10 Tips for Making the Most of Your IIS

Wednesday Oct 23rd 2002 by ServerWatch Staff
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Defending IIS to the Apache crowd can be a daunting prospect. Matt Foley, a former Solaris sys admin and current Windows fan, defends IIS and outlines 10 ways to make it as functional, secure, and easy to administer as Apache.

By Matt J. Foley

As an IIS administrator, it sometimes gets downright annoying having to fend off all of the insults from the Apache admins I meet who claim innate server superiority. Generally, the discussion about Web administration starts with all the various security holes plaguing IIS and the negative press the platform garnered during the past year. Then, it invariably moves to a discussion about how Netcraft and other stats sites show Apache as the dominant server on the Web, or how a certain big site uses Apache, or how there are so many cool modules to add to Apache.

Pointing out that scads of non-identified corporate in-house servers run IIS, or that it too is a free server (since it comes with the operating system), or that there are in fact plenty of cool add-ons for IIS (including many that provide source code) does little to dissuade these server chauvinists of their opinion.

But rather than whining about rude Apache admins, I thought a more useful response would be to simply write down some of the ways I've found to improve IIS. So without further delay here are my Top 10 tips for making the most of your IIS.

Tip 10: Customize Your Error Pages
Although this is quite simple to do, few people seem to take advantage of it. Just select the "Custom Errors" tab in MMC and map each error, such as 404, to the appropriate HTML or ASP template. Full details can be found here. If you want an even easier solution -- or if you want to let developers handle the mapping without giving them access to the MMC -- use a product like CustomError.

Tip 9: Dive Into the MetaBase
If you think Apache is powerful because it has a config file, then take a look at the MetaBase. You can do just about anything you want with IIS by editing the MetaBase. For example, you can create virtual directories and servers; stop, start, and pause Web sites; and create, delete, enable, and disable applications.

Microsoft provides a GUI utility called MetaEdit, which is somewhat similar to RegEdit, to help you read from and write to the MetaBase. Download the latest version here.

But to really impress those Unix admins -- and to take full advantage of the MetaBase by learning how to manipulate it programmatically -- you'll want to try out the command-line interface, officially called the IIS Administration Script Utility. Its short name is adsutil.vbs, and you'll find it in C:\inetpub\adminscripts or in %SystemRoot%\system32\inetsrv\adminsamples, along with a host of other useful administrative scripts.

A word of caution though: Like Apache conf files, the MetaBase is crucial to the functioning of your Web server, so don't ruin it. Back it up first.

Tip 8: Add Spell Checking to Your URLs
Apache folks always brag about the cool little tricks of which Apache is capable -- especially because of the wealth of modules that can extend the server's basic functionality. One of the coolest of these is the capability to fix URL typos using a module called mod_speling. A recent product offering from Port80 Software now makes it possible for IIS admins to do this trick too, using an ISAPI filter called URLSpellCheck. You can check it out on Port80's site by trying URLs like www.urlspellcheck.com/fak.htm, www.urlspellcheck.com/faq1.htm -- or any other simple typo you care to make.

Tip 7: Rewrite Your URLs
Cleaning your URLs has all sorts of benefits -- it can improve the security of your site, ease migration woes, and provide an extra layer of abstraction to your Web applications. Moving from a ColdFusion- to an ASP-based site, for example, is no big deal if you can remap the URLs. Apache users have long bragged about the huge power of mod_rewrite -- the standard Apache module for URL rewriting. Well, there are now literally a dozen versions of this type of product for IIS, and many of them are quite a bit easier to use than mod_rewrite, which tends to presume familiarity with regular expression arcana. Check out, for example, IIS ReWrite or ISAPI ReWrite.

Tip 6: Add Browser Detection
There are many ways to build Web sites, but assuming everybody has a certain browser or screen size is just plain stupid. Simple JavaScript sniff-scripts exist for client-side browser detection, but if you are an IIS user you can do better with a product called BrowserHawk from CyScape. The Apache world doesn't really have something comparable to this popular, mature, and well-supported product. And speaking of CyScape, it recently added an interesting-looking related product called CountryHawk that helps with location detection. So far, however, I haven't had the language- or location-sensitive content to warrant trying it out.

Tip 5: Gzip Site Content
Browsers can handle Gzipped and deflated content and decompress it on the fly. Although IIS 5 had a gzip feature built-in, it is pretty much broken. Enter products like Pipeboost to offer better functionality -- similar to what Apache users have enjoyed with mod_gzip. Don't waste your bandwidth -- even Google encodes its content, and its pages are tiny.

Tip 4: Cache Your Content
While I'm on the topic of improving performance, remember to make your site cache friendly. You can set expiration headers for different files or directories right from the MMC. Just right click on an item via the IIS MMC, flip to the "HTTP Headers" tab, and away you go. If you want to set cache control headers programmatically -- or even better, let your site developers do it -- use something like CacheRight. If you want to go further and add reverse proxy caching, particularly for generated content, a product like XCache, which also throws in compression, is a good choice.

Taking full advantage of caching might involve more time and expense, but when you watch your logs shrink because they don't contain tons of pointless 304 responses, and your bandwidth consumption drops like a stone, even while total page views increase during the same period, you'll start to understand why this particular tip was so important. Cache friendly sites are quite rare, but plenty of information is available online about the enormous benefits to be had by doing it right: Check out Brian Davidson's page, this nifty tutorial from Mark Nottingham, and even what AOL has to say on the subject.

Tip 3: Tune Your Server
Tuning IIS is no small topic -- whole books and courses are dedicated to it. But some good basic help is available online, such as this piece from IIS guru Brett Hill, or this Knowledge Base article from Microsoft itself. However, if you don't feel like getting your hands dirty -- or can't afford the time and expense of turning yourself into an expert -- take a look at XTune, from the makers of XCache. It's performance tuning wizards step you through the process of tuning your IIS environment, making expert recommendations along the way.

Tip 2: Secure Your Server With Simple Fixes
Sure people are going to attack sites, but you don't have to be a sitting duck if you're willing to make even a small effort. First off, don't advertise the fact that you are running IIS by showing your HTTP server header. Remove or replace it using something like ServerMask -- probably the best $25 you'll ever spend. You can go even farther than this by removing unnecessary file extensions to further camouflage your server environment, and scanning request URLs for signs of exploits. A number of commercial products provide user input scanning, and Microsoft offers a free tool called URLScan that does the job. URLScan runs in conjunction with IISLockDown, a standard security package that should probably be installed on every IIS server on the planet. These are simple fixes that could pay off big, so do them now.

Tip 1: Patch, Patch, Patch!
Okay, we in the IIS world do have to patch our systems and make hotfixes. However, as a former Solaris admin I had to do the same thing there, so I am not sure why this is a big surprise. You really must keep up with the patches. Microsoft is of course the definitive source, but if you can, also use the highly-regarded www.cert.org. Simply search on "IIS".

Well there you have it: 10 tips for IIS admins to improve their servers. Some of the tips might become obsolete once IIS 6 is gold, but, for now at least, Windows 2000 and NT IIS admins should apply a few of these today and sleep a little better at night.

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