Before launching into the inevitable catalogue of recommendations offered by every other "set up a Web" article, I'll pause for a moment to highlight the goals of this two-part feature. It is not intended to be a technical article on the do's and don'ts of Web site design, nor is it a guru's guide to making a million on the Internet.
That said, I will attempt to guide both the individual and the company user toward making sensible decisions about both the design of a site and whether or not it will be of use to anyone. I will inevitably lay into the products that make your life difficult and perhaps shed light on some facts you may not be aware of.
In this first article, I will look at some of the back end requirements you should consider before rushing out to design a funky new logo.
What's it all about?
Before you buy a car, you need to think about what it will be used for and by whom. You know, for example, that you and your family will need it to haul the shopping back from Sainsbury's. It's also got to be comfortable and it's got to have enough power to get you from A to B without too many stops for petrol.
The analogy is simple enough - a car needs to be easy to control, powerful and comfortable if you are to enjoy the experience of driving it.
On a Web site, comfort, in the form of well planned and laid out pages, delivers a sense of satisfaction which will endear people to the style you have chosen. It should effortlessly steer them to the most important areas on the site and then bring them back, none the worse for the journey.
This may sound fairly easy, but take a trip to US Robotics' site (www.usrobotics.com) and try to download the original drivers for its 28,800 PC card. There is no clearly defined route to the drivers and, as with many large sites, the search tool is the only saving grace. Clearly US Robotics has not thought about the type of needs its customers have and relies too heavily on its search tool to provide information.
"Pre-empting your customer's requirements is one of the key principles behind a successful Web site," according to David Cook, co-author of Launching a Business on the Web (see net.news, page 15). It's also critical because if you don't have the power to accommodate your visitor's needs, you could end up managing a site that ends up crawling over technology incapable of dealing with their requirements.
It's a power thing
Power on the Web, is, unfortunately something you buy - either from your ISP or, if you are setting up the server to run directly from the office, from a telecoms company. But when you are asking about power/bandwidth, don't be deceived into believing biggest is best. High bandwidth connections such as the expensive T1 or T2 lines may offer you superfast connectivity, but you could end up paying through the nose for bandwidth you don't actually need.
Overkill can be a problem as PSINet's managing director Valerie Holt explained. "It's often a better choice to go for a provider that offers switching technology such as ATM or Frame Relay. That way they can rev up your company's bandwidth as and when you need it." A point echoed by VNU's own networking guru Steven Harris, who is responsible for Mag.net (Mag.net.co.uk) and all the magazines it covers. He said, "Switching definitely has its advantages, but is probably better suited to companies that need to fine tune their requirements at varying periods."
An example would be a conferencing organisation that sets up conferences and shows, say four times a year. Close to the shows, the number of hits on the site will probably increase and existing bandwidth may get eaten up.
Frame relay is definitely worth asking your provider about if you are serious about your Web site's growth. The access rate, or the rate at which data frames may be transmitted into the frame relay service network from the access device (typically a router or front-end processor), is a fixed, clocked data rate usually between 56Kbps and 2Mbps.
Once data frames enter the frame relay service network, they are forwarded through the network along any number of "permanent virtual circuits" (PVCs), according to the connection identifier in the frame relay frame. Data transmitted on a particular PVC is multiplexed onto network trunks along with data from other users. Because the multiplexing process involves variable store-and-forward delays, the throughput rate is usually less than the access rate.
In the simplest example of a frame relay system, data frames from multiple PVCs (multiple users) are queued into a common buffer for transmission over a particular trunk. Each PVC can input data into the trunk buffer at the access rate, and trunk bandwidth is allocated to data in the buffer on a first-come, first-served basis. Accordingly speeds vary, depending on traffic.
Consider that a particular user might ask for 12 PVCs to originate at a T1 access port, and that, unknown to the network administrator, one PVC will get lots of hits, while the others do not. This setup would give uneven and inefficient data access at varying times of the day.
As Holt explained, the ISP needs to be able to increase the amount of bandwidth that is provided in accordance with the user's needs: Near the conference, for example, the bandwidth may need to go up so extra bandwidth is sold as an allocation for a particular PVC. The Web manager can specify what amount of bandwidth is required for each PVC, and this allows the service provider to prepare the service to cope.
Larry Bloch, managing director of London-based NetBenefit, does not employ frame relay yet, but sees it as the best new technology available. "We're looking at frame relay as an upgrade option in the New Year. At the moment the majority of our servers are connected to a T1 backbone directly into BT. Frame relay would give us a lot more control, allowing us to tweak bandwidths more easily."
For a publishing company such as VNU, where bandwidth requirements are set to escalate along a linear path, a T1 connection offered the easiest solution and still leaves enough space for future development.
I've got the line sorted out - now what?
Deciding on a server for my own site (gemini.org.uk) was based primarily on the design/authoring tool I used to create it. Front Page promised to be a good choice with sophisticated linking, simple portability and a simple interface.
Front Page ships with Personal Web Server (PWS) - a virtual engine which keeps track on everything the user does and works on both Windows 95 and NT. This gave me enough flexibility to design the site on the desktop and then port it to NT when I wanted to link it into a database or other back end tool.
Personal Web Server on its own is superb for maintaining simple or "shallow" Web sites - that is sites which keep all their information in the root directory. But if you are planning on creating "issues" with regularly updated pages, indexed directories are needed. Internet Information Server (IIS), which ships as part of NT4.0 Server, is the next logical move.
It was around this point I became aware of the schemes being planned in Seattle: Front Page does work on other servers, but only if the special CGI scripts are supported. If you want an ISP to host the site, you will need to establish whether or not Front Page is supported. Demon, for example does not support Front Page.
Other Web design programs such as Hot Metal Pro or Pagemill have no problems with CGI scripts or special extensions, but they do not offer the same level of integration and ease of use as Front Page.
Having used all three programs I would suggest Hot Metal Pro for those of you with HTML experience and either Pagemill or Front Page if you don't like dirty hands.
My back end is ready, now what?
Once the back end is up and ready, you need to sit down and work out what it is you want to provide for your visitors and whether the technology you have chosen can provide the solution. For instance, it is not always necessary to hire a Java programmer to come up with an applet for data collection when your ISP may already employ one.
Once you've taken the time to sit down and work out a paper version of your site, you can move on to the design process. This will include designing forms, navigation tools and the dreaded logo - all of which will be covered next week.
I'll be looking at design and the route to a fruitful relationship with your visitors.
We'll be looking at the deadly sins of Web design and the simple rules of elegance. Lisa Lopuck from Electra Design will provide some pearls of wisdom and a look at some of the world's worst pages.
- Multimedia - for many, the prospect of having a cute little icon spinning around a site with Beethoven's fifth booming in the background is irresistible.
We'll look at noise, animation and lots of pictures.
- File formats and why you can't be ignorant of them.
- Why frames should be avoided - and why they're a necessity.
- Photoshop and why Adobe should be proud.
- Director and the sharware animators.
- Vector graphics and why you need them.
- Windows NT 4.0 and why Microsoft let its multimedia users down
- Klamath and what it will mean to the World WideWeb.
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