I’ll take web sites for $200, Alex: Part II

(continued from Part I)

The kind of web site I wanted to create is usually built on top of a Content Management System (CMS) that becomes the administrative user interface as well as the framework for web pages that get served to web site visitors. The first thing I learned is that there are *thousands* of CMS products floating about the internet, from simple “guest book” type scripts to full blown corporate extranet management systems designed for use by tens of thousands of employees and customers. I’ve also been looking for an excuse to learn ASP.NET, so I decided to narrow my search to CMS software that was based on ASP.NET. Finally, the software had to be free or very inexpensive.

Based on these criteria, I narrowed the choices down to Community Server [now Telligent Community], DotNetNuke, Rainbow Portal, and newcomer FlexCMS. Community Server is free for personal use, but for my planned use it would have cost several hundred dollars — probably out of my range, but I still downloaded and tested it for comparison purposes. DotNetNuke is open source based on a permissive BSD-style license (free to use or modify for any purpose), plus it has a large and relatively mature user base. Rainbow Portal is released under the LPGL license, with discussions currently underway about changing the license. Both DotNetNuke and Rainbow Portal are based on a Microsoft sponsored sample ASP application called IBuySpy. Rainbow Portal seemed more polished, but I ran into some limitations with both pretty quickly. FlexCMS, while seemingly more logically designed and built from the ground up on the latest version of ASP.NET, was clearly lacking a lot of features that the other two free packages included. In the end I chose DotNetNuke because it had a more permissive license and a larger user base to draw support from (I found the documentation for all these packages fairly useless, so peer support was a must).

Next step was finding an inexpensive web host that would enable me to install, run, and administer an ASP.NET/SQL Server application. If you’ve ever looked for a web host, you’ll know that it’s sometimes difficult to find one that provides the remote management capabilities and server software that you need (in my case ASP.NET and SQL Server running on IIS, which are less common than PHP/MySQL solutions running on Linux). I’m aware of several quality hosting companies. Pair networks usually gets good reviews, but they don’t do Windows. I’ve used GoDaddy before for registering domain names without any problems, so I headed there to check out their prices and policies for hosting plans. When I saw that they offered a Windows based economy plan with plenty of storage space and bandwidth for $3.19 per month, I decided to just register my new domain name and sign up for GoDaddy’s shared hosting plan on the spot, and be done with it.

Total cost for DotNetNuke CMS software, 2 years of web hosting, and a new domain name registered for two years: $88. Not bad. In Part III I’ll show you how DotNetNuke works.

Five things you may not know about me

I’m sure that by now all of you have heard about the latest “chain letter” circulating about the blogosphere. It sounds suspiciously like bloggers patting each other on the back. To wit, I’ve been “tagged” by Evan Yares. On principle, and just because I like to be contrary, I refuse to pass this one on, but I’ll go part of the way since there is some redeeming social value to the premise. The five:

  1. I was a difficult child. I ran away from home routinely before I started Kindergarten. I still have memories of the summer just before my third birthday of almost daily forays with my dog “Shep” into the woods adjacent to my parents’ property. Sometimes, after a dispute with my parents, I would take off deep into the woods plotting revenge. One day, after some altercation or other, I narrowly escaped my whip-wielding mother by diving under a barbed wire fence and racing into the woods before she could catch up. My mother spent hours searching for me, and finally spotted me hiding under some brambles. After rounding me up and taking me back home, mom tied me with a rope to a post outside our workshop until my father came home from work. When my father came home, he didn’t have the heart to punish me further.
  2. I was raised Amish. When I was 12, I installed a battery operated radio tuner in my basement workshop, and wired the output through a hidden network of wires (that included our hot water heating pipes as one side of the circuit) into a recessed wall outlet beside my bed so that I could listen to the radio discreetly from my bed through a small earpiece. Later I did something similar when my parents bought my first horse and buggy, by hiding the guts of a portable stereo under the seat.
  3. Amish children are expected to quit school after the 8th grade and begin working (traditionally on the family farm, although farming is becoming less common these days). I chose to continue my education by going on to high school while working evenings and summers to support myself. For this, I was ridiculed and called names in school, and my parents caught a lot of flack from their church elders for my actions (which they had very little control over). I chose not to go on to college after graduating in the top 5 of my class in high school.
  4. My first full time job was as a brick mason, following in my father’s footsteps. I did masonary and other construction work the last two summers of high school, and full time for a year or so after I graduated. One day a family friend called to ask if I would be interested in a “computer job” programming a CNC punch press. The company had unceremoniously fired the previous programmer and had nobody with the skills to replace him. My interview went something like “Do you know anything about computers?” “Yes.” “Can you start tomorrow?” It was at that company where I discovered AutoCAD, and the rest, as they say, is history.
  5. A few years ago, I played poker on a show broadcast across the United States on Fox SportsNet. The show was sponsored by UltimateBet.net, an online poker site. The winner received 10 thousand dollars and a chance to play again for 200 thousand dollars. I got there by beating several thousand other players in a series of online tournaments. I placed third out of the six finalists at the table, so I walked away with nothing more than an all expense paid (and lavish) weekend in Los Angeles, not to mention the satisfaction of knowing my kids got to watch me on national TV.

Go Buckeyes!

I’ll take web sites for $200, Alex: Part I

I’m one of those throwbacks that learned HTML by typing it in Notepad. I’ve since moved up to using the Visual Studio editor; it does syntax coloring, error highlighting, and has a “design” mode for previewing the page, yet it’s a very utilitarian editor that I feel comfortable with. I do use FrontPage when I need to manage connections between multiple HTML pages, but mostly in raw HTML mode. When I use WYSIWYG design mode in FrontPage, I inevitably end up cleaning out a lot of unnecessary junk that it includes in the generated HTML. I think it’s fair to say that my obsession with clean HTML results in utilitarian, functional, and standards conformant presentations — but with a decided lack of graphic appeal.

The ManuSoft and CADLock web sites are examples of this utilitarian approach. The ManuSoft site uses no fancy graphics and relies very little on client side scripting, and it supports a hierarchical navigation system using only standard hyperlinks. I like that minimalist approach, but the price for clean HTML being served to clients is a lot of work on the server to maintain the site. As a result, I don’t update the site very often because it’s just too difficult.

This blog was the first step toward realizing a goal of making it easier to add new content. After all, the raison d’ĂȘtre of blogs is to minimize the latency between the writer’s stream of consciousness and words on the web by making it irresistibly easy to add new content. This is precisely why blogs have become so popular.

Unfortunately, I soon found limitations with my blog. Tabular lists of data still require manual HTML input, it is difficult to customize the content area outside the individual posts on the blog page, and most aspects of the hosted blog software are outside my control. I wanted more.

The Autodesk vs. Open Design Alliance lawsuit gave me an excuse to take the next step: implement the “blog” concept across an entire web site with software that I control. So, I decided to swallow my pride and learn how to create an entire web site that would be so easy to update that I would actually update it frequently — even if it meant messy HTML code. Stay tuned for Part II, choosing a hosting service and deciding which software to use.

AutoCAD LT Upgrade Windfall

Did you know that Autodesk is offering a promotional upgrade price to AutoCAD LT users until January 19th? Check out http://www.adskhost.net/43404/solution.php. According to that web page, you can upgrade an AutoCAD LT 2004/2005/2006 license to any one of several AutoCAD 2007 based software offerings from AutoCAD 2007 to Inventor Series — for $1995. If you have an LT license, now might be a good time to upgrade it.

Coming up for air

While the rest of you were busy enjoying the holiday break, I’ve had my nose to the grindstone. I had been looking for an opportunity to learn more about ASP.NET and web site content management, and the Autodesk vs. ODA web site that I started recently was a perfect opportunity. After 3 weeks of sometimes frustrating adventures, the new site is now live (although still not quite finished).

Total cost of the site, including hosting for 2 years? About $200 and a lot of lost sleep. Over the next week or so I will be documenting some of the things I learned along the way.