Making the most of Web conferencing

Last week, I noticed I was getting a lot of email from readers with questions about the Windows NT Magazine online forums (www.winntmag.com/forums/index.dbm). The questions ranged from, "How do you do your forums?" to, "Is the code for your forums available for download?"

In all cases, I don't get to take much credit. For our forums, I use Allaire Forums 1.0 from Allaire, the same company that makes Cold Fusion. Most of what you see on our site is what you get with Allaire Forums out of the box. With all the attention our forums are getting, both in use and emailed questions, now is a good time to look at Web forums. Cold Fusion 2.0 will be out by the time you read this, so now is also a good time to talk about it.

Web Conferencing
You might want to set up a Web conferencing system on your Internet or intranet site for many reasons. Although email is great for providing customer support or feedback, so is a conferencing system, and it lets you answer frequently asked questions (FAQs) once for all your users to see. I use the Windows NT Magazine Web site forums to provide a feedback area where readers can post questions or comments about the magazine. The person with the appropriate expertise answers the question. The Web site also includes an Ask Dr. Bob forum based on Bob Chronister's Tricks & Traps. Here readers can ask technical questions. The neat thing about posting to this forum is that other users can offer solutions to a person's problem.

The main reason we use a conference feature on our Web site is to provide an efficient way for users to ask questions and for us to answer them. In preparing for conferencing, I looked at several options. Email works for individual questions but doesn't offer an elegant way to handle FAQs. I also looked at implementing a news server, but at that time, the ones available for Windows NT weren't any good, and I wanted a Web-based solution. So I began looking at Web conferencing.

WebBoard
The first conferencing software I came across was WebBoard by O'Reilly & Associates. WebBoard accesses Microsoft Access's jet engine through a Common Gateway Interface (CGI) to interact with a database to store and retrieve data. The software tracks user messages and user information such as how many messages a user has posted, how many times a user has been in a conference, and the last time a user was in a conference.

WebBoard is a nice setup, but it requires a Web server that fully supports the Windows CGI. Because I wasn't running such a setup at the time, I looked for something else.

Allaire Forums
About this time, Allaire began packaging the software it was using for its Cold Fusion support forum as an add-on product to Cold Fusion. I had seen how powerful and efficient the Web conferencing software was, and I already owned Cold Fusion, so the decision to go with Allaire Forums was pretty easy.

The flexible access controls of Allaire Forums made the software an excellent fit for the Windows NT Magazine forums. I can give users read/write or read-only access in each forum, and I can set up members-only forums. I can give each forum its own graphics, background colors, headers and footers, and announcements. Another nice feature is the searching ability of Allaire Forums. Users can search messages for postings by author, date, keyword, or discussion area.

I administer and configure Allaire Forums with my Web browser, as you see in Screen 1. This ability makes remote administration a breeze. I can change the configurations individually, or use the product's nice template system.

Allaire Forums consists of several layers. The first layer is the conference, the general topic of conversation (e.g., our Windows NT 4.0 conference). Within the conference are the forums, more specific areas within the main topic (e.g., the subject of compatibility in the Windows NT 4.0 conference). Within the forums are the threads, specific topics that a user creates in the forum (e.g., within the compatibility forum, a user can create a thread to ask whether a specific software package is compatible with NT 4.0). Screen 2 shows how the Windows NT Magazine conferences and threads look. Finally, within the threads are the messages.

Allaire Forums is also great for users. When they enter a conference for the first time, they get the default settings. They can choose Options to set up personal preferences, such as which forums to follow in a conference and how many days of messages they want to see when they enter the forum. This option is especially useful if you visit the forums several times a day and don't want to see 365 days' worth of messages.

Allaire Forums maintains each user's preferences with cookies, which let Web servers store and retrieve client-side information in the form of a file. At least, that's how I use cookies on our Web site. I don't force people to register for the forums, so the cookies option lets me identify individual users. If they use the same Web browser every time they enter the forums, the software remembers their settings and configures the forums to their settings. Another advantage for users who always use the same Web browser to access the forums is that once they post a message, they don't need to fill in the Author and Email address fields again for any other message they send; Allaire Forums fills in these fields automatically when it knows the user. However, users who don't always use the same Web browser to join a forum can have a hard time telling what messages they have read.

Allaire Forums includes many message-posting options. For example, you can configure the message-posting area to include a fixed-font area--a text box below the message area where the user can input code and keep the code formatting. When responding to a message, users can send an email message to the person who wrote the original message and can post to the forum.

The preview option is another popular message-posting option because it lets users preview their messages before they post them to the forum. Allaire Forums lets users include HTML in messages, which makes the preview option especially handy. For example, if I include my usual email signature file at the end of a message, instead of

T.J. Harty
Web Master
Windows NT Magazine
http://www.winntmag.com
tjharty@winntmag.com

it appears as

T.J. Harty Web Master

Windows NT Magazine http://www.winntmag.com tjharty@winntmag.com because HTML doesn't see a hard return in the message text box as a break. The preview option reminds you to either put <BR> at the end of each line or get rid of your signature file.

Allaire is already promising new features in the next version of Allaire Forums (version 2.0, which either will be in final beta or released by the time you read this) that will add to an already great product. These features include

  • file uploads, which will have unlimited uses
  • moderator features (pre-approve, filter, etc.)
  • 100 percent customizable graphics by conference (currently, if you want to change one, you have to change them all)
  • conference-level administration (as opposed to the systemwide method it has now)

If you want to create an environment where you can have organized conversations, I suggest installing a conference or forum area on your Web site. Having used only Allaire Forums, I can say it's easy to set up and configure, and it almost maintains itself.

On our Web site (www.winntmag.com), a lot of what you see is dynamically created: The Web server creates the pages you see when you ask for them, not before. I've been using this capability even more since I started using Cold Fusion Pro 2.0. Last year, Cold Fusion Pro 1.5 let me do things then that many other Web sites are just now starting to do. An example is using a database to store and retrieve data for creating unique pages according to the user's request. For all the basics about Cold Fusion Pro 1.5, see Joel Sloss, Tim Daniels, and T.J. Harty, "dbWeb 1.0 and Cold Fusion Pro 1.5," April 1996, or visit our Web site at www.winntmag.com/issues/Apr96/TestDrive.htm.

Since that review, Allaire has made Cold Fusion faster. Allaire has written a server API for the Web server I'm using and doubled the performance speed. Allaire has written APIs that support Netscape's Enterprise Server, Microsoft's Internet Information Server, and O'Reilly & Associates's WebSite server.

Some of version 2.0's new features are

  • file management that uses the usual server-side markup to let you copy, write, delete, rename, move, read, and append files on the Web server
  • 130 functions for evaluating strings, times, dates, lists, and mathematical expressions
  • dynamic flow control that lets you use conditional statements (if, else), Boolean operators (and, or), and looping to control the content of pages
  • global variables so you can set certain variables in a template to establish a look and feel for all the pages in that directory

For a powerful application that lets you do amazing things with your Web pages and doesn't require traditional programming, I highly recommend Cold Fusion 2.0. Besides, Allaire Forums requires Cold Fusion, so now is the perfect time to get it.

Cold Fusion 2.0
Allaire Forums 1.0
Allaire * 617-761-2100
Web: www.allaire.com
Email: info@allaire.com
Price: Bundle price of $795, which includes a copy of Cold Fusion Professional 1.5; $395 for existing Cold Fusion users
WebBoard
O'Reilly & Associates * 800-998-9938
Web: webboard.ora.com
Price: $149