A low-overhead and low-maintenance chat server that presents few demands for end users but requires some compromises
Designed to be a low-overhead and low-maintenance chat server, Unix/Linux-based Lucid Chat is a refreshing alternative to high-maintenance chat servers that do not necessarily enhance the user experience although they manage to eat up a disproportionate amount of system resources. Lucid Chat is also easy on the end user; it does not require a special chat client, but instead works with a standard Web browsers like Netscape Navigator or Microsoft Internet Explorer 4.x. Hence, there's no need for Java plug-ins, ActiveX controls, or Netscape plug-ins.
How do we define low maintenance? In terms of specific resources, Lucid Chat is a 316-KB download and requires about 3 MB of disk space for server binaries and customizable HTML templates and files. (Five MB of hard-disk space are needed during the installation process.) Lucid Chat's developers recommend that enterprises plan on using at least 16 MB of RAM (with 32 MB preferable) to support the chat daemon, as the more RAM available to the chat server, the greater the number of users that can be simultaneously supported.
There's some overhead associated with the chat process, as each chat connection requires a persistent HTTP process. However, a good Web server like Apache 1.3x will use less than 150 KB per chat user. Thus, a system with 32 MB of RAM available to a chat server should support up to 200 simultaneous users. Lucid Chat has been tested with the Apache and Netscape Commerce Web servers, and Apache is recommended.
Some compromises must be made when using such a low-overhead server, however. The biggest compromise is the lack of a total implementation of IRC conventions and commands. While users do have access to a few IRC-style commands, Lucid Chat does not support all IRC commands and conventions. For casual users in a corporate atmosphere, this isn't a big deal, but hard-core chat participants will probably miss the IRC support. Also, by working as a combination chat/Web server and not as a pure IRC/chat server, Lucid Chat forces users to utilize a Web browser to participate, rather than an IRC chat client.
Lucid Chat features streaming text from a Web interface, made possible with a proprietary socket daemon that oversees all chat traffic.
Lucid Chat is administered remotely from a Web browser, but it isn't "bloatware" that relies on the weight of an X-based graphical interface. Rather, Lucid Chat provides a low-overhead, Web-based administration interface. For those administrators who may be lacking an intimate knowledge of their Linux/BSDI/Solaris operating system which may include many system administrators who didn't necessarily set up their servers administration isn't a matter of mucking around with text-based configuration files. Rather, they can make changes from anywhere on the network via a Web browser.
Users can also edit the configuration files directly; they're rather easy to decipher and are well-documented. However, as these files are generated from the graphical front end, beginners or casual users would be well-advised to avoid messing with them.
The look and feel of Lucid Chat can also be changed from this administrative module. Enterprises can implement different layout schemes, and end users can change their Lucid Chat interface. Lucid Chat supports a wide range of languages, including Spanish, German, and Chinese, and enterprises can change the supported language. They can also change client text colors, and enable and edit all chat commands. In addition, enterprises can set up an introductory log-in page, a registration page, and a message of the day for chat rooms, as well as include banner advertising in a chat room.
The look and feel of Lucid Chat is defined by themes. A theme consists of a dozen or more images combined to form the entire interface. Lucid Chat's designers have included two alternative themes on their Web site.
Lucid Chat 1.4, which should be released soon, features plug-ins that extend the product's capabilities, including avatars, advertising, language filtering, alternative authentication modules, and more-extensive user registration capabilities. In the future, Lucid Chat 2.0 (which is promised for release in the first quarter of 2000) will be a multithreaded, single-socket-based server designed to eat even fewer system resources.
The interface presented to the end user is not necessarily the most sophisticated chat interface, but it is functional. A control panel gives users options for changing text colors, accessing help functions, customizing preferences, and moving between chat rooms. A conversation window displays the actual chat discussion, and a text input box is used to enter the user's scintillating contribution to the discussion either as a public message or in a private conversation with other users. Finally, the user list window contains a listing of all the users; two check boxes enable users to send private messages or to ignore a specific user.
Installing Lucid Chat is fairly easy; we tested it on a Slackware Linux 7.0 server with the Apache Web server. After copying the Linux distribution file to a new chat-specific directory (Lucid Chat is distributed as OS-specific binaries), users uncompress the file, run the Install command, make some well-documented changes to their Apache httpd.conf file, and perform the rest of the configuration process via a Web browser.
User information in the form of a user name, password, and e-mail address is stored in a Lucid Chat database, and users must be registered in this database before participating in a chat. In addition, other databases can be used to authenticate users: password files, SQL databases, or LDAP directories.
At $695, Lucid Chat is on the expensive end of chat servers. While we'd like to see a little more oomph for the dollar, such as extended support and a wider selection of themes, Lucid Chat remains a good choice for system administrators and ISPs that want to add chat capabilities for their customers. As a general-purpose chat tool, however, the lack of IRC support will prevent Lucid Chat from being deployed on a wider scale.
Pros: Low maintenance 7 Low overhead 7 Users can access chat rooms via a regular Web browser 7 Web-based interface simplifies administration
Cons: On the expensive side 7 Lack of themes limits look-and-feel options 7 No IRC support