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COMPUTING

Web development software: Tools of the trade

July 2, 1999
Web posted at: 5:13 p.m. EDT (2113 GMT)

by Paul Ferrill

From...
Federal Computer Week
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(IDG) -- It's a modern-day equivalent of the chicken-and-egg riddle: Do most agencies have their own World Wide Web sites because tools have been developed to make it easy to design attractive Web sites? Or were the tools developed to serve the growing popularity of the Web?

Whatever the answer may be, the fact remains: Webmasters in government no longer have to struggle with editing Hypertext Markup Language pages in word processors. Generating attractive and functional Web pages, complete with Dynamic HTML and JavaScript elements, can be about as easy as creating a text document.

This review looks at five Web publishing tools that offer capabilities that early Web page designers could only dream about. Our primary focus in evaluating each of the products was threefold: How easy does the product make it to create Web pages? What database connectivity does the product offer? And what site-management tools come with the product?

Several of the products really shine in regard to database connectivity. Others stand out in creating visually appealing pages but are not suited for the beginning Web designer. Choosing the right tool will depend on the application and the users.

The contenders

Microsoft Corp.'s FrontPage 2000 was the strongest product we tested in the three focal areas. NetObjects Inc.'s NetObjects Fusion 4.0 was a distant second but did well in page creation and site management. Allaire Corp.'s ColdFusion Studio 4.0 is strong in database connectivity but a little weak in other areas. Macromedia Inc.'s Dreamweaver 2.0 is the most capable product for page creation but has capabilities that require an experienced Web developer to fully leverage. SoftQuad Software Inc.'s HotMetal Pro 5.0 provides a few capabilities not found in any of the other programs but does not match up to the rest in the focus areas.

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ColdFusion Studio 4.0

Mention "ColdFusion" and many people will think of the Web server add-on or ColdFusion Markup Language (CFML). But the ColdFusion line is much broader than that.

If all you want to do is build Web pages, you can use ColdFusion Studio. But if you want to implement server-side features such as interacting with databases and using forms, you will need the ColdFusion server. A single-user version of the server comes with ColdFusion Studio, but that really only suffices for site design. If you want to deploy the pages, you will need the ColdFusion Enterprise Server.

Installing ColdFusion Studio is a simple process of inserting the CD-ROM and answering a series of questions. Two installations are required for the Web development environment and the server. Still, the product was installed in less than 20 minutes with no problems.

While several of the other Web publishing tools in this review focus on delivering visually compelling pages, ColdFusion Studio is geared toward making it easier to build sophisticated, form-based, interactive Web pages. Still, the sheer number of buttons, tabs and options was a little overwhelming at first.

Among ColdFusion's most attractive features are its shared project management and client/server utilities. Individual proj-ects store the information about all the pages for a particular site and allow you to deploy an entire Web site with a single command. A Site View tab provides an organizational chart view of the structure of a project. A Verify Links function enables you to check for broken references.

ColdFusion includes source control commands for application development such as file check-in/check-out, version maintenance and project management. The only catch is that ColdFusion relies on an external program, such as Microsoft's Visual SourceSafe, Merant International Ltd.'s PVCS or StarBase Corp.'s Versions to do the real work.

ColdFusion shines the brightest in the creation of sophisticated database-driven Web pages. Building Web pages using CFML in conjunction with a ColdFusion server offers a viable alternative to traditional client/server application development. The IDE provides all the tools you need to create forms using all the standard elements, such as buttons, grids, list boxes, text boxes, tree controls and tables.

Complex queries using Structured Query Language (SQL) are a snap to build and test using the Visual Query Builder. Combining user input with a predefined query makes it easy to build pages that let users select the data they want to see from a database. There also is an interactive debugger that makes developing and debugging complex, data-driven Web pages possible.

ColdFusion is clearly the most capable package we tested when it comes to developing database-driven Web-based applications. While it does not include a built-in source-code-control facility, it does provide many solid site-management functions. About the only shortcoming of the product is in page creation. Compared with NetObjects' Fusion or Microsoft's FrontPage, ColdFusion's page-creation process is about a generation behind. Operations such as positioning an image anywhere you want on a page - as you would with a desktop publishing program - are not supported. And you do not have the same level of control over elements such as buttons and animated images that a program such as Dreamweaver provides.

Still, if you need a tool to build Web pages that interact with an external database, you will want to give ColdFusion a good look.

Dreamweaver 2.0

Macromedia's Dreamweaver 2.0 probably is the most adept of the programs reviewed at creating visually stimulating Web pages. The product supports Cascading Style Sheets (CSS) - a proposed industry standard for defining the layout and style of HTML pages - along with Dynamic HTML and JavaScript. Those features, along with the ability to integrate with Macromedia products including Director, Fireworks and Flash, make it a powerful tool in the hands of an accomplished Web designer.

The power of the product, however, comes at the expense of simplicity. Anyone new to the Web publishing game will require some time to get up to speed with Dreamweaver.

Creating Web pages with Dreamweaver is a lot like building a page in a high-end desktop publishing package. Dreamweaver gives you complete control over image location, text layout and visual effects. Template files make it easy to create pages with a consistent look and feel.

Dreamweaver contains many features that make a Web designer's job much easier. A floating toolbar makes it possible to drag and drop elements onto a Web page. Adding objects involves selecting the icon for an image, table, form element, rollover image or plug-in and dropping it on the screen. A box in the status bar at the bottom of the main screen shows you how long the page will take to download by end users at the default connection speed.

Dreamweaver's Site Map view shows the local site as a visual map of linked icons. The map makes it easy to add new files or to add, modify or remove links. A file check-in/check-out feature forces users into a configuration-management scheme that keeps master copies of your site on a remote server while users make changes offline. The same feature makes it easy to see when someone else is working on a file.

One of Dreamweaver's most useful features lets users perform global search-and-replace operations across all files in an entire site. You can even search for HTML tags and attributes if you want to change how your site looks. Several utilities help you check for and fix broken links as well as test your site for cross-browser compatibility.

Connecting to external databases is not one of Dreamweaver's strong points. In fact, the basic product has no built-in database connectivity options at all. Several options exist in the form of add-ons from the installation CD-ROM. One of those options allows you to connect to a ColdFusion server and exchange data that way. Macromedia also has announced an agreement with Oracle Corp. to provide the ability to exchange data with the Oracle8i Web-based database system.

In short, if you are most concerned with creating beautiful Web pages quickly, Dreamweaver is your program. It takes some time to learn, but once you have mastered the nuances of the program, you are ready to create pages that keep visitors returning. If you need database connectivity features, however, you might want to look at one of the other packages in this review.

FrontPage 2000

When Microsoft enters a new market category, the product tends to follow a clear path from bit player to top bill. Such is the case with FrontPage.

FrontPage 98 is a market leader in terms of sales, despite being the frequent target of criticism from professional Web developers. FrontPage 2000 delivers new enhancements and refinements that will no doubt extend Microsoft's lead in the Web publishing market.

FrontPage comes as a stand-alone product or bundled with Office 2000. Either way, the installation process is essentially the same. An auto-running CD-ROM launches the installation program after you insert it in the drive. The only additional task after completing the installation process is to load the FrontPage extensions for your Web server. FrontPage 2000 no longer requires these extensions in order to publish Web pages to the server, but they offer some additional functionality if they are installed.

Microsoft has made the page-creation process much smoother with this version of FrontPage. The software's uncluttered interface makes it extremely easy for a novice to create functional Web pages in a short time. We especially like the way toolbars appropriate to specific objects, such as the image-editing functions, appear only when you select the object.

FrontPage 2000 ships with 60 predesigned themes that provide a consistent look and feel across all pages in a Web site, and you can easily customize any of the themes. One of the complaints about earlier versions of FrontPage was that it modified HTML files that were not created within the program. FrontPage 2000, however, preserves imported HTML files intact.

Managing large Web sites has been a strong feature of FrontPage since the early versions. FrontPage 2000 is no exception, with new features supporting group collaboration, file check-in/check-out, workflow reports for managing team development and seamless integration with other Microsoft management tools.

FrontPage 2000 automatically checks for broken links. When any Web page or graphic is moved or renamed, FrontPage automatically fixes the links to it. An Edit Hyperlink dialog box makes it possible to change a specific link on an individual or group of selected pages.

Another strength of FrontPage 2000 is its ability to build dynamic Web pages that interact with external databases. The best interaction is with other Microsoft database products, such as Access and SQL Server, but you can connect to any Open Database Connectivity-compliant data source. We found especially useful the new one-button database publishing feature, which lets you create an Access database from within FrontPage.

One new feature of FrontPage 2000 is the ability to create a Web page built dynamically from a database query each time the page is entered or refreshed. Microsoft uses Active Server Pages to drive this feature, so you'll need a server that supports ASP server-side scripting. The Database Results Wizard makes the creation of database queries quick and painless. The only catch is that the resulting Web page will only run on a Web server that supports ASPs.

FrontPage 2000 offers special appeal to anyone using the Microsoft Office suite, thanks to its tight integration. But even for non-Office users, FrontPage is an easy-to-use and powerful option.

NetObjects Fusion 4.0

NetObjects Fusion 4.0 is one of the easier-to-use Web publishing tools tested in this review. New users can get up to speed in a short time building useful and aesthetically pleasing sites. Available database connectivity options provide a basic capability for generating dynamic Web pages from an external source.

Creating Web pages with Fusion was a pleasure. NetObjects went to a lot of trouble to make the page-creation process as straightforward as possible. The tools for creating consistent navigation and page layout were intuitive and easy to use.

However, ease of use does not mean lack of control over the details of how a page looks. Fusion gives you complete control over placing frames, images, tables and text exactly where you want them.

It also makes it easy to do things such as crop or resize an image once you have placed it on a page.

Fusion includes templates for creating basic Internet and intranet Web sites. You also can create a new Web site based on an existing site locally or from the Internet. It is also easy to modify an existing style to adapt it to individual tastes.

The first thing you see in Fusion when you choose to create a new site is the site view. All pages in your Web site appear as symbols in a structure that resembles an organizational chart. You also can use a Microsoft Internet Explorer-like view, with pages listed in a small panel to the left and contents displayed in the main panel. Adding pages to the site is as easy as clicking on the New button. To alter the site structure, simply click on a page or group of pages and then drag and drop them where you want.

Publishing a site to a production server is another simple task. Once you fill out the Preferences tab describing how to connect to your server, simply click on the Publish button. An Explorer-like list displays when each page was published locally and remotely. About the only thing Fusion is lacking in the site-management area is a tool for managing source control of large projects.

Fusion ships with two add-on options for connecting to an external database using Allaire's ColdFusion server or Microsoft's Internet Information Server. The Cold-Fusion Connector Wizard makes it easy to build dynamically populated lists, create data-entry forms and display results from database queries. You will need a ColdFusion server running locally or remotely to service the pages you build.

Connecting to a Microsoft IIS server is a snap with the ASP connector. Unfortunately, you only will be able to create pages that display lists of database information as an HTML table or a single record at a time of user-defined fields. Anything more complicated than that will require an external development environment, such as Microsoft's Visual Interdev. Using the ASP connector, you can generate a simple table listing the contents of an Access database file on an IIS server in less than 10 minutes.

NetObjects Fusion was, in short, a pleasant surprise in a crowded field of contenders. The page-layout and link-checking features make it possible to develop solid Web sites in a short time. With support for ASP and ColdFusion servers, you should have a couple of options for connecting to outside data. Overall, this program is worthy of consideration.

HotMetal Pro 5.0

HotMetal Pro 5.0 from SoftQuad is the least-expensive product that we tested. The low price does not mean a shortage of features, however. HotMetal Pro 5.0 includes templates and wizards for quick Web site creation along with site-management and administration tools for managing large projects. The product is not without its faults, though; the program crashed multiple times.

The installation process was relatively painless. HotMetal Pro does require that Microsoft's ODBC manager be installed if you want to use the Database Import Wizard. Fortunately, the CD-ROM includes the ODBC setup files. The basic installation process installs a copy of the HotMetal personal server. Personal server is a scaled-down version of SoftQuad's application server that supports the proprietary Miva scripting language.

Generating a site from scratch is a breeze with the Site Maker Wizard. The wizard offers three types of basic sites: business, intranet and personal. After you answer all of the wizard's questions, it creates a project with all the files required for the new site. You then edit each page to customize it for your purposes.

One nice feature of HotMetal Pro is the ability to open files in different formats and include them in a Web site. Supported file formats include Word, WordPerfect, Ami Pro, Rich Text Format and CSS documents. Saving a file converts the original into HTML format.

HotMetal Pro has tools to help you manage your site. The project screen displays all the files associated with a particular project. A Page Links window shows how the different pages link together in a graphical screen and enables you to make changes using a drag-and-drop approach. The Site Doctor dialog box activates when you make a change on the Page Links window and takes care of fixing links affected by moving files around.

HotMetal Pro offers several ways to extract data from a database and present it on a Web page.

One method is to use the Insert Database Table menu option. Selecting this menu item displays a Database Import Wizard enabling you to connect to data stored in an Access database, an Excel spreadsheet, an ASCII text file or any ODBC-compliant data source. The only drawback is that this approach creates a Web page as a static snapshot of the data, so you have to re-create the page if the source data changes.

Ferrill, based at Edwards Air Force Base, Calif., is a principal engineer with Avionics Test & Analysis Corp. He can be reached at pferrill@fwb.gulf.net.


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