Netcasting


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Establishing and maintaining your station's Internet presence is a full-time job.

Having a presence on the Internet isn't exactly a walk in the park. Some of the obstacles include buggy software, unstable hardware, and untested custom applications to be installed, configured, and secured. Building and maintaining a successful system is tough to do. It's even tougher to do it right. Why go through it alone? There are plenty of Internet service providers (ISPs) that are more than willing to help you. All you have to do is decide if you want their help, and if so, whose services you should choose.

Technology is exceedingly accessible compared with what it was just five years ago. Chances are good that there is already software that does whatever you can dream up. Why write it yourself when you can buy it? The same situation is true when getting a new server.

Anyone can set up a server today. Follow the manual, type this, install that, and it's done. But the number of people who can set up a server that doesn't need to be restarted every week, and doesn't get into a locked process loop or misallocate system resources, is decreasing. Rather than buy the components, assemble them, install an operating system, application and security software, should you just hire a company to do it for you? It's easy to be distracted by maintenance and fail to concentrate on the content.

Each situation is different, so whether or not to use an ISP is something you'll have to decide for yourself. Here are a few ideas to help steer you in the right direction. Consider all the questions carefully, and decide on your own whether or not it's worth doing it yourself anymore.

Determine resources

Are there other people who will be helping you to set up, maintain, and update the server? Many public radio stations are associated with educational institutions that already have an established information technology department. Commercial stations may be owned by a larger corporation, which may also have an existing IT department. Not only can these IT departments assist the station in procuring and configuring a server, they may already have a program in place for maintaining their servers.

How much time do you or others have to devote to the server? What skills do you and your colleagues bring to the project? Perhaps someone in your organization has some experience in Solaris or Windows NT that you can apply to this new server, or maybe you already use Novell for your network file server. If so, that's something else you won't have to re-learn with the new server before you troubleshoot it.

How much money do you have for this server? It's easy to budget the initial costs for hardware and software, but what about the future? Budget enough money for software updates, and hard drive and processor fan replacement. And budget the time to perform those upgrades. You may also need to budget for contracted maintenance on it when you have a problem you either can't solve or are too busy to solve yourself.

Finally — and perhaps most critical — how much spare bandwidth do you already have at your facilities? The addition of another server on the current network load is an important consideration. You may have to purchase more bandwidth or have another line put in.

Determine needs

Will you require a specific operating system on the server; perhaps a specific programming language or application? If you want to use ColdFusion, you won't be running RedHat on your server. To run mod_perl, you probably won't use Windows 2000. Other considerations include a secure certificate to allow online credit card submission and perhaps some sort of database connectivity — either with database software installed on that server or on a different server — to drive the website or some other function, such as a message board or collection of those credit cards.

Keep in mind the future needs of that server as well. Public radio stations could integrate their membership database with the site to allow users to customize their experience. Commercial stations can maintain a listener database as well. To do this, you may need a more powerful server than you initially thought. Plan for that now, so you don't end up having to rebuild the server in a year.

Bandwidth

Content may still be king, but bandwidth is the real power behind the throne. Whether you're serving up Web pages, discussion boards, chat rooms, mailing lists, or streaming media, it all comes down to bandwidth. It can be difficult to determine how much is enough.

Companies such as Akamai specialize in providing unlimited streams for everything from special events to everyday radio broadcasts. Typical cost is about 1cent/MB per stream. But how much bandwidth is enough? A decent audio stream can be done at 24kb/s. Let's make the numbers easier and work with 20kb/s. One person listening to your station over the Net will cost about $15 each week. A 24-hour Web stream will cost $788 per year at 20kb/s per listener. A 60kb/s stream will cost about $2,364 per year. If mulitiple streams are served, the numbers get really scary very fast. Granted, people don't listen 24 hours a day, but at peak times it's easy to serve enough simultaneous connections to cost a significant amount.

On your own

You can serve the site yourself; just be sure you know what you're getting into. Maintaining a Web server carries the same responsibility as maintaining a transmitter. It operates 24 hours a day.

Security is very important. A server is only as secure as its weakest point, whether that is an exploited bug in software, or a user whose password is the same as his login ID. Security goes beyond fixing bugs and protecting passwords; it extends to the individual user accounts used to access it. I can't tell you how many times I've found plain-text passwords on accounts with root privileges, or an FTP program's .ini file (with cached passwords) stored in a public server directory so that people have easy access to it. A server is not “secure” simply because it has a secure certificate on it.

There are some questions to ask yourself: Are you going to keep up with all the security advisories on your server's operating system, as well as specific modules, languages, and applications? Will you perform routine security audits on the box, verifying log files and making sure passwords are changed regularly? Can you spend the necessary time to maintain the server yourself, or will it be forgotten as other projects begin to creep up? What is the backup plan in case you are unable to get to work or if your sysadmin leaves (or worse, you have to fire him unexpectedly)?

Security can be summed up in three words: Use common sense. If you don't need a feature of the program, disable it or uninstall it. Some flavors of Linux ship with PCMCIA drivers loaded by default, but I've never seen a server use them. Get rid of them. If there is no printer installed on the server, uninstall the daemon. Instead of listening for connections on all ports, only listen on the ports you've specified for use by certain software.

Keep up with the current security advisories from CERT (www.cert.org) as well as the website of your chosen operating system. Keep up with current stable releases of the software on your server, as well as notices on the software's website about problems. Check the websites often (a minimum of once a month) for updates and advisories. Sign up for the mailing list of your operating system to get e-mail notification of security alerts.

Make frequent backups. Backup the system before any major change to the server, not just afterwards. Take a set home, store it on another server or burn it to a few CDs; it doesn't matter, as long as you retain the data in case something goes horribly wrong.

By now you've either decided you are able to do it all yourself, or you've been frightened enough to consider getting some assistance. If the latter is your case, keep reading.

So you need an ISP

Whether you want an ISP to handle the whole process or simply start it, you still have to select an ISP. There are plenty of ISPs to choose from. Determining which fits your needs is the next step.

Find out if site hosting is the ISP's core business. There are a lot of companies that provide web hosting or co-location in addition to other services, such as cable TV or telephone services. Providing servers should be the company's prime business. If not, move on.

Check the company's Internet connection. There should be more than one route to the backbone provider. Be sure they not only have redundant lines to a single backbone, but are also connected to multiple backbones.

Examine the size of the ISP's staff. You don't want a company that is one person, but you also don't want one with too many employees. Oversized companies may not provide the personalized service you desire. You might get lost in their numbers and never speak to the same person twice, making it more difficult to solve a problem.

Look at the experience record of the ISP. How many years has it been in business? The new kid on the block is probably still working on its business model and trying to figure out how to be profitable.

On call

Demand 24-hour support. If it's not offered, keep looking. If you have to ask for it, it's probably not very good. Also determine if the support is via e-mail only, or if a real person is available on the other end of the phone.

Verify the fault-tolerant equipment in use. Each server should be on a UPS. The UPS can power a single server, one rack of servers, or the entire office. The routers must also be on the UPS. Determine how long the ISP can operate during a power outage.

Check to see if the ISP will backup your server. If yes, how often will it be backed up? In case of a problem, will the ISP restore your data, or just the operating system of the server? If a backup will not be done, see what steps can be taken to have a backup made.

Some ISPs will let you build your own hardware and then simply plug it into their backbone. Other ISPs will only sell you one type of hardware, which makes it easier for the ISP to support and maintain, since all the supported systems use roughly the same components. The ISP might even have some spare parts, so your server can be back up and running without an overnight parts delivery.

Find out where the ISP and its servers are located. Many national ISPs have experienced recent financial trouble during the computer and tech industries slump. Some ISPs have gone out of business. I know of one station whose website was hosted by a national company. This ISP notified the station that all the servers were to be shut off at midnight that night since it was going out of business. The station didn't have access to the pages that were already up, so the pages had to be recreated from scratch on a new server at a new ISP in record time.

This brings up the most important question of all: will the ISP be around next year? You don't want to have to set up the server again a year from now at a different ISP. Find a company that's been in business a while, and has been profitable instead of undergoing reorganizations and layoffs.

Final thoughts

It all comes down to how much your peace of mind is worth. Many stations simply cannot afford a knowledgeable and experienced staff to take care of their servers on a 24-hour-a-day basis. Many sysadmins are actually responsible for the regular network as well, or are the chief engineer. Outsourcing that responsibility makes things easier for the organization, easier for the individual, and more reliable — provided you choose the right company.

Knowing that you can sleep through the night without worrying about your server provides peace of mind. It's comforting to know that other people are actively defending your server (as well as others) from attacks from outsiders, malicious programs and worms.

When you find your next ISP, tell them what you want today, as well as what you'd like one year from now. Get the root password so you have full access to the data. Get a a backup as often as you think you need one. This can also avoid problems if a move to a new ISP is required. Get a cell phone and pager number of a real person, so you're not stuck with e-mail-only support or a recording.

At the end of the year, people won't really care if you did it all yourself or if you outsourced the server. They'll care about what's on the server, the content, how well things worked, if it drew any traffic, and if it was popular enough to be considered a success.


William Harrison Jr. is manager of Web Technology for WETA-FM and WETA-TV, Washington, DC.

ISP Pros:

  • Usually have better and more reliable hardware and a faster turnaround time
  • Usually have better connectivity to the rest of the world with expandability as needed
  • Usually more up-to-date with security issues and software vulnerabilities
  • Multiple sysadmins to help with problems
  • Usually have a secure site certificate that can be used for SSL connections (credit card acceptance, online store)
  • Usually have dedicated servers for specific purposes (database, mailing list, chat room)

ISP Cons:

  • Higher initial expense (but cost of staff person to maintain system must be considered)
  • Limited access to the server
  • Potential sacrifice in customizable options



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