Data-driven intranets quick, but without glitz: Page 3

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Lessons learned

1. Re-examine your database designs before you build an intranet.

2. Design the intranet from the start to reduce future maintenance.

3. Decide where you can forgo glitz and graphics.

4. Put information on the intranet that guides users on how to fend for themselves.

5. After the intranet is running, determine what new skills you need to develop to improve it.

An intranet promised to solve that problem, but Polsky wasn't sure what tact to take in developing it. He pondered using a straight HTML approach with Microsoft FrontPage. However, he was concerned that it would require individual departments to be trained on the software--something that didn't fit in with his time frame or his budget.

It seemed a database-driven site would provide the speediest development cycle with the most flexibility. Polsky considered using the built-in ODBC connections in Access, letting the system create pages from the wizard that he would then customize. But when he tested this idea, he found it too time-consuming.

"I'd create a fairly simple page, have the wizard create the ASP scripting technology and it would generate 1,500 lines of code," Polsky says. "I was capable of going through the lines of code to figure out how to customize it to make it look the way I wanted. But I wasn't willing to go through that much code."

Another complication turned Polsky away from Allaire's Cold Fusion. "At the time I was not a programmer at all so I was afraid of the whole Cold Fusion solution," Polsky says. "Colleagues I talked to said Cold Fusion was a fast tool if you knew how to use it, but I didn't have the time to learn how."

Since then, Polsky says he's realized learning to put databases on the Web was vital to his survival as a Webmaster. Gatsby leveraged his existing Access skills, solving his immediate database publishing needs. "Then I could start solving problems while beginning to learn ASP," he says. "Now that I have strong ASP skills, I still use Gatsby for many tasks. It is a tool that allows me to rapidly deploy Web database solutions."

It's all in what you need

Cold Fusion was the product of choice for Ralph Boone, the intranet development manager at Eastman-Kodak in Rochester, N.Y., when it constructed an intranet last year to join a hodgepodge of hundreds of internal sites that serve nearly 100,000 users. As the front-end application for a host of complicated applications, such as a corporate travel application that allows employees to plan business trips, Cold Fusion had the industrial strength to handle both Access and Oracle Corp. databases used by the photograph equipment company. The better graphics available through Cold Fusion were also important, since Kodak is covered heavily by the local media, according to Boone. "We wanted to put the company newsletter on the intranet in a graphically pleasing format so employees would find out company information here instead of on the six o'clock news," he says.

The more SRS' Polsky has learned about buildings intranets, the more he has realized the company's intranet was poorly designed in the first iteration. "Access rewards you for being a bad database designer," he says. "You can do all sorts of flaky things and Access provides pull-down lists as a result of doing it in a half-assed way. If you create normalized data with a relationship, Access won't create pull-down boxes in forms, so it encourages bad habits."

As a result, he has designed a new and better database and intends to import the content from his old databases with ease. "Using Gatsby taught me better database design through positive reinforcement," Polsky says. "I was rewarded for good design with a more rich and navigable Web interface. I wish I had designed our intranet using the database design skills I now possess thanks to Gatsby." IJ

About the author:

Joe Mullich, who lives in Glendale, Calif., has written for more than 100 publications and won over two dozen awards for feature and column writing. He can be reached at JoeMullich@aol.com.

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