Product review: ChiliSoft gives ASP sizzle to Unix

Perhaps the best part of Microsoft's Internet Information Server (IIS), Active Server Pages (ASP) scripting technology has changed the face of Web development. ASP allows developers to more easily deploy interactive content, trimming project time lines and related personnel costs. But using ASP means running Windows NT, an unacceptable condition for many administrators due to the NOS' notoriously poor reliability and scalability.

However, with ChiliASP, you can use ASP technology without stepping down to PC servers or Microsoft operating systems. ChiliSoft has licensed ASP from Microsoft and ported it to two popular Unix environments -- Solaris and AIX. As a result, you can reap the benefits of ASP on powerful Sun and IBM servers.

I loaded ChiliASP, Version 1.2.1, on a Sun Ultra 10 workstation with 256Mbytes of RAM and a 333MHz UltraSparc CPU. ChiliSoft is not compatible with Solaris 7, so I tested it with Solaris 2.6.

For the Web server, I used Version 3.61 of Netscape's Enterprise Server. ChiliASP also works with several other Unix Web servers, including Netscape's FastTrack, Apache, and Lotus' Domino series. If you run an Apache, Lotus, Netscape, or O'Reilly Web server using Windows NT, ChiliASP will work for you as well.

Anyone who develops ASP content knows there's more to Active Server Pages than the JScript and VBScript languages. ASP is inexorably tied to a number of proprietary Windows facilities, and I expected ChiliSoft to gloss over the absence of these in Unix. To the contrary, ChiliSoft has carried three key Windows technologies -- Component Object Model (COM), ActiveX Data Objects (ADO) and ODBC -- to Unix.

Through Mainsoft's Mainwin COM support, ChiliASP is compatible with ASP scripts that use FileSystem, BrowserCaps and ADO COM objects. These give ASP developers access to server-hosted files, catalog the capabilities of a user's browser and ease database interaction, respectively.

To support ADO, ChiliASP includes Unix ODBC drivers for most popular relational databases, plus a Dbase driver for small-scale local databases. Although ChiliSoft's documentation refers to it, a Unix ODBC driver for Microsoft SQL Server is absent. This may be of little consequence -- if you're running SQL Server on Windows NT, why not use native ASP as well? -- but the driver's no-show was sloppy.

Setup and configuration is not something you will want to leave to one of your Windows NT staffers. Although installation isn't unnecessarily difficult, Unix know-how is a must because the documentation is spotty and the installer requires several manual steps.

But I can't complain much about ChiliASP's performance and compatibility. It met every challenge, running a mix of VBScript and JScript code with aplomb. Integration with my Netscape Enterprise Server was very tight.

ChiliASP also lived up to its promise to run most ASP scripts without modification. I was able to push several pages from Windows NT to Solaris with identical execution on both platforms. COM support is seamless and quick, and I brought database-enabled code to Solaris without trouble.

ChiliASP lags behind native ASP in a few areas, however. The supplied VBScript and JScript engines are Version 3.0, well behind the current, Version 5.0, Windows release. This deprives developers of useful features such as JScript error handling.

Microsoft Transaction Server (MTS) functionality is missing from ChiliASP as well. ASP scripts created for high-demand applications rely on MTS to supply transparent transaction and object-pooling capabilities. ChiliSoft ASP developers will have to find other ways to build in reliability.

You can leverage the Java tools bundled with Solaris to extend the capabilities of your ChiliASP pages, but NT developers may miss the capability to create native objects for ASP use in VB or Visual J++. To make up for that, ChiliSoft is releasing ChiliBeans -- a Java-to-COM gateway that lets you instantiate Java classes in ASP script the same way you would a COM class -- with Version 3.0 of ChiliSoft ASP. (The company announced the availability of Version 3.0 at press time.)Because ChiliASP bridges Windows NT and Unix, only developers comfortable with both can make the most of it. Platform-specific developers on either side will require training to make ChiliASP worth the investment. A Unix developer, for instance, will have to learn the nifty things ASP can do, while an NT developer with slim Unix experience will be intimidated by ChiliASP's configuration and management.

To make the product more accessible to Web developers who aren't Unix-savvy, ChiliSoft needs to improve its documentation and build a Web-based management interface. As it stands, don't put one of your ASP coders on ChiliASP unless you're prepared to handle management on her or his behalf. However, if you're fortunate enough to have a developer or two with experience in both worlds, I would jump on ChiliASP in a heartbeat to bring Unix-class scalability and reliability to commercial ASP applications.

Tom Yager (tyager@maxx.net) is a project lead at Healthweb Systems, in Irving, Texas. He specialiSes in application development, databases and operating systems.

The bottom line: very good

ChiliASP, Version 1.2.1

Summary: ChiliSoft has licensed Microsoft's Active Server Pages (ASP) technology for use on Unix and non-Internet Information Server Windows NT Web servers. Compatibility is top-notch, and the product does not omit related Microsoft-specific technologies.

Business Case: With ChiliASP, you can reap the benefits of Active Server Pages (ASP) Web technology -- streamlined development of sophisticated interactive content -- on scalable, reliable Unix instead of flaky Windows NT.

Pros

-- Excellent compatibility

-- Seamless integration with Web servers-- Component Object Model (COM), ActiveX Data Objects (ADO), and ODBC supportCons-- Manual configuration and management-- No Microsoft Transaction Server equivalent-- Older scripting engines-- Poor documentationCost: $US3995, Sun Solaris and IBM AIX; $995 to $1995, Windows NT.

Platforms: Sun Solaris (Sparc only) Versions 2.51 or 2.6; IBM AIX Version 4.3; Windows NT 4.0 with Service Pack 3; Netscape, Apache, Lotus and O'Reilly Web serversChiliSoft, Bellevue, Washington, http://www.chilisoft.com

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