Upgrading www6: You can make a difference

by Francis Chu

Central web hosting service was set up to provide a consolidated, fully monitored and managed environment for hosting departmental web sites and project web sites. Two standard platforms are provided for web hosting, one for Unix/Solaris (www.cityu.edu.hk) and the other for Microsoft Windows Server (www6.cityu.edu.hk). With these web hosting services, website owners can concentrate on the development of their web contents without worrying about the server administration, security, patches, backup or operational support of the web servers. It can also eradicate the level of risks of having many web servers distributed among departments and around the campus which, if not properly managed, may be vulnerable to hacking and attacking activities.

With the increasing popularity of Internet Information Server (IIS) on Windows Server and the database support of Microsoft SQL Server, more and more websites have been set up on or migrated to www6, for example the CityU NewsCentre. The web access rate had significantly increased to a high volume. To be able to handle current access and manage future growth, both hardware and software of www6 have been upgraded successfully on 18 Nov 2008.

In the new system structure, two high-end models of Dell servers running Microsoft Windows Server 2003 and IIS 6.0 are connected to a load balancer. All web contents are located in the Network Attached Storage (NAS) device. Both web servers can access the same or different web contents on the NAS directly which can then solve the concurrent read and write problems of the files while maintaining high availability and load sharing support.

When accessing www6.cityu.edu.hk, the load balancer normally distributes each access to one of the web servers which is less busy to serve the request. In case of any hardware or software failure in one of the servers, the load balancer will be able to detect the failure and stop distributing access to that web server. Web service on www6 is thus not interrupted by the failing web server. Moreover, with this configuration after upgrade, weekly reboots of the web servers can be performed in turn at alternate times to provide non-stop services during maintenance and house-keeping works.
After the upgrade, new features are also introduced in www6. They are:

  • Single-Sign-On (SSO)
    This allows login once in Blackboard, our University Portal and gains access to resources of multiple servers such as www.cityu.edu.hk and www6.cityu.edu.hk without being prompted to login again.

  • Protected directory for staff-only access
    This allows protected web pages be set up so that the web server will prompt for CityU's EID and password. Only CityU staff are allowed to view these web pages.
  • Protected directory for staff and students access
    This allows protected web pages be set up so that the web server will prompt for CityU's EID and password. Only CityU staff and students are allowed to view these web pages.
  • Microsoft .Net Framework 3.5.
    This new upgrade allows website owners able to develop compatible .NET applications ranging from v1.1 to v3.5.

In short, upgrading to more powerful hardware and higher versions of software provides better performance, enhanced security, and higher availability and reliability for the central web services. Depending on the growth of demands, the performance of web services can be further scale out transparently by adding more servers to the load balancer.