Web acceleration options on the cheap

Like the fancy sports car you can’t afford to drive, many Web server front-end products are simply beyond the budget. The good news is that you can cheaply add directly to your Web servers many of the same speed-enhancing techniques these products use that will help you improve equipment and bandwidth utilization and boost the end-user experience.

HTTP compression can be added to most Web servers quite cheaply. In the case of Apache, mod_gzip or mod_deflate -open source tools you can readily find on the Web – are common solutions.

For Microsoft Corp. servers running IIS 6, compression is a native feature and requires a simple configuration change to enable basic features, although detailed configuration can be troublesome without using specialized utilities or registry editing. There is also a thriving market for third-party HTTP compression filters for IIS including httpZip from Port80 Software and TurboIIS. Do understand that when using compression you should see an increase CPU load on your server, but typically most Web servers have plenty of cycles to spare because they are often doing very little as they are network- or disk-bound.

Interestingly during testing, we base-lined the units against IIS 6 native compression, and it turned out to actually offer more compression in many cases. For example, in one test with default settings IIS6 compression reduced a 500K test to 136,610 bytes with the next best result being Redline at 162,031 bytes. While tuning should bring the appliances closer to the IIS result, given that all approaches use the same technology at their heart, the initial results certainly would surprise most observers.

To help offload servers you may consider setting up a reverse proxy. This is often done using on open source program called Squid (http://www.squid-cache.org/). Windows environments may often employ Microsoft’s ISA Server instead, but consider that your proxy cache doesn’t necessarily need to be the same technology as your origin server.

To improve end-user caching you may want to add cache control headers into the output of your Web application or using freeware: mod_expires for Apache or CacheRight for IIS.

If you have load problems because of specialized content such as multimedia or SSL traffic you might simply segment your load using DNS. For example, images.sitename.com and store.sitename.com might be dedicated solely to do specialized work such as deliver images or perform encrypted e-commerce transaction and have simple link changes balance traffic directly. Making hardware modifications such as adding in a relatively inexpensive SSL co-processor card from vendors like HP (AXL300 card) might also be in order for a specialized server.

No hardware or software is required for one of the most important efforts you can make to improve the delivery of a Web site – informing your Web designers and developers that delivery does indeed matter. Unoptimized Web pages may cost an organization much more in hardware and bandwidth than you might guess. Simple changes to pages such as reducing the number of requested objects such as images in a page, building the site to be more cache-friendly, rewriting Web pages to not use bulky, table-oriented HTML, or simply removing white space from HTML, CSS and JavaScript may only save 30 to 50 per cent in overall file size. But then again, this saving will compound over time and thus aggregate bandwidth, and server utilization savings may indeed be quite significant.

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