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Don Watkins

Getting Your Data Online

By Don Watkins

 
 
 

 

July 2001--I have avoided serious database work my entire computing career. This may or not have been a smart career move, after all just about everything computing ends up being database driven, but for some reason dBase, SQL et al just never clicked for me. I struggled with tasks that others completed with ease.

But eventually events catch up with all of us and if you want to run with the big dogs you have to get off the porch so how do you run with the pack?

Platform

Server platform discussions approach jihads and I'm no expert. The server that this site runs on is Linux and it certainly has it's benefits. But my clients use NT and I've never used MySQL (the database engine that's frequently used on Linux) so I've used Windows NT, SQL and IIS for getting data online. If you're starting from scratch you'll want to consider all the options available to you and get good advice and opinions from those who live and breath such things. I'm not sure there's one right answer, but for better or worse I'm NT centric on this issue.

Hosting?

If you don't have a local server you'll find a huge selection of hosting companies that will provide you with the tools you need either on a dedicated or shared server. Hostindex is a great resource for helping you narrow down your selection. Be careful not only about the facilities they offer but also the connectivity they offer. Often cut-rate companies will put you on an overloaded server or their connection to the Internet is sadly lacking. I used to recommend companies but they started out great and then fell apart so you're on your own.

The Basics

In this most simple form you need NT server (I use 4.0 but many of the hosting companies have moved to Windows 2000), some sort of ODBC (open database connectivity) connection to your data and some way of serving it up. Of course having some data will help.

IIS (Internet Information Server) in NT 4 makes this relatively easy if you have FrontPage extensions installed and use an Access database as your data source. In fact it's pretty much just a point and click operation.

FrontPage Tasks

Copy/move your Access database file to your FrontPage web folder. Create a new page in FrontPage or bring up your standard template and move the cursor to a point on the page and click Insert/Database/Results and that will start the database wizard. Select new connection and select your database as the source.

Once your database is "connected" to FrontPage you can select a record source. Next you'll see a dialog to edit the fields. You'll probably want to do this. While you can delete fields later on it's just as easy to remove fields you don't want displayed now.

Click more options/criteria. This will allow you to create your selection criteria for your user search method. Perhaps you want to users to be able to search your product catalog on a field called product. In that case in the criteria box you'd set program equals product. This will generate the search box and generate the code to perform that function.

The next step is the results wizard and you can play with the options but my personal preference (and the format I see most often) is the "List - one field per item". If you're displaying a catalog you may want to use the table option. You'll probably want to bypass the option to "add labels" but your database field names may be what you want to present. In either case you can play with it.

The final step of the wizard is to generate the search form. If you haven't selected anything in the criteria step above you won't have this option so if it's not available back up and set up some search criteria.

Test It

Save your page. FrontPage should warn you to save it as an .ASP page and you'll want to do so. Publish it to your web server and cross your fingers.

Log on to your web site and run the page and search your database. Hopefully everything is working okay and you're seeing results from your database.

Formatting

I guess this is sort of subjective but I think the "native" output from the search wizard is pretty much unusable or at best ugly. Fortunately it's easy to reformat some of the output.

Using the List format I like to then group the fields into a table. Move to the beginning of the first field name (<<field1>> for instance) that displays in the Database Results box and hit enter to create a blank line. Click tables/insert/table and select the number of columns and rows you'll need to accommodate all your fields.

Now that your table is built left click the field name (<<field1>>) and drag it to the position in the table where you want it to display. After you've built the table with your database fields you can right click the field name and change the font. Next right click the cell, select cell properties and select a background color for the cell.

Using this method you can make visually pleasing output and use fonts and colors to highlight certain elements as well as save screen real estate.

Adding a Drop Down Selection Menu

The above method gives the user a blank box where they can type in data and it will search the database for a match. If your users are like me and can't spell or if you have esoteric items it may make more sense to present the user with a list of pre-defined search items.

Right click on the form field and select Form Field Properties.

Copy the field name, then click cancel.

With the field still selected, use Insert/Form/ Drop Down Menu to replace the text field.

Right-click the drop down menu and select Form Field Properties.

Paste the form field name into the name field and add your selections.

It is possible to populate a drop down list from a database so if you have a lot of items you want to include you may wish to explore that option. However I believe that a big list defeats the purpose of a drop down menu and you may want to explore some other type user interface to drill down into your database (hire me, I need the money in this dot-gone environment!).

Multiple Search Criteria

Perhaps it makes sense to allow your customers to search on multiple items. Simply use the criteria section and FrontPage will automatically generate multiple input boxes. You can use the above method of adding a drop down selection menu and create two drop down menus or one free text entry box that can be used in conjunction with a drop down menu.

Adding Value to Your Database Results

Suppose you have products in your database that are represented on another web page on your site? This might be a detailed product sheet or spec or even user instructions or a FAQ page. How do you get your database results to point to that page?

Open your database and edit the field property to include the URL to the page. I like to make the font bold just to highlight it even more. Thus the entry for widget in field1 would look like:

<a href="http://somedomainsomewhere.com/widgets.htm"><b>Widgets</b></a>

The <a href="widgets.htm"> part points to the page. It may be that it's in another directory as the above assumes it's in the root directory. If it's in another directory prefix the page name with that directory such as "/products/widgets.htm" if it's located in the products directory.

The <b> is html coding to turn on bold font, "Widgets" is the text you want displayed and </b> and </a> turn off bold font and the hyperlink respectively.

Right click on the field that field will appear it in FrontPage, select Database Column Value Properties and put a checkmark in the "Column Value Contains HTML" box. This won't effect any non-html data but it will cause the Widgets entry to display the html code as a hyperlink with bold font. If you see Widgets as it was entered above rather than a bold hyperlink that's the problem, the attribute for column values needs to be set.

The Bottom Line

Cool, you've done it! While it's not as fancy as what you'd get if it was all hand coded you now have a very presentable database search site that's a great leg up on presenting your data online. It's something you can maintain yourself and it didn't cost you a fortune to do it.

Next Step

I spoke of alternate ways of allow you user to drill down to the data, how do you do that? I like to use multiple search features to narrow down the search step by step but that involves passing parameters from search query to another and that can be tricky. What if you want to add a search to one page, say your home page but don't want the results displayed on that page?

And what about non-database data? You may have manuals, product specs, frequently asked questions and other info your customers could use but how do you get them on your web site and easily located by your customers?

Next time we'll take on those tasks and even look at some custom ASP coding.

Until then best in computing.

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