appreciated by experienced Web designers. It can hide, show, and transform image elements to build sophisticated dynamic layered images. The Publishing Tool does the basics of transferring image files to an Image Server folder, but in the process it can also convert images (of supported formats) to the flashpix format. Without this step, Image Server will itself make the conversion when an image is first called, which adds to the overhead. The Publishing Tool can also add ICC color profiles and convert layered Photoshop (.psd) files to discrete .fpx files so Image Server can use them for image compositing.
These tools are simple and useful, but we feel that much of the power of Image Server will come from hooking up the various image enhancements with applications designed to take advantage of the dynamic rendering. This is where TrueSpectra's support for Java, .NET, and especially Macromedia's products comes into play. While Java and .NET have more generic support through scripting calls, TrueSpectra offers Image Server Extensions for Macromedia Dreamweaver (developed by WebAssist). Obviously, integral use of the flashpix format also goes hand in hand with good connections to Macromedia development tools.
For small Web sites, TrueSpectra offers the Developer Edition, which has a rated capacity of 13 images per second for up to 25 simultaneous users -- roughly 200,000 page views per month. For more typical applications -- running into millions of views per month (or even per day) -- the $8,500 Image Server Edition is a better solution.
It should be noted that TrueSpectra Image Server isn't for every Web site, but it is beneficial for sites with heavy image throughput or those that must highlight graphics delivery in some way. There is no better way to do it than with Image Server. It does its job and it does it well.
Pros: Simple to understand and use, yet delivers performance and flexibility for image delivery
Cons: Large Web sites using multiple Image Servers might wish for more complete configuration and monitoring tools
Reviewed By: Nelson King
Original Review Date: 10/30/2002