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A Review of XTune 2.0

by John Peterson

Introduction

Ever have one of those days when you just don't feel like working? Well today's been that kind of day. So instead of doing any serious work, I'm going to play around with a new product demo we've been sent. The product is XTune 2.0 from XCache Technologies (the makers of XCache and XBuilder). You may have noticed that I mentioned its release in last week's NewsFlash. Shortly afterwards they contacted me asking if I'd like an NFR copy to review and, based on how good version 1.0 was, I jumped at the chance.

If you're not familiar with the product, here's the quick description taken from their newsletter announcing its release:

XTune version upgrade! XTune 2.0 is the most powerful tuning application for IIS 4 or IIS 5 ever conceived. Indispensable to the enterprise and straightforward, this new version allows you to configure hidden operating system, network, Active Server Pages and Internet Information Server settings that will make your machine run faster, without any additional hardware or software.
This new version scans your system more deeply, offering more performance-enhancing recommendations and greater insight into your web architecture. The Performance Wizard guides and teaches you through the complete tuning process to get your box running better than ever.

Installation

Once they sent me a username and password, I logged into the site and downloaded the installation files. They give you the option of a self-extractor or a zip file so you can use whichever you prefer. You can also optionally download the SDK (a set of scripts that illustrate how to use the product programmatically) and Windows help file formatted version of the documentation. These are actually both included in a full install of the product, but the separate download is a nice option if you want to get them separately to refer to while developing or if you did a minimal install and didn't install them.

The other thing that you'll need to get while logged in is your license key. With the previous version, they sent this to you via email, but now it's stored on their site so you can get to it from anywhere. This is really nice if you need to refer to it while you're not at your own machine (for example: while you're installing XTune on your server!) or if you can't find the original email.

Installation from the .exe download went off without a hitch and gave me the normal options of path, start menu group, etc. I immediately uninstalled it and tried the zip file version. Again... no problems.

First Looks

Having gotten it installed, I fired off the XTune Manager. Built to use MMC, it's interface should be strikingly familiar... it's the same as Internet Service Manager (ISM). Actually, as far as I can tell, there's really no reason you can't do everything directly from ISM. XTune's tabs are sitting right there next to all the other settings.

So... I right clicked on my computer from ISM and chose properties. A screen flashed saying something about backing up settings... a nice touch -- it stored the server's original settings in case I accidentally mess things up. I then naturally clicked on the XTune tab and a registration wizard popped up. It led me through the registration process (pretty simply process... entering the registration code!) and returned me to the computer configuration page.

XTune Screen Capture - Computer Configuration

So I decided to take a look at the settings you can change at the computer level. Each of those buttons you see reveals another screen chock full of settings like this threading configuration screen:

XTune Screen Capture - Threading Configuration

Now, if you're like me, you probably have an idea what these settings all mean, but unless you've got way too much time on your hands, you're probably not up on all of them or what these values actually mean. This is where the excellent documentation comes into play. It's available from the help button on each page, in the windows help file I mentioned earlier, as well as on their web site. In the documentation, each setting is associated with its corresponding IIS Metabase or Registry setting and their meaning and range of values are clearly explained.

So far, I've only talked about being able to tweak IIS at the server level. Well you can also configure settings at the web site level and this is where the screen which is of particular interest to us is located. What screen is that? Why the ASP settings... of course!

XTune Screen Capture - Web Site Configuration XTune Screen Capture - ASP Configuration

I'm not going to go into what all these things mean and why you should or shouldn't change them... that's really up to you and what XTune is all about to begin with. If giving you access to these settings was all this product did; however, it'd still be a great product to have in your toolbox, but wait till you see what's next!

Note: I was just reading that and it sounded exactly like an infomercial, so I'd like to take this opportunity to mention that this is not a paid advertisement and that my views are exactly that... my views. XCache Technologies had no say whatsoever in the contents of this article and didn't even see it until it was posted on our site.

The XTune Performance Wizard

Those of you who know me know that I hate wizards. They take perfectly simple things and make them complicated. Perfect example: that stupid "Internet Connection Wizard" that Microsoft makes you jump through on every PC. So going into this I was a little (okay... more then a little) skeptical. But boy was I wrong... here's finally a wizard that does more then simply split a big dialog box into lot of little screens.

XTune Screen Capture - XTune Performance Wizard

As I mentioned earlier, it's quite possible that you may not know what some of the settings XTune allows you to change actually mean. I know I certainly didn't. This is where the addition of the wizard, which was not available in XTune 1.0, comes into play.

After backing up your current settings, the wizard takes you step by step through each setting, tells you what it does, what it's setting currently is, and what setting XTune recommends. Even better, since nothing in life is really free, it also tells you what the possible downside of each change might be. Some changes require more memory, may cause extra work for the processor, may favor people on faster or slower connections, or may cause some users to see Server Too Busy errors, but each is clearly explained and the benefit and possible detriment of each is clearly laid out so you can make an informed decision before changing anything.

None of these changes are made until the end of the wizard, at which point you can either let it make the changes or it you're not sure cancel the process. Oh and the wizard also works at both the computer and web site level asking different questions and making different recommendations at each.

One thing you should be aware of before running this wizard is that it is written strictly to increase performance. As such, it points out a lot of things that should be changed to get the maximum level of performance. Before you just accept all of it's recommendations, you should note that some of the things XTune recommends disabling are things that you are probably using (like log files and sessions). I just thought I should mention this so that you will really take your time while going through the wizard. If you're not certain about a setting then it's probably safer to not change it until you've done more research or you might find your site not working at all!

Another thing to be noted is that a number of the recommended settings result in IIS and associated processes using more system resources (memory, processing, etc.). While this will help IIS perform better, other services may not fare as well if they need access to those resources. On a dedicated web server giving these resources to IIS is desirable, but before you make all the recommended changes on a machine running other services be sure you've given some thought to their needs.

Conclusion

If you're running a dedicated web server and are worried about performance then by all means get a copy of XTune 2.0. It lets you get at performance settings you probably never knew existed. While it's no longer free (like version 1.0 was), when you start comparing it to the other available options to increase your web server's performance, it's a steal.

The product does take a bit of a heavy handed approach and recommends some things that won't work or aren't acceptable options for a lot of people, but at every step along the way, you're in control of the process and are given the pertinent information so that you can make an informed decision about whether to accept or decline each recommendation it makes.

While I didn't have a chance to performance test the different settings for this review (default settings vs. XTune's recommendations), based on our experiences using XTune 1.0, you should be able to expect noticable speed improvements, especially on high traffic sites and servers.

Update: Price Drop

Here's the deal straight from their newsletter:

XTune - five for the price of one!

In the quest to provide more value to you - our valued customer - we've liberalized the licensing structure of XTune.

The entry fee is still $89 USD, but now you can create up to FIVE keys instead of just one! Think of the possiblities...

For all of you who paid $89 USD for a single license - contact XCache sales to get your extra licenses. Everybody wins!

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