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Database driven web sites
Gary Herman


Until recently, unless you had lots of money, web sites were generally built by hand with the aid of software tools to simplify and automate some of the processes. The result was that you could either pay a single sum and get a static web site that didn't change from year to year, or you had to spend time or money or both updating the site regularly.

Those organisations which simply wanted to use the web to announce themselves to the world (or a small part of it) were usually quite happy with the first option - occasionally, they might have thought their site looks a bit weary and put up a new one, but often they just left it there to gather dust.

Organisations which had new information to impart, or wanted to use their site to store a growing body of documents or act as a resource in some form or other, found they were on a treadmill. They had to keep paying in time or money. Usually, they ended up using an inexpert volunteer (often in-house) or a costly professional. In either case, the result was unsatisfactory.

Database driven sites - which, until recently, have been the exclusive province of rich organisations (typically news media or large corporations able to pay anything from around 40,000 to 250,000) - avoid these problems.

A database driven site offers nominated users a simple on-screen form which is used to type in text, cut-and-paste documents or select and upload images and other files. These elements are automatically fed into a database from where they are used to generate web pages dynamically. The database will store the elements under different categories - for example, NEWS, THE LAW, AGREEMENTS, TECHNOLOGY, or ADVICE, down to whatever level of detail you require - and the resulting web site allows users to retrieve documents by selecting from just these categories.

Have a look at - for example - http://www.guardian.co.uk and see how every page on this site is actually produced by populating an empty template with text and pictures stored in a database and categorised by date or theme.

To build a simple database driven web site initially all you need is a single template using the web 'language', HTML , a database and what's known as a 'scripting language' to do all the work. You may also want a separate 'home page' to provide an attractive front-end to your site. Then, to develop the site, anybody can perform the mechanical task of cutting and pasting text from Word files or e-mails, or whatever, into a form.

These sites are ideal for any organisation wishing to use its web site to store archives or carry frequently updated items or both. Once created, they are simplicity itself to maintain and almost as easy to modify. New designs can be implemented in a few minutes just by adjusting the template. Creating a site may take as little as two or three days once the structure of the database has been decided. (Of course, it can take a lot longer if you want special features like password protected areas).

These days, database driven web sites can be built using what's known as 'open source software'. This is given away free to the community of users, partly as a matter of faith and partly because in this way enthusiasts support each other in developing the software. For whatever reason, open source software such as the Linux operating system, the Apache web server, the MySQL database system and the PHP scripting language is now behind the majority of web sites in the world. It is definitely not amateur stuff, and you don't have to pay through the nose to get an easy to use, incredibly flexible web site.

Database driven sites are valuable in a number of circumstances:

 You don't want a flashy, graphics- and image-intensive web site
 You will be constantly adding material to your site
 You don't have the funds to pay for somebody to keep manually updating your site using HTML or the expertise or time to do it in-house
 You want to be able to use the site as an organised archive of material from which users will be able to retrieve documents easily
 You want to allow nominated individuals anywhere in the world to be able to update and add material to your site directly using only a PC with an internet connection

These are the basic conditions under which we would recommend a database driven site.

Now comes the good part. We have recently acquired our own web server (that is, we rent it from a company that does these things). This allows us to develop and host database driven sites, to register and host a domain and to implement a full e-mail system using that domain, if required. (A domain is the bit like foobar.co.uk in an e-mail address - you would be foobar.co.uk, the web site would be www.foobar.co.uk and email would be whoever@foobar.co.uk).

This all comes out very cheaply and you can have as much or as little as you want. A really simple site may take as little as three days to build. More complicated sites can be build up over weeks or months, a piece at a time.


-ends-


Friday, September 07 2001

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