Washington Apple Pi

A Community of Apple iPad, iPhone and Mac Users

Making a Virtual Internet Server

from the series: Don't Discard That Rotten Apple: Make It an Internet Server

© 2002 Richard S. Sternberg

Washington Apple Pi Journal, reprint information

It's been a couple of years since we transformed our ancient Mac Centris 610 from an outdated desktop computer to a suitably speedy web and email server. While nobody should compare our server with a screaming fast dedicated server running OS X.1, it is more than adequate to serve as many as a dozen IP addresses or domains and hundreds of email addresses. In some ways, like single line multihosting, it is actually better. And, after all, the price is right. I didn't think it was possible to top that, but it's a crazy Internet world.

It turns out that we can improve our email service with remote backup and provide more reliable, professionally maintained, web service … and we won't need to own a server. We won't need static IP addresses. We won't need a broadband connection to the Internet. If we get concerned about hosting a family or business domain because turning on web sharing exposes us to the cyber-world, this idea provides complete protection. We can keep our home computer safely behind a firewall, letting computer professionals and hobbyists secure our actual servers, while our visitors believe they are visiting our computers. We can create greater stability in our web pages by relying on expert web managers, use web design tools that might not run on older equipment like our Centris, and, in some cases, add redundancy. We can use the multiply redundant back-up servers of an off-premises ISP to capture emails even when our primary servers fail. And, all of this occurs using none of our own equipment. If we eliminate the frills, these better servers will be free. We won't even need a Mac, since this trick doesn't require that we own a computer.

The things we'll need to perform this trick will be:

Knock, Knock!

Before your computer can collect data from mine -- like email or web text or pictures, your computer has to know where to find mine. If you remember your parents telling you how big of a world it is out there, perhaps you can appreciate that it is much, much bigger than they could imagine. No team of humans of any size could navigate it, but, for a computer, it is just a matter of four numbers from zero to 255. Every computer providing information to others on the Internet has an Internet Protocol (IP) address in the form mmm.nnn.ooo.ppp, where mmm through ppp are integers from zero to 255.

To translate a domain name like wap.org to a number, your computer looks up the number at a domain name server (DNS). There are many DNS servers, so your computer must first send its inquiry to a top-level domain (.tld) registrar, where it finds out which domain name server has your records. It then goes to the proper DNS. If I control how that DNS answers -- or if that DNS allows me, I can fool your computer into reporting that it is visiting my server when it is getting its data someplace else.

  • a free account at a New York based Internet Service Provider named ZoneEdit (http://www.ZoneEdit.com/);
  • a membership in the Washington Apple Pi (http://www.wap.org/), or some other source for obtaining a free email account and posting web pages, such as mac.com, Geocities.com, Yahoo.com, or AOL.com;
  • a domain name you want to use;
  • some free ftp software, like Fetch 3.0.3; and
  • some prepared web pages

First, of course, you will need to design your web pages, but that is beyond the scope of this article. I did discuss that in the first of this series, which remains web-posted at:


but there are plenty of better sources to teach you how to create a simple web page using freeware, shareware, or common, and often free, commercial products like Netscape Composer. There are web pages in the members' sections of the Pi web site and free handbooks at AOL, and a million other free sources on how to create a web page. I personally found Netscape Composer so easy to use that I created my first web page in a couple of hours. With a little practice, you can create a new web page in a few minutes.

Second, you will need an active email account. You will be masking the account, so the account or domain names are unimportant. Your Washington Apple Pi email account will do fine, as will a free Yahoo, Netzero, or Hotmail account. An AOL account will also work well. I prefer POP mail, in which you receive your email directly instead of through an ad-ridden web page, and the WAP account works fine for that.

Next, you need one or more domains that you own or control. I covered this in the first article, but the market has changed since then. There is a review of various registrars in a sidebar to the third article in the series, found at:


My personal favorite is StargateInc.Net, whose web site is at http://www.StargateInc.Net/.

Stargate, like many registrars, offers free domain name servers, which are the servers that tell the world how to find your web site, and free URL redirection. Since URL redirection is the key to the trick discovered in this article, it is possible that you could create virtual servers without ZoneEdit. I have not done that for a few reasons that may become more apparent as we step through this article.

The trick we're going to use is to place our web pages and email on a free source, and to use URL and email redirection further up the pipeline to create the appearance that you have your own server while cloaking the reality that your page content and email service are coming from another source. To do this, it might be useful to understand how a computer on the Internet gets information from another computer on the Internet. Take a look at the sidebar, "Knock, Knock!"

We need to control the URL service, and I find ZoneEdit to be the easiest way to do that. If you don't need web redundancy or back-up email, and you have five or fewer domain names, their service is free.

Uploading your web pages to your actual server

Uploading to the web server you choose is easy. If you're using AOL, try http://members.aol.com/websupport/upload/fetch.htm. The Washington Apple Pi TCS starts you at http://members.wap.org/ with simple directions and community rules. Basically, it is as simple as downloading a free copy of Fetch 3.0.3 -- many pundits eschew the more recent and more feature-laden Fetch 4.1 -- and following its easy interface.

For ease in remembering your cloaked URL, each of the hyperlinks to your web pages should be re-titled as subdomains of your domain. This should not be technically necessary, since the URL forwarding should work for files within a forwarded domain, but I got it to work faster by treating individual web pages as subdomains. Thus, the page I uploaded to members.wap.org as resume.html is called in web pages linking to it http://resume.SternbergLaw.Net/. Its true URL on the web is the unmemorable address http://members.wap.org/r.sternberg/resume.html, but it will appear to the world to be http://resume.SternbergLaw.Net/.

Setting up your Cloaked URL Redirects

Open the ZoneEdit interface, as shown below in Fig. 2. Click on the blue-colored words Web Forwards. A new, simple interface appears.

ZoneEdit interface

Fig.2: Picture of MetroWashingtonLaw.com View at ZoneEdit.com. Click on the image for a larger view. (No, there is no Fig. 1 - ed.)

On the Web Forwards page, one page at a time, ** enter the newly renamed subdomain for each of your web pages on the left side, like resume.SternbergLaw.Net. Enter the real URL on the right, like http://members.wap.org/r.sternberg/resume.html. Click the box to cloak the forwarding.

ZoneEdit interface

Fig. 3: MetroWashingtonLaw.com Web Forwards at ZoneEdit.com. Click on the image for a larger view.

Redirecting your email

The virtual servers we are discussing don't exist. They have no IP address. They are hosted on no computer. They can't receive your email. Notwithstanding Sartre, the non-existence of your domain doesn't have to disturb its utility. There are many providers of free web-based email, like Yahoo.com, mac.com, Hotmail.com, and a few others. An AOL account can be used, as well. There may even be a few remaining free POP-mail accounts, such as netzero.com and juno.com were at one time. I prefer using my Washington Apple Pi TCS POP account, because a POP account allows you to eliminate unwanted advertising and partially cloak the actual server. My emails sent to Richard@MetroWashingtonLaw.com, Richard@Sternberg.org, and most of my other accounts are being redirected to my TCS account as I test this article.

There are two methods for redirecting your email. You can skip a service like ZoneEdit.com if you'd be satisfied redirecting all of the emails from your registered domain to one email address. Stargateinc.com, as well as most other registrars other than Network Solutions, will let you, for free, redirect all mail from a domain registered with them to any address you want -- and they charge $8.85 per year for registration instead of $17.50.

There are three problems with redirecting all of your email. First, you may get spammed to death, since many disreputable advertisers on the web send millions of pieces of email to standard names like sales@yourdomain.com, info@yourdomain.com, or webmaster@yourdomain.com. Using these popular generic names will expose you to spam, and using a general redirection of email will expose you to spam. Second, even in a family or small business setting, you might want multiple email addresses redirected to different people who use your domain name. Third, cloaking may be difficult when you do not control the registrar's email server.

Zone Edit allows you to redirect as many addresses as you want to as many mailboxes as you want. It is no more difficult than specifying the email name in your domain and the address where you want that email to go. There is no limit on the number of separate email addresses that can be redirected this way. And, if you use five or fewer domains, unlimited email redirection is part of the basic free service.

ZoneEdit interface

Fig.4: Picture of Sternberg.org View at ZoneEdit.com. Click on the image for a larger view.

Fixing Outlook Express to hide the real email server

One problem you may experience is that your correspondents may receive your email laden with advertisements from the actual host or with a return address that causes them to reply to the host you are trying to cloak. This may be difficult to avoid if you choose a web-based email account. I prefer using my Washington Apple Pi account, which is a regular POP3 account. If you pick up your email using Outlook Express -- which is available free from The Evil Empire -- and set up your account correctly, the secret of the cloaking will be hidden in the headers that nobody ever reads.

Once you've set up Outlook Express, pull down the Tools menu and open the Accounts dialog box. Open the account you currently use for getting your POP email. If that's your Washington Apple Pi TCS account, the entries will look something like Fig. 1, except that the identity will be yours and the email address will be your TCS email address. Change the email address to be the one you want your correspondents to use. The email they receive will appear to come from your server, though a computer-savvy header reader will know that it came via the Pi's email server.

Outlook settings. Click on the image for a larger view.

Adding redundancy

Our new virtual servers probably need redundancy a little less than our old server running alone on an old Mac probably did. The record at ZoneEdit.com will be maintained by professionals at two redundant servers. Many web servers are also redundant, though I do not know if the Washington Apple Pi or AOL do that for their members. We know that they are being maintained by more qualified personnel over more hours of the day than we can afford to do on our homebrew Internet servers. Certainly, our reliability is going to be higher than it would be if we ran one Centris 610 server for both our email and web service as recommended in my prior three articles.

Nevertheless, we can create even higher reliability for our virtual server. As a cheap add-on service, ZoneEdit.com offers a third name server to protect your zone records if the two name servers on different paths both fail simultaneously. My personal favorite is the add-on email back-up which queues my email on ZoneEdit's email servers if the Washington Apple Pi email servers fail.

ZoneEdit also offers traditional failover and load balancing service, in which there are duplicate web pages on two different sets of servers. Visitors' requests for web pages are directed to one or the other available server on a round robin basis so that the load on either set of servers is reduced and balanced. Further, if the DNS servers detect that one web server has failed, they take that server out of the list. Thus, requests get routed to the surviving server until service is restored at the dead or overloaded server.

This traditional model of failover won't yet help up with increasing the reliability of our virtual web servers, but this article intrigued Mr. Krebs, CEO of ZoneEdit, so much that he wants his company to be the first to handle this new type of failover. Once that becomes available, I can put one copy of my web pages on the member pages at the Washington Apple Pi and one copy on AOL and have redundant free web service, too. I'm told to expect a new failover service for URL forwarding by the time this article gets published.


Some of the experts I consulted for this article concluded that this was a fine hack, but that the result would be bush-league, because I'd have less reliable servers or my visitors would be pumped full of unsolicited banner ads. If you have some source, like a Washington Apple Pi Explorer account, with POP email and a place for your web pages, then there are no ads and the reliability will be much greater than we could achieve on a single, non-redundant Centris 610 server. Other than the streaming addresses running across the bottom of the visitors' Netscape Communicator screen and in the headers of our emails, there will be few hints to tell visitors that our servers don't exist. Almost nobody will know that I finally retired that trusty Apple ... unless I write a memorial article about it.

Postscript: After working with the virtual servers for a few weeks, however, I have discovered some disadvantages. Foremost among them is that I cannot control my spam filtering as well if I don't control my email server. Using SIMS, I can blacklist domains or IP addresses, require that email senders have valid return addresses, and clear an RBL list. Once I switch to virtual email servers, my control of the types of filtering available is quite limited. I can, however, continue to run my servers while the computers that used to host them are no longer operating.

It's almost elegant.

Richard S. Sternberg is a long-time member of the Washington Apple Pi, Ltd. and a local lawyer. He has recently published a book entitled, The Querulous Commitment (Xlibris 2001), available at your favorite on-line or local bookstore.