Data-driven intranets quick, but without glitz

Friday Aug 6th 1999 by Joe Mullich
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A number of products Web-enable Microsoft Access databases. But only one--Gatsby Database Explorer--combines basic functionality with an out-of-the-box interface.



SRS' Webmaster Erick Polsky

SRS' Webmaster Erick Polsky wanted a quick and simple product to create a Web interface for an Access database.
When Erick Polsky became Webmaster for Strategic Resource Solutions Corp. (SRS) late in 1997, his first mandate was to construct an intranet and have it operational in virtually the click of a light switch. SRS, a facilities management firm in Cary, N.C., that helps design lighting and power systems, was growing at breakneck speed--from 70 employees when Polsky joined the firm to about 500 presently. And all of these employees, many of whom are remote users, needed immediate access to new sales information, ever-changing telephone lists, 401K plan tracking, facility locations and addresses, a weekly deregulation news database, and contractor listings all housed in a Microsoft Corp. Access database.

Intranets are ideal for information retrieval, of course. But Polsky had a few problems. First, the intranet had to be designed--and maintained--by a two-person staff: Polsky and a graphic artist. That meant he had to design the intranet to minimize the amount of future work after it started to expand. Polsky wanted to allow the various departments to update their own data, without having to give them much of his own input. The second issue was his own limited development skills, which reduced some of Polsky's design options.

After looking at Cold Fusion, a leading Web site design and management tool from Allaire Corp., of Cambridge, Mass., Polsky chose Gatsby Database Explorer from Gatsby Software Inc. in Hillsborough, N.C. The product dynamically builds a Web interface for Microsoft Access databases without HTML, CGI, or Java programming.



AT A GLANCE:

Strategic Resource Solutions, Inc.

The company:Based on Cary, N.C., Strategic Resource Solutions, Inc.is a subsidiary of Carolina Power and Light. SRS provides systems, lighting solutions, mechanical services, support, and software to help firms control building environments and reduce energy costs. The company currently employs 500 people.

The problem:Providing employees immediate access to a variety of information such as ever-changing telephone lists housed in a Microsoft Corp. Access database.

The solution: An intranet that provides Web-enabled database access.

The IT infrastructure: Gatsby Database Explorer 1.0 from Gatsby Software in Hillsborough, N.C., which dynamically builds a Web interface for Microsoft Access databases without HTML, CGI, or Java programming. SRS' intranet also uses Compaq Proliant, Microsoft Access 97, DreamWeaver 1.2, Adobe Photoshop 4.0, and custom ASPs.


Gatsby allows Webmasters such as Polsky to build data-driven intranets easily and quickly. As a kind of a poor man's Cold Fusion, it sacrifices the glitz and some of the bells and whistles available in more customizable applications, including Drumbeat 2000 from Elementary Software and NetObjects Inc.'s Fusion. While these products permit Web-enabled database access and provide richer customization, they also tend to be more complicated to deploy and manage-something resource-strapped Web managers are looking to avoid. "They require custom creation of the interface and difficult maintenance if the database has fields or tables added or removed," Polsky says.

Gatsby 2.0, which was developed for workgroup users, has only been available since June, so few analysts have looked at the product. Deployment, so far, is limited, though the company won't provide sales figures. "Cold Fusion is much more flexible than Gatsby," says David Hadfield, general manager for American Information Components, a small Microsoft Access-focused consulting firm in Loveland, Colo. "Gatsby is an interface right out of box, so you spend no time formatting a form. It has a niche no one else is getting into."


However, while initial users such as Polsky compare Gatsby to Cold Fusion, Daniel Denning, director of marketing at Gatsby, describes the Gatsby Database Explorer as a new class of product that is most comparable to one part of the Fusion suite, the "NetObjects TeamFusion content contributor." This is a Java applet that allows users to contribute formatted or simple text to internal data objects that have previously been created in the company's TeamFusion client. "Cold Fusion and ASP [active server page] are scripting technologies that allow you to build custom pages," Denning says. Gatsby lets users maintain the content that fuels custom, database-driven pages, he says.

An intranet product

Named after the F. Scott Fitzgerald novel, "The Great Gatsby," Gatsby Database Explorer creates a front end for editing and viewing the content of Microsoft Access tables and queries. Webmasters don't need to build or maintain forms or reports, and databases can be viewed, searched, and edited over the Internet or through intranets.

The Gatsby interface adapts to changes made to the database by users. The software automatically builds an interface based on specific database privileges, so new code doesn't have to be written every time a new table is added, a field is renamed, or a relationship is modified, Polsky says.

Gatsby positions its technology as an intranet product, partly because the limited interface lacks the splash most companies want on their external sites. For instance, Polsky had to turn down requests from an SRS sales manager who wanted the names of top salespeople listed on an intranet page to blink and be in purple. The Gatsby interface provides only global customization of sites, rather then customization of individual pages.

While the software lacks the power necessary for enterprise deployments, it may be the answer for smaller firms or departmental-style intranets that use Microsoft Access databases, officials say.

"Gatsby could be used by a small business with 10 or 15 concurrent users all entering information into a database," says consultant Hadfield. "If you put Gatsby on top of Access 2000, you could probably go with an even higher number of concurrent users because the database engine in 2000 is better."

A license for the professional edition of Gatsby Database Explorer 2.0, which allows a firm to Web-enable an unlimited number of databases and users, sells for $1,295. A license for one database on one Web site costs $395. In comparison, one license for NetObjects' Fusion 4.0 has an estimated street price of $300; Drumbeat 2000 is $399; and Allaire's Cold Fusion 4.0 starts at $395.

"Erick is the prototypical Gatsby user--someone who needs to put up an intranet with a limited budget, limited time, and no skills to program in Visual Basic to create and maintain Microsoft Access forms," says Denning.

True to this description, Polsky was able to go from design to deployment of the SRS intranet in two weeks using Gatsby. The simplicity of the software allows him to permit individual departments to edit their own content without knowing HTML. If users have questions, they usually find the answers in two Gatsby FYI sites that Polsky posted on the intranet, freeing him from adding intranet help-desk duties to his already jammed schedule.

Polsky says anyone "who's somewhat computer literate" can use the Gatsby software. "I have never received a support call about the interfaces Gatsby dynamically created," he says.

Better ways to share information

Polsky joined SRS during a stream of acquisitions and department reorganizations, which required the firm to look for a more streamlined way to share information with its ever-expanding work force. Initially, the IS department considered using the public folders in Microsoft Exchange to dispense information.

The thought was to allow all users to post important internal public files to the Exchange public folders. Then employees could surf the hierarchy to find the files they wanted. "However, since there was no control over who posted and what was posted, the tree grew, and finding desired data became impossible," Polsky says. "A few months passed and nobody was deleting their obsolete files." Soon different individuals posted multiple revisions of the same document to different locations.

"In no time at all, duplicated data was in various subdirectories and the owners of files would quit the company, leaving out-of-date information that could still be accessed," says Polsky, who reports to the head of marketing/corporate communications at SRS.

SRS company officials realized they needed a better way to control how data became available throughout the company. "Otherwise, you end up with mounds of garbage," Polsky says.

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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