Hosting FrontPage Sites on Unix Servers

DEALING WITH THE GREAT SATAN SERVER EXTENSIONS

by Jeffrey Carl

 

Ever since a version of FrontPage started getting bundled in with Microsoft Office 2000, FrontPage has quickly become the web site design tool of choice for people who enjoy being lectured by animated paper clips. If your hosting environment is Linux or *BSD, then FrontPage needs to be understood and dealt with.

 

FrontPage and How it Works

FrontPage is a simple GUI tool which automates the things that most basic web designers are looking for these days, including graphical page design, publishing their sites and CGI-type actions (forms, dynamic pages, etc.). Throughout the rest of this column, I don’t want to disparage what the creators of FrontPage have made – a truly easy, user-friendly program for the design of simple to very complex web sites – a real achievement.

 

But, for a FrontPage-created site to take use of all the easy-to-create “all-singing, all-dancing” features that make it such a hit with people who wouldn’t know an HTML tag if it crawled up and bit them, the FrontPage Server Extensions (FPSE) must be present on the hosting server. The FPSE are essentially Microsoft-built proprietary CGIs executed over HTTP – designed for Windows NT and Microsoft IIS, but ported to Unix and supported on Microsoft’s behalf by Unix porting house Ready-to-Run Software (RTR). This is where the trouble starts.

 

Can You Support FrontPage on a Freenix?

Supporting FrontPage on Unix is both a help and a hindrance to ISPs. It allows you to host sites for clients using FrontPage – and this faction is rapidly growing. It can provide you with a competitive advantage over ISPs that don’t support FrontPage sites.

 

The extensions are currently available for a number of platforms including FreeBSD and Linux (for x86 architectures only), and for a number of webservers including Apache, NCSA, Netscape and Stronghold (although only Apache will be discussed in this column). I’m sure that RTR has done a herculean task porting these server extensions to Unix, but the fact remains that this software is poorly documented and frequently difficult to troubleshoot.

 

The FrontPage extensions for Unix don’t allow you to support the full range of capabilities of FrontPage-designed sites. Active Server Pages (ASP) aren’t natively handled with the FPSE for Unix, and neither is native ActiveX nor ODBC/Microsoft Access database connectivity.

 

You can, fortunately, look for outside support. Software vendor Chili!Soft (www.chilisoft.com/allaboutasp/) offers a Unix-native commercial ASP package, Halcyon (www.halcyonsoft.com/products/iasp.asp) offers a Java-based ASP commercial package, and mod_perl (perl.apache.org) with the Apache::ASP (www.nodeworks.com/asp/) module provides a free, Perl-based solution. Commercial ODBC resources are available at www.openlinksw.com, and open-source resources can be found at www.jepstone.net/FreeODBC.

 

The Pitfalls of FrontPage Extensions

Unfortunately, offering FPSE/Unix commits you to supporting what is, frankly, some occasionally very frustrating software. While security problems with FP-administered sites have decreased, it’s still not suitable for the truly paranoid (a full discussion would take up this whole magazine). The author.exe program that is part of the FPSE seems, on Unix, to eat up an unseemly amount of CPU cycles while it’s running. The .htaccess files that FrontPage installs for each of the directories in a FrontPage-enabled site may interfere with the server administrator’s security policies. And, in my experience, the FPSE will occasionally just stop working, with a reinstall required.

 

If you can’t find the free support resources you need, you can of course contact RTR for phone support ($245 per incident) or e-mail support ($195 per incident). And, if you don’t support it, FrontPage users are advised in the FrontPage/Unix FAQ to “find another ISP” (http://www.rtr.com/fpsupport/faq2000g.htm#7newISP).

 

So much for “alternatives.” And the customer pressure to host FrontPage sites is quickly increasing.

 

Before I go on to discuss how to support FrontPage on Unix, I should mention that there is another option – set up a server running Windows NT or Windows 2000. This has its own set of problems and complications (which could take up a book, not a column), but at least the FPSE work flawlessly. After two years and a multitude of problems supporting 50 or so FrontPage users on Red Hat Linux and FreeBSD, and seeking more scalability without headaches, I shamefully admit that this is what I ultimately did. Unfortunately, I think this is what Microsoft was hoping for all along.

 

Getting the FrontPage Extensions

For a detailed understanding of the installation process and some help with common problems, first visit the Server Extensions Resource Kit (“SERK”) page for Unix installation (www.rtr.com/fpsupport/serk4.0/inunix.htm). For a full list of the files included in an installation and their permissions structures, see www.rtr.com/fpsupport/serk4.0/apndx01.htm.

 

If you’re installing Apache on the server for the first time, you can use the apache-fp package (www.westbend.net/~hetzels/apache-fp/), available as a Linux RPM or through the FreeBSD ports collection, which integrates an Apache distribution with the Unix FPSE. If you’re installing on an existing Apache setup, go directly to RTR Software’s FPSE/Unix homepage (http://www.rtr.com/fpsupport/). Download the FrontPage 2000 SR 1.2 extensions for your platform (they’re backward-compatible with FP ’97 and ’98 clients), which come in a zipped or GNU-zipped tar file, as well as the shell scripts fp_install.sh and change_server.sh.

 

The extensions tarball will be named like fp40.[osname].tar (version 4 is the FP 2000 extensions; version 3 is for FP ’98). The fp_install.sh script converts the results of the uname -a command to a $machine variable, and won’t install if the extensions tarball name doesn’t match the $machine name.

 

For a long time, it was necessary to get the extensions to install on FreeBSD by “hacking” the script. In this case, adding the line:

 

FreeBSD*)            machine="bsdi" ;;

 

as line 70 of the fp_install.sh script would get the BSDI extensions to install. This has been fixed if you download the most recent versions of the software.

 

Installing Unix FrontPage Extensions

The default install is into /usr/local/frontpage/version40, or in the directory of your choice, although it will create a link to the above. The installation script installs the FPSE, an HTML version of the SERK, the command-line administration tool (fpsrvadm.exe), the web-based administration tools (in the admcgi directory), the Apache-FP patch, and assorted server and site administrator support files.

 

If you have already installed the version30 extensions, the script will move its currentversion symbolic link to point to the version40 directory while leaving the older version intact (actually a good choice, and one that many other software packages might adopt!). The installation script will also prompt you to upgrade the “stub extensions” (located inside each FrontPage-enabled host’s document root, linking to the central extension executables) for each virtual host which has had the older stub extensions installed.

 

While installing, note that each site’s FrontPage username and password (used for administering their site through the FrontPage client) have no relation to their Unix username and password. For security’s sake (unless the users will be administering their sites through secure server access), it is advisable to make these username/passwords different from their Unix user/password counterparts. Note that if each of your virtual hosts are associated with different Unix users/groups, those “subwebs” should be owned by the Unix user/group of the site maintainer, or they will be unable to administer their site properly.

 

Next, run the change_server.sh script to automatically replace the existing httpd daemon with a FPSE-supplied one which has the FrontPage patch/module installed (with only the mod_frontpage module and a few other basic modules compiled in; it moves the old one to httpd.orig). The script further creates a suidkey file, used when the FPSE exercise their suid (“set user ID”) bit to make root-level modifications. It also prompts you to upgrade any virtual hosts if necessary.

 

The Apache version used with the current extensions (as of this writing) is 1.3.12. Note, however, that using an older version of the extensions may replace your Apache daemon with an older Apache daemon. If you would like to compile your own Apache daemon instead of using the change_server.sh-installed one (recommended), you may wish to download the Improved Mod_Frontpage (home.edo.uni-dortmund.de/~chripo/) and then follow the installation/compilation directions listed at www.rtr.com/fpsupport/serk4.0/inunix.htm#installingtheapachepatch. If the patch fails, check out the info at home.edo.uni-dortmund.de/~chripo/faq.asp).

 

Administering FrontPage Sites

For the server administrator, the command-line tool fpsrvadm.exe is your primary interface. This tool allows you to install or uninstall FPSE for virtual hosts, set authoring options for them, set directory/executable permissions, chown files, and create or merge subwebs. Running fpsrvadm.exe without any arguments brings you to a GUI-like interface; or, you can run the program directly with command-line options which are detailed at www.rtr.com/fpsupport/serk4.0/adfpsr_3.htm.

 

When adding FPSE to virtual hosts, choose Apache-FP for “server type” unless you have chosen not to install the FrontPage patch. During a host installation, “stub extensions” will be installed for the selected host, and its executable directories aliased appropriately.

 

Through fpsrvadm.exe, you can also run a “check and fix” option on existing hosts. While this option won’t tell you anything other than whether the extensions are installed or not (and which version), it can frequently be a valuable tool. When running a check or installing new virtual hosts, be sure to specify the port number (e.g., www.somehost.com:80) or it won’t be recognized.

 

If e-mailing FrontPage forms fails, be sure to edit your /usr/local/frontpage/we80.cnf file and add the line:

 

SendMailCommand:/usr/sbin/sendmail %r

 

…replacing the above path with the correct path to your MTA of choice. Otherwise, FrontPage forms will not be able to send e-mail. I’m not sure why this isn’t part of the default installation, but it isn’t. Also, note that frequently users may use FTP rather than use their FrontPage client to upload files to their site. A common problem is that if an entire directory is uploaded by the user via FTP, it may overwrite the FPSE located in that directory, and it may be necessary to reinstall the FPSE for that host.

 

Documentation and Support

Your official first stop for documentation will be the “official” version of the SERK at officeupdate.microsoft.com/frontpage/wpp/serk/. The SERK is required reading for any sysadmin to understand FrontPage, especially those with training in Unix and not Microsoft systems. Unfortunately, the FP 2000 SERK (the FP 98 SERK did not share this problem) is the first Unix documentation package I have ever encountered which does not even mention the terms “problem” or “troubleshooting.”

 

For real-world administrators, your un-official first stops will be the RTR FrontPage 2000 FAQ (www.rtr.com/fpsupport/faq2000.htm) and discussion board (www.rtr.com/fpsupport/discuss.htm). While the discussion boards aren’t always much help, the FAQ is absolutely essential, answering most of the common questions that can make the difference between supporting FrontPage and chewing the Ethernet cable off the server in frustration. I’m not sure why elements of the FAQ haven’t been integrated with the SERK (by the way, would a few man pages be too much to ask?). It is essential that, because of how disorganized much of the FrontPage/Unix documentation is, you should scour every available resource before considering a problem unsolvable.

 

Part of my problem with the Unix FPSE is that they use Microsoft’s seemingly proprietary way of describing things, which makes life difficult for Unix administrators. For example, the collections of a user’s web pages are normally known as a “web site,” which has a “document root” and may be a “virtual host.” In the Front Page Mirror Universe, the evil Captain Kirk has a goatee, and this is known as a “FrontPage web,” with a “root web” and “virtual webs.” To use my favorite acronym, “WTF?”

 

There is a newsgroup available at microsoft.public.frontpage.extensions.unix. However, a quick perusal of this newsgroup’s messages over the past several months shows that the postings appear to be mainly problems and questions – without many answers. There was a FrontPage/Unix mailing list (fpunix@inr.net), but as of this writing majordomo@inr.net no longer seems to be responding for subscriptions. I recommend searching Google (www.google.com) for FrontPage web resources.

 

Conclusions

Supporting FrontPage websites on Freenixes is very possible, and for basic purposes, it works very well. However, be prepared to do your homework, and know that it may not be easy. Administering a web server always requires serious research and work; depending on your tastes, dealing with FrontPage on Unix may require too much.