ServersDoes AOLserver Have What It Takes to Stand Out?

Does AOLserver Have What It Takes to Stand Out?

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AOLserver: Solid and fast yet undistinguished

Four years ago, AOLserver was a proprietary product offered by a subsidiary of America Online. Today, the project remains under AOL’s supervision, with participation from independent developers, and it is available as a downloadable bundle of source code. Michael Hall reviews this solid and fast offering to determine what distinguishes it from Apache and other open source offerings.

When we last looked at AOLserver, it occupied a curious space distinguished by its tight-knit relationship with Web site development tool AOLpress and some idiosyncratic platform decisions.

That was some time ago, when the project was still a proprietary product offered by a subsidiary of America Online. Since then, AOLserver and several of its companion tools have been re-absorbed by AOL, placed under an open source license (similar to AOL subsidiary
Netscape’s Mozilla project), and made available as a downloadable bundle of source code.

Today, the project remains under AOL’s supervision, but enjoys some participation from independent developers.

Although still a proprietary product, AOLserver was marked by a shrinking list of supported platforms. As an open source project, that trend has reversed. Though binary distributions may not be available for every platform (Linux and the BSD family seem best represented, with commercial Unix distributions like Solaris and HP/UX showing up as well) the source code is likely buildable on just about any platform with a GNU tool chain.

Our experience installing and setting up the server for basic service was relatively painless on a Linux testbed: The source code totals about 3.2 MB but the package has a
heavy dependence on the scripting language TCL, which required another 5 MB download and a build process. All told, the server was up and running in less than half an hour.

Users on other systems report the process is a little more difficult, especially on Windows systems where the GNU tool chain is usually an afterthought instead of an
integral part of the system.

Once installed, what you get is a basic Web server with support for
much of the functionality you’d expect: common scripting languages (PHP is
supported, there’s a project to embed Python, with similar Perl
support under way), CGI, relational database access, Java, Java
servlets, and XML processing. TCL is AOLserver’s “native” language.
SSL support is broken down into native 40-bit support (distributable
globally), or a downloadable module for 128-bit support (restricted to
use in the U.S. and select other countries). SSL support can compiled
using either RSA’s BSAFE library or the ubiquitous OpenSSL. The
server’s also a good UNIX citizen, refusing to run as the root user — a
sensible security precaution.

Configuration is fairly easy to figure out, too, which means some of the discomfort that GUI-centric administrators might feel with mucking around in a text configuration file is alleviated by sheer simplicity.

However, none of this answers the essential question, which is why an organization would choose to use AOLserver over other, more proven freely available Web
servers. The bulk of the arguments presented in the late ’90s, when there was a greater sense of fluidity in the market, have been undermined. Then, as now, Apache was the most well-known open source project. But back then its developers were still overcoming the sort of performance roadblocks AOLserver was distinguished for having already handled at the time, as it served AOL’s massive user base.

Apache is now two iterations later, and what was once the primary difference between the two in performance — Apache’s lack of threading — has been addressed.

One interesting answer to the “why AOLserver?” question presents itself in the form of the OpenACS project, a self-described “Website-in-a-box” and toolkit designed to create Web sites with an emphasis on collaboration, including tools for issue tracking, workflow, and discussion forums. Like AOLserver, TCL is the language of choice for OpenACS, so time invested learning one will pay off in the other.

Another answer, depending on one’s perspective of how well AOL serves its users, is AOL itself. The online service continues to use AOLserver for most of its busiest sites.

Pros: Nimble performance; Relatively simple installation
on UNIX platforms; Good support for RDBMSs; Free

Cons: Less simple to install and run on Windows platforms; Fewer support options than those offered by competitors; Scripting support still maturing

Reviewed by: Michael Hall
Original Review Date: 7/8/2003
Original Review Version: 4.0 Beta 8

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