A means to publish free-form information on your Web site

Maintaining lists and searchable indexes on your Web site can be a real chore. Collecting and organizing the data are difficult enough, without attempting to format everything with cryptic HTML codes to make it look neat. To help you in this quest and make your life easier, askSam Systems has a product called the askSam Web Publisher.

This add-on to the company's askSam free-form database manager lets you easily and efficiently maintain and publish databases on your Web site. The askSam free-form database manager is a simple yet full-featured program that lets you store free-form text and graphics and structured data fields for search and reporting. The Web Publisher component, which builds on a fully functional version of askSam 3.0 (not included with the product), extends this database to the Web so your colleagues or customers can access your data.

Installing askSam
The askSam Web Publisher is easy to set up and maintain. Installation consists of two disks. When I ran setup.exe on disk 1, I needed to provide several key pieces of information regarding my Web server installation. To test the software, I used my Prioris Windows NT server, which runs Internet Information Server (IIS). This setup is typical for businesses running NT. However, the askSam Web Publisher does not require an NT server; it will run on any Intel-based NT or Windows 95 Web server.

During the software installation, I needed to provide several key directory locations for my Web server installation, including the virtual path for scripts and executable programs, the location of a graphics virtual path to store graphical images that the askSam Web Publisher software uses, and a location for the askSam database files to reside in. I opted for the database files to reside in IIS's root directory in c:\InetPub\wwwroot\askSam.

Using askSam databases from your Web site requires very little programming. To add a database to an existing Web page, you provide a link to the askSam Web Publisher executable program. For instance, a typical universal resource locator (URL) you might install on a Web page is

A HREF="/scripts/as_web.exe?sites.ask+F" Internet Sites Listing

The as_web.exe program is the askSam Web Publisher software. After the question mark in the URL, you place the name of the askSam database file; I accessed a demo file (sites.ask) that askSam Systems provides with the software. Finally, at the end of the line, you can place one of several modifiers: +F tells the software to go to the first document in the database, which is generally the preferred option. Several other modifiers also control how the software initially presents the database.

A special administration program called webadmin.exe also installs on your system. You can use this Web administration program to tailor how your askSam databases will appear to users accessing your Web site. The program reads and updates a series of Registry keys in the HKLM\Software\askSam Registry tree. The as_web.exe program reads the Registry keys when a browser connection launches it. The Registry settings determine how your Web page looks to end users.

The Web administration utility lets you change items such as the default foreground and background colors of the Web pages sent by Web Publisher to connecting users. It also lets you create a global header and footer to appear on each page. Furthermore, you can specify a default global Help page for users. The administration utility also lets you change the default location of your graphics files and askSam databases. This capability is helpful if you need to move these files around because of Web site reorganization or a lack of disk space. For testing purposes, I left all the options set to their installed default values.

Reality Strikes Home
After completing my installation and configuration, I was ready to begin testing. As noted earlier, I copied a sample askSam database file from my NT Workstation client computer (on which I had installed the askSam database software) to the appropriate subdirectory on my Prioris server. I then added the link shown above in my default.htm file to provide access to the database file.

I immediately succeeded in using Internet Explorer (IE) on my NT workstation to access the Internet-published copy of the sample askSam database. However, I was disappointed with the results. Screen 1 shows a sample askSam database that I set up and maintained using askSam 3.0 on my NT workstation. This screen shows how the sample database, provided as part of the askSam distribution from the vendor, looks when you view it within the askSam 3.0 software, the software used to build the database. The sample database I chose is an Internet directory, which seemed to be an ideal application to test Web Publisher on my IIS site. When viewing the database with my Web browser, I should automatically be able to transfer to the appropriate remote site by clicking the URL.

Screen 2 shows the same sample database, as viewed with IE. When you use a Web browser to view an askSam database, the Web Publisher component takes the data from the askSam database, encapsulates it in HTML, and sends the response back to the Web browser. Unfortunately, IE does not use a plugin to download a native binary file for display; this approach would yield more professional results. Although I did not expect the Web Publisher software to give me an exact duplicate of the askSam database application (shown in Screen 1), I did expect a functional application.

However, several problems effectively rendered the application useless during my tests. The first problem appears on the initial page of the Web-viewed version of the database. During the process of building the askSam database with askSam Professional, you can click an entry (e.g., the Computer Magazines option) and see a list of entries for related sites on the Web. Unfortunately, when the askSam Web Publisher software gave me this same page of information via the Web, the page was not formatted correctly, nor were any of the entries clickable to allow transfer to a subset of the database. Plus, the graphics and icons were missing, although they were present in the .ask file because the askSam databases natively store them.

As shown in Screen 2, askSam Web Publisher provides some navigation buttons, which I decided to try. Clicking on the Next button yielded a page of data with instructions for accessing the site list. Unfortunately, the instructions had references to Click this icon where no icon existed. It said to Click on any of the following items in this list of 26 selections, yet no selections were present. In short, askSam Web Publisher apparently did not do a very good job of interpreting and re-creating the askSam database for viewing over the Web.

Better Success
Despite my failure to get the first askSam database up and running on my Web site, I decided to try another database. I selected a database of congressmen's addresses. After changing the link on my Web page to read

A HREF="/scripts/as_web.exe?sites.ask+F" Internet Sites Listing
A HREF="/scripts/as_web.exe?congress.ask+F" Congress Address Listing

I was able to click the new Congress link and access the database. This database worked flawlessly. Screen 3 shows the Congress address database under IE. All the links worked, the navigation buttons worked, and the database was a pleasure to use. Why the Internet sites database didn't work is still a mystery. Despite talking to askSam technical support, packing the file, and attempting to reinstall a copy of the database from the distribution media, I still had problems with that particular database.

Recommendations
Because my experience with the askSam Web Publisher was lukewarm, so is my recommendation for usage. The software is expensive for a product that failed from the onset when I used a vendor-supplied file. However, ultimately I got the product to function using a different database, and when the product worked, it worked well. Although askSam Web Publisher makes publishing a database on the Web easy, alternative methods might work just as well for you.

askSam Web Publisher 3.0
Contact: askSam Systems * 850-584-6590, Web: http://www.asksam.com
Price: $1495.00 askSam Web Publisher 3.0, $1644.95 askSam Web Publisher 3.0 with askSam Standard, $1890.00 askSam Web Publisher 3.0 with askSam Professional
System Requirements: Windows NT 4.0 or Windows 95 for database creation Intel-based Web server for publishing