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Web Hosting Provider Enables Unprecedented Access to Services, Wows Customers
August 19, 2008
No shared hosting service provider would agree to provide full server administrator privileges directly to customers—yet increasing numbers of customers at DiscountASP.NET wanted to modify their Microsoft® Windows Server® 2003 and Internet Information Services (IIS) 6.0-based Web sites using parameters that required such privileges. DiscountASP.NET had built a set of tools accessible through a control panel that enabled indirect access to some of these parameters, but developing those tools was a complex and costly process. Under Microsoft Windows Server 2008 and IIS 7.0, though, DiscountASP.NET officials have found that they can use the Web server’s feature delegation capabilities and ASP.NET enhancements to enable customer access to key Web service parameters quickly, securely, and more cost-effectively than ever.
After five years of supporting thousands of Web developers and businesses that wanted to take full advantage of the server-side application processing capabilities offered by Microsoft ASP.NET technologies, Microsoft Gold Certified hosting partner DiscountASP.NET had a very good sense for what its customers wanted from a Web hosting environment. DiscountASP.NET also knew exactly how far it could go to meet those needs using Microsoft Windows Server 2003 and Internet Information Services (IIS) 6.0—and in some cases that was not as far as customers wanted to go. There are certain Web site parameters—such as changing directory browsing privileges or changing read and write privileges—that for security reasons require server administrator privileges. Because handling these kinds of customer change requests on an individual basis would create an unscalable situation, DiscountASP.NET built a special set of tools within its control panel to handle these kinds of Web site parameter modifications. That effort, though, required considerable research and development, quality assurance testing, and staff training.
DiscountASP.NET managers recognized that refusing direct access to these parameters was not an ideal situation. Their customers are sophisticated, always trying to push the boundaries of what is possible on a Web site. They understood that their customers wanted more flexibility, and typically they had perfectly valid reasons for requesting access to these kinds of parameters. Yet while DiscountASP.NET has always excelled at meeting its customers’ needs—indeed, the company has been named Best Hosting Service in asp.net PRO magazine’s readers’ choice poll for four years in a row—providing direct access and the privileges to manipulate these Web site parameters was just not an option. To do so could put the reliability, security, and performance of shared server resources at risk, and that was unacceptable.
Was there another way for customers to gain easy access to the more sophisticated resources and features they wanted without putting server reliability, security, or performance at risk? This was the real challenge keeping the technical decision-makers at DiscountASP.NET awake at night.
DiscountASP.NET prides itself on staying on the cutting edge of technology, and as a beta-tester for Microsoft Windows Server 2008, it soon found a straightforward solution to this challenge. It could offer its clients easy access to core Web server services—even many of those that had previously required administrator privileges—without compromising server reliability, security, or performance by offering a new shared hosting service based on Microsoft Windows Server 2008 with IIS 7.0 and ASP.NET 3.5.
Internet Information Services 7.0
IIS 7.0 is the next generation Web server from Microsoft. It has been updated and re-architected to provide exactly the kind of flexibility and ease of use that DiscountASP.NET’s customers have been seeking. At the same time, it has been refined and strengthened to ensure still greater performance, reliability, and security for all the users in a shared server environment. Key features include:
Modular Architecture: IIS 7.0 has been designed to enable a hosting service provider such as DiscountASP.NET to customize the installation of Web server features. Microsoft has re-architected the server into more than 40 feature modules that can be installed on the server independently.
Comprehensive Extensibility Interfaces: The flexible, extensible architecture of IIS 7.0 presents new opportunities for customizing the Web server. The core Web server features have been built using a new set of public Web server application programming interfaces (APIs) that DiscountASP.NET can use to extend, replace, or add functionality to the Web server itself.
Unified, Distributable Configuration Model: The enhanced administration capabilities of IIS 7.0 make deploying and managing Web applications in this environment straightforward and efficient. IIS 7.0 provides developers and administrators with a unified configuration system for storing all IIS and ASP.NET settings in a single XML format, and includes a set of managed code and scripting APIs for accessing configuration information for the entire Web platform. This new configuration system supports distributed configuration files, which can be stored along with Web site or application content. By decoupling Web site and application settings from a single centralized configuration store for the server, each Web site owner, even on a shared server, can configure their Web site without affecting any other site on the server.
Enhanced Administration Tools: IIS 7.0 offers a broad set of administration features that simplify the day-to-day tasks of managing Web sites and applications. The software includes a new graphical user interface (GUI) administration tool, a new command-line utility, a new managed API, and a new Windows Management Instrumentation (WMI) provider for automating administration tasks. All of these new administration features provide unified support for managing IIS and ASP.NET settings together.
A Popular Preview
Eager to see how well it could meet its customers’ desires for greater flexibility and control, DiscountASP.NET enhanced its existing control panel to work directly with the new APIs available in IIS 7.0. Then, in mid-2007, it launched a preview of the new hosted service it intended to offer upon the official release of Windows Server 2008 and IIS 7.0. Despite the fact that the preview service was based on the beta versions of these new products, more than 2,000 customers had soon signed up to explore the service that DiscountASP.NET intended to offer.
For DiscountASP.NET customers and administrators alike, Windows Server 2008 with IIS 7.0 provides quite tangible benefits. The fact that the new architecture of IIS 7.0 enables DiscountASP.NET to delegate authority and offer site owners direct access to a wide range of Web server-level services—yet without affecting other sites on a shared server—is enabling DiscountASP.NET to deliver the flexibility and service choices that its customers have long requested. At the same time, because customers can make those choices themselves and change the server parameters as they deem fit, DiscountASP.NET administrators spend less time building special tools to handle customer change requests and more time working on matters that are of greater strategic value for the company.
Feature Delegation Enables Greater Flexibility
The feature delegation capabilities of IIS 7.0 provide customers with more direct access to, and more granular control of, core settings of their Web sites and applications. Instead of having to make a global setting at the server level customers can now control settings on a per-site basis using the Web configuration file.
“The feature delegation capabilities of IIS 7.0 enable us to put control of IIS 7 settings right into the hands of our customers,” says Takeshi Eto, Vice President of Marketing and Business Development for DiscountASP.NET, “and that’s huge. We can select which features we want to delegate, and the customers can then manage those settings themselves, which gives customers much more control. For example, we’ve delegated the ability to set Web site trust levels to the customer. The default setting is at the medium-trust level, but our customers can come in and change that setting for their individual sites if they want to—simply by editing their web.config file or using IIS Manager.”
“We could do some delegation before,” adds Frank Cheung, Chief Technical Officer (CTO) of DiscountASP.NET, “but there were still security issues. Microsoft has overcome those issues in IIS 7. The delegation capabilities are much stronger, so if a customer wants to allow only their Web developers to access certain directories, for instance, they can delegate that authority to those designated developers and no one else. That’s a real benefit to us at DiscountASP.NET, because it greatly reduces our time to market. We don’t need to build special tools to enable access to services. We don’t need to take the time to configure sites ourselves. It’s great for everyone.”
Ease of Extensibility Adds Value
While customers could see a very clear value in the ability to attach customized configuration files to their Web sites, this feature introduced a situation with which they had never had to cope before. The file in which they saved their site parameters—the web.config file—is the same file that other tools use to save site parameters. So, customers developing scripts using the Microsoft Visual Studio® development environment, for example, are writing information to the same web.config file. As a consequence of this, some customers were finding that they were inadvertently overwriting their web.config files and losing the critical site parameters. As soon as DiscountASP.NET managers became aware of this problem, they could see an easy solution. The extensibility of IIS 7.0 makes it easy to add functionality to the base functionality of the server—in the form of modules that all Web sites can access. DiscountASP.NET developed a new IIS module that would automatically perform backups on a site’s web.config file. The module also provides functionality to restore a web.config file from backup, which ensures that no customer loses a web.config file because of an accidental overwrite. A backup copy is always just a click away.
“Another innovation that we’ve introduced is what we call our ‘Open Control Panel initiative’,” says Eto. “We’ve exposed some of our own control panel functionality through a Web services API, and that enables customers to develop their own applications to interact programmatically with the DiscountASP.NET control panel. For example, we’ve exposed an API to our SQL Server® backup tool, so instead of having to go into our control panel manually to initiate a backup of a SQL Server database, a customer can now programmatically access that service. It’s all part of our philosophy about giving more control to the customer.”
Experience Increases Customer Satisfaction
Today, more than 40 percent of the new business at DiscountASP.NET is on its new shared hosting service based on Windows Server 2008 with IIS 7 and ASP.NET 3.5. Customer satisfaction is running very high, with more than 90 percent of customers responding to a recent survey indicating that they were either satisfied or extremely satisfied with their experiences at DiscountASP.NET. The flexibility and extensibility that customers are seeing in IIS 7 is no doubt playing a role in these numbers.
“Most large hosters are trying hard to lock down their systems,” says Eto. “That makes it easier for them to manage their systems, but it also makes them much less flexible. Our customers want to explore all the features of a Web server. They want security, but flexibility too. With IIS 7.0 we can deliver exactly that.”
Microsoft Communications Sector
Microsoft Communications Sector delivers integrated, adaptable, comprehensive solutions built on innovative software. These solutions help communications service providers develop, deploy, and evolve customized and differentiated offerings that enhance the user experience.
For more information about Microsoft solutions for the Communications Sector, go to: www.microsoft.com/serviceproviders.
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