Designer calls for a more dynamic Web

When John Green started making Web pages in 1992, fewer than 100 sites were on the Web and HTML (HyperText Markup Language) was the only programming language. His first Web site grew to 15,000 separate pages, which he updated manually from the company database.

Eventually, he used the middleware Cold Fusion to link the Web site and company database so he could replace the 15,000 pages with two templates that are updated automatically. On a content-driven Internet, the dynamic site can be changed more frequently and has received more hits as a result.

Today, the Webmaster and designer is touting the marriage of Web sites and databases as the Internet's "next great leap."

"We're talking about turning thousands of static Web pages into one or two template-based pages run by a database," Green says. "And it's logical because databases are the best way to store information, and the Internet is the best way to distribute it."

Livelier sites

A dichotomy of static versus dynamic content is already emerging online, he says. Or, as he assesses it, the situation is one of an old-fashioned approach versus a database-driven one. For example, the Yahoo stock ticker is a dynamic feature: Every time the data changes, the Web site changes without anyone having to lift a finger. Green calls manually updated sites "tedious and error-prone."

On balance, putting a database online makes it more vulnerable to hackers, even if it's password-protected or otherwise guarded. Installing a firewall server between database and Web servers is an effective security measure, but "those guys (hackers) can get into anything," Green adds.

Despite the drawbacks, Green says he urges all organizations to at least consider "going dynamic," because the benefits could outweigh the risks.

One advantage of dynamic publishing is replacing the middleman with middleware, leading to greater speed, cost-effectiveness, and efficiency. Before issuing a few caveats, Green gave the following example of such benefits: A Web user who registers for an event by filling out a form on a static site is simply sending an e-mail to someone who must then key the information into the database. But forms on dynamic sites zip through the middleware directly into the database, taking less time and providing fewer opportunities for human error.

Sifting tools

On the server side, Green said, there are "five flavors" of middleware, all of which use the standard Open Database Connectivity, a database driver.

He recommends Cold Fusion for programmers who already know HTML, because both are markup languages. "Anyone who knows HTML can turn around and learn Cold Fusion in about two days," he says. PHP, a free alternative to Cold Fusion, is "almost as easy," he says.

Perl is "the old workhorse language of the Web" that should only be used by people who know it well and like it a lot, Green says. "Perl CGI is a pretty common gateway interface, but it's hard to update," he adds.

Microsoft's Active Server Pages is a good choice for Web developers who don't know HTML or Perl, according to Green. Also, Microsoft NT can interact with Active Server input without modification.

But in most cases, middleware programs are not a good match with the popular Microsoft Access database manager on high-traffic sites. "Too many people cause problems," Green says. "If you don't have a lot of users, Access is probably okay."

For sites with large numbers of visitors, the more-powerful Microsoft SQL Server or Oracle database software is a better choice, he says. Also, sites that outgrow Access can easily move their data over to SQL Server.

Accommodate browsers

Green also reminds Webmasters to test access to their sites with a variety of browsers, to avoid unexpected reactions.

"Netscape won't do some things that Internet Explorer will do," Green says. "But then, IE 7 is sort of a step back, so you just really need to view a page on more than one browser before you approve it."

He advises viewing pages on at least three different browsers, adding that his personal favorite is Opera, distributed free by Norwegian programmers.

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