Running an Internet server has always been something for big businesses and hard-core computer geeks. After all, to operate a server you must have a continuous connection to the Internet?not something most people have?and a compelling reason not to use the e-mail and Web services offered by your Internet provider. But with the spread of always-on connection technologies, such as DSL (Digital Subscriber Line) and cable modems, the rules have changed. Now many people who once could connect to the Net only by an intermittent modem connection have the ability to serve information out of their own homes and small businesses. And the wide variety of server software available for the Mac makes it easier than ever for them to take control of their Internet lives.
Why Serve It Yourself?
In all likelihood, somewhere at the offices of your ISP (Internet service provider) is a climate-controlled room housing anywhere from a handful to dozens of computers being used as Web servers, e-mail servers, file servers, and several other kinds of servers. And chances are, there’s a team of trained technical professionals whose jobs involve keeping those servers up and running at all times, protecting them from catastrophic hardware failures that would put your Web site out of business or erase vital e-mail messages you haven’t read yet.
Running your own server doesn’t mean you’ll need to hire a team of technicians in white coats and give them a key to your house. But it does mean you’ll need to do more work than you do now. So the question is, What can you gain by setting up your own server rather than using the ones at your ISP?
If your Web site is made up of a collection of static files, then running your own Web server may not offer much of an advantage over using someone else’s server. However, if your ISP charges an extra fee for space on its Web server or charges you by the byte for all the traffic on your site, you might be able to save some money by putting an older Mac into service as your Web server.
Running your own server really becomes an advantage when you’ve moved beyond a simple home page. Perhaps there’s some specific interactive feature you want to implement on your Web site?fill-in forms, pages with content that changes based on who’s viewing them, and the like?but it’s something you just can’t create on your current ISP’s Web server. You can take advantage of all your Mac-based server’s built-in features and buy Web-server plug-ins to add any other special features you might want.
Most high-speed connections come with one or several e-mail accounts. But what if you want more? With your own e-mail server, you can create as many accounts as you want; you can even create extra e-mail addresses that automatically forward to some other mailbox?great if your friends can’t remember if you’re email@example.com or bjohnson or bobj or bob.
Most e-mail-server programs, such as Qualcomm’s Eudora Internet Mail Server, also let you do things like create accounts that automatically reply to incoming mail. (For example, you could put a text file containing street directions to your house on the mail server and then whenever you need to give directions, you’ll be able to say, “Send an e-mail to firstname.lastname@example.org!”)
If you’re really ambitious, you can also set up mailing lists. These can be simple, unchanging groups?for example, email@example.com could be an address group that automatically forwards to all your family members, saving people from having to remember everyone’s individual address. But mailing lists can also be a bit more complicated. Using mailing-list-processing software, such as Fog City’s LetterRip Pro, you can set up automated mailing lists that people from the outside world can subscribe to (and, later, unsubscribe from).
If you’re constantly trading files with friends or business associates, it’s easy to get tired of the flurry of e-mail attachments. If you find yourself wishing you could return to the old days when you shared space on a file server, you can?by running an FTP (File Transfer Protocol) server, such as Stairways Software’s NetPresenz. FTP is a standard Internet protocol for exchanging files, and FTP client software is available for just about every computer operating system.
One warning: although running Web or e-mail server software can be somewhat risky, running a file server can be extremely dangerous. Before you start, carefully plan your security system. Make sure guest access is disabled. Make sure people can get into only the areas you want them to get to. Carefully read the documentation for your server software; the last thing you want to do is open your hard disk to anyone roaming the Internet, giving them free rein to read your personal documents and trash your hard drive. Video Voyeurism
Even folks who don’t want to set up their own Web, e-mail, or file servers may be intrigued by the idea of putting a live picture up on the Internet. If you attach a camera to your Mac and run software such as Rearden Technology’s SiteCam, you can broadcast live images of yourself, your dog, your backyard, or whatever you choose. These can be still pictures updated every few minutes, or they can be a live video stream. Share Databases
You don’t need to become a Web-publishing expert to share your databases on the Web. Using FileMaker Pro 4.0 or later, you can let people view, search, and even modify (if you wish) your FileMaker databases over the Web.
Let the Server Beware
Before you get started setting up that plug-and-play Web and e-mail server that will make your life so much cooler, here’s the truth about running an Internet server:
hard. Granted, it’s much easier than it used to be?and it’s much easier to get up to speed on the Mac than it would be if you were trying to run a Unix-based server. But it’s not a situation where you can install some applications, double-click on them, and forget them.
Running a server brings with it a whole set of issues that people who use their Mac all day long and shut it off at the end of the day never have to worry about. And before you decide to spurn your Internet provider and set out to process all your e-mail yourself or host your own Web site, you should know if you’re up to the challenge.
For a server to be effective, you shouldn’t shut it off. That means, for all practical purposes, that you shouldn’t set up your Mac as a server and continue to use it to render 3-D images, update databases, or even write your first novel. The job of a server should be done by a dedicated Mac, although it need not be the latest top-of-the-line model. An older Power Mac is ideal, and even older pre-PowerPC Macs can master simple serving tasks, such as running an e-mail server or a basic Web server. If your current ISP provides you with only one Internet address (common with cable modems and low-cost DSL services), you may need to run Internet-sharing software if you want to surf on one Mac while you’re serving on the other.
Servers hold vital information?but then so does the computer you use every day. The difference is that servers hold information that’s vital to everyone who uses them, not just you. So whereas you might (unwisely) avoid backing up your own computer because you’re willing to take the risk, you can’t take such risks with your server data. You’ll need to regularly back up your server to some form of removable-storage device, using software such as Dantz Development’s $175 Retrospect or $50 Retrospect Express.
Restrictions on Serving
Before you buy everything you need in order to set up a server, be sure to check the rules you agreed to when you signed up for high-speed Internet service. Many Internet providers ask that users not run servers on their computers. Your connection to the Internet must also be via an unchanging Internet address?otherwise, nobody will know where to find your server. Be sure to ask your Internet provider if you’ve been given a
static IP address
; if the answer is no, you won’t be able to run your own server.
The Last Word
Running your own Internet server isn’t for the faint of heart. Before you take the plunge and kiss your Web-hosting company good-bye, think carefully about whether the added cost and time required to set up and run a server are worth it. If you’ve got the inclination and need the power and flexibility, operating your own Internet server can be quite a rewarding experience.
Executive Editor JASON SNELL cowrote Providing Internet Services via the Mac OS (Addison-Wesley, 1996).
Play It Safe
Running a server means that anyone on the Internet can talk to your computer, even if all your computer tells them is “Buzz off.” The Mac is quite a formidable opponent for hackers, but a carelessly configured server can lead to major security problems. If you run a server, you have to be painfully diligent about making sure it has been configured properly, or your private information could be stolen or even destroyed.
No matter what kind of servers you’re running (even if you’re just running File Sharing), always make sure your passwords are secure. For example, don’t let people use their first name as their user name and their last name as the password. Don’t use any word that can be looked up in a dictionary as a password. And don’t use obvious passwords, such as password , or easily guessed referential passwords, such as Joshua . ( Joshua was the password used in the 1983 computer-hacker film WarGames .)
Know Your Surroundings
If you’re letting your data be seen by people all across the Internet, realize that you’re giving people you’ve never met the chance to break into your system and see your data. Plan your security accordingly. For example, you might think nothing of sharing a FileMaker Pro database over the Net–but if you don’t protect it with passwords, anyone could stumble along and read, alter, or even destroy your data.
Before you use any program that communicates via network, consider carefully what your security measures are. It’s one thing to feel secure when you’re using an AppleTalk-based network of four Macs; that feeling can be quite dangerous if your computer is attached to every other computer on the Internet.
If you’re running an e-mail server, you need to make sure that it’s secured against “relaying”–receiving mail from someone and then resending it for them. That’s because relaying is a feature exploited by senders of junk e-mail, and spammers are always on the lookout for new e-mail servers that will relay their messages to unsuspecting victims.
There is a plethora of software packages that can protect your Macs. For example, Open Door Networks’ DoorStop monitors connections to your server and lets you restrict access as you see fit. Intego’s NetBarrier provides similar security functions, blocks “denial-of-service” attacks that can slow down your network to the point that it’s unusable, and more.