ASPnix adds ISAPI Rewrite - Finally!

ASPnix Web Hosting Logo Back in July of 2006 someone asked on the forum for ASPnix, the web host that specializes in CommunityServer, to add ISAPI Rewrite to their servers so that customers can clean up their URLs. Seven people including myself chimed in asked for it. Over the past eight months, little was said by ASPnix except by a former staffer who implied it was harm the stablity of their servers and who really gave no indication that any real consideration was being made to offer a solution for URL Rewriting.

Well finally, on Feb 22nd, Roma confirmed that ASPnix has will finally be offering ISAPI Rewrite on ASPnix’s web servers. That’s yet another IIS-centric web host who has finally freed its customers from the shackles of poorly designed URL Hell! Hooray!

Now let’s just hope that Scott Watermasysk can be convinced to add URL Rewriting support in CommunityServer using ISAPI Rewrite to eliminate .ASPX extensions and more on CommunityServer, sooner than later.

On the Hunt for a New Programming Language

When it comes to programming on the modern-day GUI (post-DOS) platform, the vast majority of my coding has been, in order of experience, using T-SQL, VBScript in ASP, and about equal parts classic VB (v3.0 to v6.0) and VB.NET. As you can see from my order of experience, I’m really a database guy, and since the beginning of the web I’ve always viewed the web as somewhat of a database publishing environment (anyone remember the DOS product dbPublisher Pro from Digital Composition Systems?) What’s more the web allows a potentially infinite number of people to use a developer’s database publishing apps without any extra effort to distribute them. Finally, the web provides ability to capture evidence the apps were run, how often, and by how many people. Is it any wonder I have more of inclination to develop for the web as opposed to desktop applications? Back during the period from 1994 to 2006 when I ran VBxtras/Xtras.Net where we where a reseller of ActiveX controls and then later .NET components, I never really thought about the cost of add-on components. Almost anything I wanted to play with I can get an NFR (not-for-resale) copy just by sending an email or picking up the phone. Although I still have many of those relationships from a decade+  in the business, I hesitate to ask for NFRs these days except from my really close friends simply because this business I’m in today has nothing to do with benefiting those people. So numerous facts have me giving up on my prior five year assumption that I would someday learn VB.NET at an advanced level and have me instead actively considering alternatives:

  1. As I just stated, the fact I now have to pay for third party components and tools means I’m paying more attention to cost of acquisition,
  2. My recent favorable impressions of open-source developer tools and components, on par with some of the best tools ever sold by Xtras.Net,
  3. My increasing frustration with the Microsoft developer division’s process and release cycle,
  4. All best web applications seem to target L.A.M.P. such as Mediawiki, WordPress, vBulletin, Subversion, Trac,  Ruby On Rails, Django, etc. and all but one of them are free to use
  5. Completely preconfigured stacks (including O/S) that are becoming available for download as a VMware appliance,
  6. Recognizing that Ubuntu’s has an approach strategic enough to result in Microsoft being profiled in a revised edition of Clayton Christensen’s Innovator’s Dilemma as yet another example of why great companies loose their leadership position,
  7. And lastly my rising disgust for ASP.NET (and I promise I will blog about those specific soon…)

By the way, even though I dislike ASP.NET, I do still really like the .NET Framework and programming model. Oh and a note about the first point; whereas there is good open-source tools available for .NET, the operative word is "tools" not components. When you compare what’s available to freely use for .NET compared to what’s available for any of the "P"s (Perl, Python, and PHP), .NET just can’t compare, at least not in depth or breadth. Of course being commercial products the .NET third party components are more polished and of course have commercial support available. However, unless you are big company that needs to CYA and have a throat to choke, those are often dubious benefits especially when you consider the benefits of open-source (i.e. source code, and the ability to fix something and contribute it back so you’ll know it stays fixed!) Anyway, I could write for hours on the pros and cons for open source vs. commercial developer components and tools but that’s not the subject of this post. The subject is about which language I will focus the majority of my future attentions on learning and using, and I’d love to get your input before I decide. Here are the current contenders:

PHP
All the major web apps I mentioned above seem to be built using PHP and I’m currently running many of those apps, PHP is pretty similar to the ASP that I know so well, it’s web-specific, there is a huge support community, it runs on both Windows and Linux, and every Linux web host known to man seems to offer it preinstalled. However, there seems to be lots more crap PHP code examples littering websites than good PHP code examples making it harder to learn so it might be hard to seperate the wheat from the chafe, it is not easy to configure on Windows Servers (especially at a shared web host), and no one individual framework seems to have gotten the lion’s share of the market attention so picking one would be a crap shoot. Oh, and it uses those infernal semi-colons just like C#.
Ruby on Rails
Ruby and it’s framework Rails have gotten tons of attention and it seems all the cool kids are doing it, especially lots of the Web 2.0 startups, it is very database-centric, has very elegant URL mapping functionality, and it seems you can get web apps built really fast using it. And Ruby.NET is also on the horizon meaning I might be able keep my toe in .NET. However, the community comes across as just a little bit too religious and I’m generally alergic to that, AFAIK it doesn’t run on Windows, or at least not for shared hosting. Plus I’ve had people I respect tell me that Ruby doesn’t have nearly as many users as the "P" languages, that Rails it not nearly as mature as its purported to be, and that Rails makes simple thing simple but complex things extremely difficult. And the number of available web hosts that offer it is quite limited.
Python
Unlike PHP, it seems Python is well suited for both web and desktop apps, which might come in handy from time to time, and a shipping IronPython means that I definitely can keep my toe in .NET. The Django framework seems to be a little more mature and have a little less religion than RoR, and Django also has nice URL mapping functionality, albeit slightly less elegant than RoR. And it seems to run equally well on Linux and Windows. However, Django seems more document publishing-centric and less database-centric, there are very few web hosts that support DJango, and I’ve heard it is a real bitch to get working on a web host.
VB.NET+Castle/MonoRail(+Mono)
But then again, maybe I will stick with VB.NET. The Castle/Monorail project is supposed to be a lot like RoR, and I’d even have the option to use Mono on Linux. However, the third party tools are definitely wanting, most web hosts haven’t a clue what Mono is, and they coded Castle/MonRail in C#, so I’d always be dealing with semi-colons…
ASP+IIS+JScript
I could stick with ASP, which I still like, and learn JScript to replace VBScript, the latter of which just has too many limitations when compared with the other current options. This clearly also runs on Windows and any Windows web host will support it, and I already know Windows backwards and forwards. On the other hand, I’ll need to use ISAPI Rewrite for clean URLs, JScript on ASP it has no future and few code examples on the web, and what third party components and tools (to speak of…)?!?
ASP+IIS+VB.NET
I could also use develop VB.NET objects and call them from ASP; that’s what we last did at Xtras.Net (and I think that is what they are still doing, last I checked…) Of course, calling .NET objects as ActiveX controls just doesn’t feel right, and again there’s that third party component and tools problem…
PowerShell+IIS+???:
Of all the teams working on tools for developers over at Microsoft, the PowerShell team run by Jeffrey Snover is the only one that gets me excited anymore. And in an email from him (or was it a comment on my blog, I don’t remember exactly) he said that PowerShell can do web, and will be able to do it more easily in the future. On the other hand, it’s not here today, and what if webified PowerShell is just another way to do rubbish ASP.NET instead of what it should be, a url-based object-selector-and-invoker like Django or Rudy on Rails.  And what’s the chance it will ever run on Mono…?
Other:
Is there anything else do consider…?

At this point I should probably explain what I’m not considering, and why:

Java on Anything:
Although I was really impressed at a Sun Tech Days recently here in Atlanta , even the Sun people were all over dynamic languages with praise, like Jython and JRuby. And though I was impressed with NetBeans 5.5, all the other "enterprise" baggage like J2EE and Servlets and JSP Custom Tags gives me the feeling I’d be jumping out of the frying pan and into the fire.  Oh, and Java uses those infernal semi-colons too.
C# on Anything:
One word: semi-colons!  Sorry but if I’m going to go .NET, it’s going to be VB.NET (or IronPython). VB.NET is so much more natural to me than C#, and there are things you just can’t do in C# that you can do in VB.NET related to using "implements" on a method in an inherited class (I ran into that limitation of C# compared to VB.NET on a project several years ago where I was managing a pair of interns coding in C# and they hit a wall because of that limitation. I can dig it up if anyone cares, or better yet, can someone who knows the specifics explain it in comments?)
Perl on Apache:
Although my partner on Toolicious Ben Coffey who is a devoted disciple of Perl will cringe to hear this (yet again), I can’t quite get my head around Perl, and they tide, at least today, is away from Perl. Of course Ben claims that will all change with Perl 5.0, but to me that remains to be seen and I’d rather go with a bird in the hand (i.e. one with a lot more active current user base) than a bird in the bush.  But who knows, they say you should learn a new language every year; at any rate if he’s right maybe I’ll try and pick up Perl 5.0 in around 2012. :)

So there you have it: my potential choices and non-choices. Any thoughts I which I should choose?  Any and all input will be appreciated and considered seriously.

Another Missed Ball: No .NET Application Container

David Laribee just referenced my IIS 7.0: Too Little, Too Late? post and he made an interesting comment that I hadn’t previously pondered but that is very relevent:

It’s a major bummer that there’s no such thing as a virtualized “.NET Application Container” for the new scalable grid computing and provisioning services coming out (Amazon EC2, MediaTemple’s Grid-Server). Essentially .NET programmers can’t easily take advantage of new long tail models with easily-sourced infrastructure services. Going out on a limb, I’d suggest these limitations contribute to a lot of top/entrepreneurial developer talent moving over to various flavors of the LAMP stack, Ruby, etc.

I think this is yet another area where Microsoft is missing the ball. And it is related to the fact that people can’t build and distribute Windows-based stacks as appliances (i.e. because of licensing issues) in the same way people can build and distribute them for Linux. Mark my words, these two aspects are a significant achillie’s heel for Microsoft and will have significant import in the further decline of the Windows Server and .NET platform.

IIS 7.0: Too Little, Too Late?

March 2007 Cover of MSDN Magazine Back in January 2006, I blogged about how much I wanted an IIS 7.0 that handles extensionless URL rewriting. Well this week I just got my March 2007 copy of Microsoft’s MSDN Magazine in which they ran a detailed technical preview of the features and functionality of Internet Information Server 7.0. Reading through it, I found myself salivating over it’s capabilities that I’ve needed for literally a decade. Those who follow some of my other escapades know that the #1 feature I want it to provide over IIS 6.0 and prior is the ability to fully control the URL with our without an extension. Yet, something is different now. Five years ago I would metaphorically have killed for that functionality. Even a few years ago, I wanted it badly. But reading about all the great things in IIS 7.0 today for future availability on server hosting platforms next God-knows-when (i.e. after Longhorn ships *and* most Windows-offering web hosts upgrade) sadly comes across to me as just too little, too late.

Too Little

Too little because Microsoft won’t deliver IIS 7.0 to run on Windows 2003 Server necessitating a costly and in some cases problematic operating system upgrade. This will drastically limit the number of situations in which people can choose to switch to develop for the new features of IIS 7.0. For example, when the funds for operating system upgrades are not in the budget or simply because the developer doesn’t have the corporate clout to convince management of the need to upgrade.  And the only people who will even be able to experiment with IIS 7.0 will be those with Windows Vista. And since upgrading to Vista also requires funds and often new hardware, it is not a foregone conclusion. Consequently there will only be a small percentage of Microsoft-centric developers writing web apps that uses the functionality of IIS 7.0 over the next several years. Given the limitations of IIS 6.0, I just find this scenario to be unacceptable.

Too Late

Too late because Microsoft’s outdated process and slow release cycle, which I blogged about last month, has given rise to compelling alternatives on the Linux platform.  And Apache has has many of the key features that IIS 7.0 provides, most importantly via it’s mod_rewrite functionality, that by the time IIS 7.0 is ready for prime time, there’s a good chance only a tiny percentage of web developers will care. I for one need to develop web apps I can run on web hosts today, not wait around and dream for some yet-to-be-determined future brighter day. Microsoft, the rules have changed and you are not immune. You can no longer schedule product updates years out and expect people to wait to pay you for them years from now when free-to-use open-source alternatives addressing the same need exist today. I can no longer bring myself to design or run a web app on IIS 6.0[1] when the URL management functionality I crave is already available on Apache. And by the time IIS 7.0 is released I doubt I’ll even consider running an IIS server.

Unless…

However Microsoft, there is a solution if you will only listen, which I highly doubt. Microsoft You should know more than any other tech company that your key to success is getting developers to write programs for your platforms. Yet on the web developers are voting with their feet and most new web applications not sponsored by a "You don’t get fired for buying Microsoft" large company IT organization are choosing to build on Linux and Apache.  IIS was once the leading server on the web, but today it can barely eek out more than 1/3rd market share. If you don’t stem this time, things will only get worse. Much worse. Here’s what to do: Release IIS 7.0 as an update for Windows 2003 Server and Windows XP that gets installed automatically via Windows update. Offer it in parallel to IIS 6.0 so it must first be configured by an admin and IIS 6.0 disabled, if necessary. Feel free to restrict it in whatever ways you must given 2003/XP’s lack of Longhorn/Vista infrastructure, but don’t use that as an excuse to eliminate key features such as URL management and HTTP response filtering. Doing this won’t change the minds of those who have already given up on Windows, but it will certainly minimize the profuse bleeding.

Footnotes

  1. Given how much I dislike ASP.NET and how frustrated I am with IIS 6.0, I can’t wait till I find the time to move my blog to another program besides dasBlog.

Can Microsoft’s Developer Division Compete Moving Forward?

I’ve been planning to blog about this for some time but just haven’t gotten to it. Well here goes…


Contents

Note: The day after I posted this I decided to add headings to make the argument easier to follow.


Is Microsoft’s Approach Failing?

I believe Microsoft legacy processes simply cannot react fast enough to the innovation happening in the open source arena on the language and web framework front. Microsoft’s developer division typically offers three-year version cycles where they first architect Visual Studio and related technologies in a vacuum. In recent years they’ve even thrown out alphas and betas to the Microsoft faithful to get feedback which, and thankfully they’ve used a lot of that feedback. But that approach just isn’t working in the market anymore. When the release cycles of
scripting languages frameworks like Ruby On Rails and Django and CMS platforms such as Drupal are sometimes as little as a few months, it’s really hard to wait around for the next version of Visual Studio.

After Ten Years; Too Little, Too Late?

It would be different if Microsoft’s developer technologies provided at least 95 percentile of what’s needed by work-a-day developers on a daily basis, but they don’t. Case in point is we still don’t have the ability to do complete URL Rewriting for ASP.NET on IIS even though Apache has had mod_rewrite for years. Looking back, how many years of massively duplicated developer effort in the field did it take befor Microsoft finally provided a login module and a method of managing site-wide templates?!? (i.e. “MasterPages”) Oh, about a decade from when they first released Active Server Pages.

Providing Solutions Frequently Just Not a Priority

It’s not just that Microsoft’s developer division takes too long to offer new solutions to recurring needs; it is that they place such low priority on providing those solutions. Three year development cycles testify to that fact, especially when you consider it takes Microsoft many releases to address fundamental needs. The guys on the product management teams at Microsoft are really smart people, but they often can’t see how much trouble they cause people in the field by their decisions. They see the world of creating Visual Studio, but they don’t see the world of using Visual Studio to develop software.

Core “Real World” Problems Not Addressed

What’s more, Microsoft architects its developer products in a vacuum; they don’t use them to solve “real world” problems. Sure, they may use them internally for developing productsbut when does the average developer’s project look like product development at Microsoft? They often create excellent software but software that either doesn’t solve real world problems or does so in a totally over-engineered manner. While running Xtras I watched many a developer launch a 3rd party component business because they had identified a need while working on a real world project. However, once they saw small success as a vendor they started developing, designing, and even envisioning new products in a vacuum. And often those products either didn’t address real world needs or did so in a really unnatural manner.

Microsoft is a much worse example of this. Their saving grace thus far has been market share and financial resources to brute force their products into the market, and many of the faithful won’t even look at other s offerings to understand why some of Microsoft’s offerings so miss the mark. I know, until recently I was one of them.

Values “Sugar”-Free Over Productivity

And Microsoft’s product managers often dismiss feature requests that would make development a LOT easier as simply being “syntactic sugar. For example, one such dismissed feature request I made years ago was for simplified property references in VB.NET. I wanted a syntax that would allow a developer to implement a single-line syntax for specifying properties you didn’t need anything special, something like:

1. Property Foo Into _Foo

Instead of nine lines of:

1. Private _Foo
2. Property Foo
3.    Get
4.       Return _Foo
5.    End Get
6.    Set(ByVal value)
7.       _Foo= value
8.    End Set
9. End Property

That would have reduced the number of lines of VB.NET code by probably half an order of magnitude. But they just weren’t interested in it because it “bloated the language and otherwise had no value” (I am paraphrasing from memory.)

Focuses on Details, NOT the Big Picture

Even more, I advocated an advanced scripting language that would be a lot like today’s “in-vogue” scripting languages. I called my proposal VBScript.NET. But then my suggestions were dismissed for esoteric reasons and I was told that Top Minds Are Working On It! (Well, evidently not, or so many developers wouldn’t be moving to PHP, Ruby, and Python.) Microsoft’s culture is to argue semantics when reality doesn’t match their world view, and they are blissfully willing to ignore the pain that continues to exist.

Revolutionary Paths Are Often Dead-Ends

What’s more, probably because of its financial resources and a hubris that comes from being the industry leader, Microsoft has a bad habit of creating huge revolutionary jumps instead of small evolutionary steps. Rather than always creating lots of little independent layers of loosely coupled components, each with it’s own independent functionality, documentation, and rationale for existence, Microsoft often builds monolithically complex solutions where the individual components are highly coupled, not documented, hidden beneath the covers, and frankly with functionality that has not been fleshed out well had it had to be developed to stand on its own. This creates bloated and fragile systems that are often extremely hard to debug and for which there is no passionate community of supporters surrounding it.

ASP.NET: Wrong Medium, Wrong Model

ASP.NET is a perfect example of many of these problems. Rather than study the web and realize it was a violently different platform than desktop apps, Microsoft chose to shoehorn an event model onto the web and use a page-oriented implementation. Not only did they get the medium wrong, they also got the model wrong. And this decision resulted in an outrageously complex pipeline processing model with tons of code that is hard to debug or even understand, and that requires lots of high end developers to figure it out and repeatedly explain to newbies what they need to do just be able to do some of the simplest things, things that are brain-dead easy in PHP for example.
But hundreds of thousands of Microsoft-centric developers just trudged along and accepted it as the next best thing because Microsoft said so. And for a short time, I was one of those true believers.

ASP.NET: Exceptional Engineering, Answers Wrong Questions

Now, however, even many Microsoft developers are starting to see ASP.NET for what it really is: An exceptionally engineering product that answers the Wrong Questions. Former ASP.NET developers are moving to the platforms I mentioned earlier (Ruby on Rails, Django, and Drupal) simply because those platforms offered developers the syntactic sugar they crave, and because the developers of those platforms focused on solving pain because the pain they were solving was their own.

Open-Source: Answering the Right Questions, Rapidly

Open-Source development by nature results in lots of little independent layers, and there are communities that sprouted or are sprouting to support each of those independent layers. Each of those layers has had an opportunity to be fleshed out, and by comparison it shows. How can something like Open-Source PHP on Apache take on mighty Microsoft’s ASP.NET and IIS, and win? Because they answer the right questions, and they did so in far less than a decade.

Is there any hope for Microsoft’s Developer Division?

Which brings me back to the original question:


Can Microsoft’s Developer Division Compete Moving Forward?

Frankly, though I really like the .NET Framework and hope I’m wrong, I’m completely skeptical.

 

I Am Excited about IIS 7.0!!!

I just read Rick Strahl’s article in CoDe Magazine entitled Get Excited About IIS 7.0 and, yes, I am excited! Finally an architecture that makes sense! If (indirectly) addresses my #1 wish for IIS7: a mod_rewrite functionality. Well, it doesn’t address it per se, but it allows me, or any other .NET developer to address it with simple .NET code. Gosh I wish they could have done it sooner! And Rick, thanks for the great article!

Anti-phishing tactic helps the “Well Designed Url” cause

Today Joris Evers on CNET posted an article about the security developers for the four main web browsers discussing how to make surfing the Web safer. One of the tactics mentioned was Microsoft plans for IIS7 to show the URL in the address bar on all Internet windows to help users identify fraudulent sites. Whereas the trend has somewhat been for many websites to eliminate the address bar on their seconday windows to make their websites look slicker — see what happens when the bad marketing wonks get involved, and when techies become over-enamored by techniques like AJAX — this move will shine the light more brightly on the lowly URL.

In the past have blogged about Good URL design for websites and the related topics of wanting Mod_rewrite functionality for IIS and the tool ISAPI Rewrite that gives mod_rewrite functionality to IIS so it is clear I’m passionate about virtue of incorporating URL design into the overall design of a website. More specifically, my personal opinion is that URL design is one of the more important aspects of web design. This even though one person in this world disagrees with me, but Mark Kamoski is wrong. :)

What’s cool about IIS7 requiring the URL to be seen at all times besides the obvious anti-phishing benefits is it will hopefully cause more website stakeholders (marketers, developers, etc.) to think more about the design of their website’s URLs.

And that would be a good thing.

P.S. Actually, I’d love to see all Windows applications do what Windows Explorer does and support a URL of sorts (maybe call it an "LRL" as in Local Resource Locator?) Wouldn’t it be great to see apps like Word, Excel, QuickBooks, and even Visual Studio be written as a series of state changes where the URL/LRL could represent in a user readable format each uniquely-representable state (with some obvious caveats)? Just imagine how that would empower the creation of solutions by composing applications… but I digress as that is the topic for a future day’s blog post.

P.P.S. I almost don’t want to say this next thing as it could obviate the need for exposing URLs to guard against phishing, but I’m too intellectually honest not to. I see a huge market opportunity for Verisign, with the support of browser and server vendors, to enhance their SSL certificates to include a "Phishing-Safe" seal of approval. Today website owners only need pay for a certificate if they are collecting sensitive information, but in the future I could see it becoming a defacto requirement for any website with a login to need a "phishing-safe" certificate, raising the bar on lots of hobby forums sites, etc. But I once again digress… Oops, I should have read the whole article before pontificating here; looks like they are discussing just such a concept.

All I want for IIS7 is my mod_rewrite!

I’ve recently been spending a lot of time pondering and pontificating on web architecture, and it occurs to me that Microsoft’s Internet Information Server (IIS), now in it’s sixth version, is still pathetically lacking in one key feature that I think it critical for properly architecting websites. And this key feature has been part of/available for Apache for a long time in the form of mod_rewrite.

What is this key feature? The ability to create dynamically defined virtual URLs that contain only directories - i.e. URLs that don’t require a file name with a specific extension.  Sure, you can easily support dynamically defined virtual URLs using a custom HTTP Handler with IIS6 and ASP.NET; they will look something like this:

http://www.trucks.com/toyota/4runner.aspx
http://www.trucks.com/nissan/pathfinder.aspx
http://www.trucks.com/honda/ridgeline.aspx

But it won’t support dynamically defined virtual URLs that look like this without some C++ derived ISAPI magic:

http://www.trucks.com/toyota/4runner/
http://www.trucks.com/nissan/pathfinder/
http://www.trucks.com/honda/ridgeline/

However, there is a reasonably inexpensive third party ISAPI filter known as ISAPI_Rewrite that provides this capability for IIS.

In addition, there’s another feature that is needed, and that’s the ability to cleanse HTML output before it’s sent to the browser.  Why would you need that?  For example, if you are using a content management system like DotNetNuke that has a mind of its own with respect to the URL formats it generates and you want use clean and concise URLs you need to be able to filter and transform the HTML after your CMS generates it but before IIS sends it on to the web surfer’s brower.  There is evidently an inexpensive product named Speerio SkinWidgets DNN with a "widget" called PageSwiffer with which you can supposedly filter and transform outbound HTML, though I’ve not tested it.

I‘m sure both of these products are great, but dang it all Microsoft, this functionality really should have been baked into IIS a long time ago. How it is something that should have been this easy to add has been for so long overlooked?

Anywho, here’s hoping these features show up in IIS7.