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Fire In The Belly

A saying claims that you can never be too rich or too thin, but the modern equivalent is that you can never have too much bandwidth (and all of you with T3 connections to the Internet can just keep quiet). A new product from ClearWay Technologies promises to provide the bandwidth that many of us want for our Web servers but can't afford. Called FireSite, the Web server plug-in essentially increases the effective bandwidth of relatively low-speed Internet connections, taking a 28.8 Kbps dedicated modem connection up to an effective speed of 75 to 100 Kbps, for instance.


Needless to say, it's not possible to push more data through a 28.8 Kbps modem with FireSite than without. FireSite works its magic by selectively moving data to another Web server (such as the one your Internet provider runs) with a high-speed connection. FireSite then serves small HTML files over the low-speed line, and redirects requests for large files (like graphics and animations) off to a Web server on the high-speed line.

Of course, that's the most simplistic way to explain how FireSite works. In fact, if that were all there was to it, you could duplicate the technique manually by simply placing your graphics on another Web server and linking them in with absolute URLs. Many people do this already, and products like Maxum's RushHour (a Web server dedicated to serving large graphics and similar files) aid the process somewhat. But, what about your logs? If the graphics exist on a different server, they won't show up in your log files. Also, managing files on multiple servers is a major pain.


FireSite solves these problems through clever use of a relational database that tracks information about files on your Web site. Using adaptive algorithms based on file size and popularity, it moves certain files from your Web server up to your slave Web server, renaming them with ISO 9660 filenames and staying within disk space limits that you set. Then, when someone requests a page that uses one of those files, FireSite intercepts the HTTP request and redirects it out to the slave server. In other words, when someone visits a site that has been "replicated" by FireSite, the overall response rate will seem much faster than it would if all the parts of the Web pages were served over the slow connection. Should the slave server go down (FireSite monitors it constantly), FireSite simply stops redirecting requests until it comes back up again.

ClearWay sells two versions of FireSite. The Standard Edition is initially priced at $349 and only replicates GIF and JPEG graphics to a single slave server. Initially priced at $839, the Multimedia Edition adds the capability to replicate some other data formats such as Java applets and Shockwave movies, and it can replicate those files to multiple slave servers, rotating requests among the slave servers to balance the load. The Multimedia Edition adds a "welcome mat" feature that enables you to select which pages on your Web site users can bookmark - direct accesses to unauthorized pages end up at your site's home page. Another interesting capability of the Multimedia Edition is its "anti-hijack" feature, which is designed prevent people from using the URL to one of your graphics in an <IMG> tag in their own Web pages. When FireSite detects that happening, it instead displays another graphic that you specify.

What I like the most about FireSite is that it's transparent. There are a few things to configure via a Web interface, but they're minor (such as telling it how fast your connection is and how much Web space you have available on the slave server). You can check a real-time log and some statistics on what FireSite is doing for you. It also calculates the effective bandwidth of your site when accelerated with FireSite.

Make no mistake: FireSite isn't a panacea for all bandwidth woes. You must have a dedicated Internet connection with a permanent IP number for your Web server, and those connections aren't nearly as inexpensive as the more common "unlimited" personal Internet connections that have dynamic IP numbers. Prices range widely, but a dedicated 28.8 Kbps dialup connection can cost anywhere from $75 to $150 per month, in comparison with the average $22.50 per month price of a personal account. However, since a 56K frame relay or ISDN connection can cost $300 to $400 per month, FireSite can pay for itself rather quickly by ameliorating monthly charges. FireSite's not cheap, but ClearWay is betting that the savings on the Internet connections are sufficient to make the financial equation come out clearly in FireSite's favor.

FireSite requires about 3 MB of RAM and can use 10 MB or so of disk space for its database, and it only works with Macintosh Web servers that support WebSTAR plug-ins (also known as the WS*API). It's probably unnecessary for many small Web servers that can serve all their files over a slow Internet connection with no trouble, but if you're running a Mac Web server over a relatively slow connection and need better performance from your site, FireSite is well worth a look.

ClearWay Technologies -- 888/552-5327 -- <>


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