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Published: Thursday, September 28, 2000

Does The Cobalt Live up to its Claim?

By Kerry Garrison


Introduction
Beginning with the RaQ3 series of servers from Cobalt, Chili!Soft's ASP engine has been available. By combining the simplicity of the Cobalt hardware with Chili!Soft's engine, allowed Cobalt to create the tagline "Develop on NT, Deploy on Cobalt". With the relatively low cost of the Cobalt, the fact it runs Linux, and is optimized to be a web server, I just had to check it out. The thought of taking a complete ASP driven web site and having it run on efficient hardware/OS platform was a real selling point. I set out to answer the following questions:

    - continued -

    1. How many modifications to code would be needed to make a site run properly?
    2. Would there be any additional costs involved?
    3. Would the Cobalt server pages as fast or faster than a similarly priced PC?

I armed myself with a RaQ3 unit and set out to do some testing. As some of you know from previous articles, I run a small amateur rocketry website (http://www.wildrocketry.com) that is all ASP pages and uses some SQL Server and Access 2000 files. In a recent article, I began converting this data to MySQL under Windows 2000. I thought trying to move the WildRocketry site would be a pretty good test case because of the mixed databases, and tons of custom coding that went into the project.

Getting Started
With the RaQ3, the Chili!Soft engine is an add-on that will run an additional $795.00. On the newer RaQ4, Chili!Soft is included in the price of the server. To install Chili!Soft on the RaQ3 requires server admin level access, you get the .rpm file directly from Cobalt and with their instructions, installation only takes a few minutes. With the RaQ4, the Chili!Soft configuration is built into the web-based administration and for each website is simply a checkbox that says "Enable ASP pages?".

At this point I now had the server configured and FTP'd my entire directory structure over to the new box. Granted, as a technical person by nature, I am not inclined to be reading manuals until desperation sets in. I quickly pulled up the default.asp page to find an ODBC driver error. The code was using a DBQ configuration to read from a Microsoft Access 2000 file (a DSN-less connection). After looking around in the documentation, I had to turn to the internet for an answer. It turns out that Chili!Soft on the Cobalt only supports PostgreSQL or MySQL. To use SQL Server or Access Files, you need to install an agent on another Windows NT Server to access that data. Not to be discouraged too much, I decided to give MySQL a try as I had heard a lot about it lately. Pulling the latest version from the MySQL (http://www.mysql.com) website, I had the database engine up and running in no time.

First problem solved, the confidence was rising, now to figure out how to get the data from Access into MySQL. The first thing that came to mind was to do it via ODBC. I went back to the MySQL website and downloaded the latest MyODBC drivers. After creating an ODBC connection to the MySQL database, I fired up Access 2000, loaded up my database file and then exported the tables using the ODBC Connection. This mostly worked, but I was slightly disappointed in the performance of the export. At this point I started looking for a better approach to the problem. The answer I finally decided on was to use DBTools. DBTools is a free database manager for MySQL that allows you to import data from Access files (or any other ODBC connection) directly into MySQL. The performance was much better, and as a bonus, DBTools makes managing the MySQL database a real breeze. DBTools is available at http://dbtools.vila.bol.com.br/ and is also distributed for free. Working with DBTools is very similar to working with SQL Server's Enterprise Manager. (For more information on DBTools, be sure to read my earlier article: Using MySQL under Windows NT!)

DBTools screenshot

So far, getting MySQL running was no problem, getting the data imported was not a major deal. Finally, using the web-based control panel, I created a data source to the MySQL tables so that Chili!Soft could now work. This is where my first real issue came into play. It seemed that nothing I did would make my ASP pages recognize the data source name. I scoured newsgroups, I poured over message archives, re-read FAQ's and found nothing. On a whim, I tried experimenting with case sensitivity, sure enough, that was the problem all along. By changing the case of the data source in the control panel and in the ASP pages to all lower-case, my pages magically started working. This would have been nice to see this is a FAQ at either Cobalt or Chili!Soft's website. Problem solved, it was time to start testing everything. The pages displayed fast, the database access was much faster than the old Access files. Then I tried the feedback form that uses the CDO component, this did not work either. Fortunately, this one was easy to find, but more difficult to fix. In order to be able to use SMTP email, you need to purchase the Chili!Soft add-on package called SpicePack which runs an additional $249.00. Besides SMTP email, SpicePack also gives you these other features:

  • Chili!POP3 1.0: POP3 (Post Office Protocol) COM object used to retrieve email from a mail server, using the same protocol used by most email clients.
  • Chili!Upload 1.0: Used to upload files from a client (typically a Web browser) to the server and then save these files to the server's file system.

Summary
Does the Cobalt live up to its tagline of "Develop on Windows, Deploy on Cobalt"? The answer is, it depends. If you needs are pretty simple and you don't need additional IIS components, then this may actually work for you. The response times when using ASP pages hooked into the MySQL database were very fast, the server has been very reliable and extremely stable. I give the Cobalt high points on speed, stability and ease of use, and a few low points on advanced support issues. I believe the support is being resolved. With Sun Microsystems recent purchase of Cobalt, the distribution and support systems will be pulled into Sun's existing infrastructure. This will be a huge boon to Cobalt users.

Happy Programming!

  • By Kerry Garrison


    Kerry Garrison is the Senior Sales Engineer for Dedicated Hosting Products at XO Communications.


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