A new collaborative Web software package from O'Reilly

O'Reilly has raised the bar for collaborative Web software. With WebBoard 4.0, the company has put online forums and realtime chat into one package with an attractive price, giving us a well rounded product that’s easy to use with a lot of extras. One very apparent feature of WebBoard 4.0 is its flexibility, and I’m not just talking about the ability to set up conferences; I’m talking about the ability to pick your OS, your back-end database, and even your method of reading and posting messages.

Installing WebBoard is a breeze. Because you're loading several different applications, you have to follow a few steps in the correct order. If, for example, you want to use the built-in Microsoft Database Engine (MSDE) instead of SQL Server as your back-end database, you must install MSDE before you install WebBoard itself. Otherwise, you just click away until you’ve got everything installed on your machine.

You can run WebBoard on Windows 9x and Windows NT 4.0. Windows 95 users who have not installed Internet Explorer (IE) 4.0 on their systems will need to install and run OEM Service Release 2 (OSR2) and Distributed Component Object Model (DCOM). WebBoard uses an internal Web server to serve the actual forum pages, but you can choose to run Internet Information Server (IIS), Peer Web Services, or Personal Web Server as a gateway into WebBoard. (You might want to use one of these other products so that you can use an existing authentication process.) When I originally set up WebBoard, I installed it to run with my current IIS 4.0 installation, which only required that I add an extra Internet Server API (ISAPI) DLL and change some property settings in IIS. I later learned that a completely new install from the CD-ROM was a piece of cake. For your database, you can use SQL Server 6.5 or 7.0 or MSDE. The latter option can hold 2GB of data and doesn’t need any tweaking to run right out of the box.

One nice addition to WebBoard 4.0 that makes it stand out is its ability to run in a redundant environment. You can run WebBoard on several computers and configure them to provide nonstop access and load distribution. Once you have one server up and running, adding others is straightforward. Because you'll have all the machines in your new cluster pointing to the same database, you'll want to consider using a separate machine as your database server. Creating a redundant environment doesn't do you any good if you still have a server that can bring down the other machines if it fails.

After you install everything, getting conferences up and running is simple—simple if you plan ahead. Creating conferernces in WebBoard is easy; changing conferenceshowever, can be tedious. WebBoard’s mix of global and local navigation in frames confused me. As Screen 1 shows, the product's default use of frames works great when you’re actually in the conferences reading and posting; but when you’re in there as an administrator trying to manage things, it can be hard to tell where you are or which navigation tool to click to go someplace else. Once I got the hang of things and a better understanding of what’s what, configuring WebBoard became easier.

The software offers a lot of nice new functionality. One feature that I’ve heard many users ask for in different circumstances is Web-based conferencing that uses a standard newsgroup reader—something WebBoard supports. I easily set up my test conference so that I could read and post messages from my newsreader within IE 5.0.

I was surprised by how easy it was to set up and use the JavaScript chat, a major part of the WebBoard package. For the setup, you just have to remember to install JavaScript chat and set it to start when WebBoard starts. To use it, you just turn it on within the admin area for the boards where you want to have chat rooms. It's nothing fancy, but it works really well.

As with all O’Reilly software I’ve used, WebBoard ships with a real manual—not just a "how to get started" pamphlet. The online Help that accompanies the product is nice, but you just can’t beat a real book. These days, many software vendors require you to review online Help files or refer to Web sites for complete documentation. Anyone who’s endured an installation or two knows the value of a well prepared, well thought-out manual.

WebBoard 4.0 is a nice product that offers a lot of functionality and flexibility. It’s easy to install, easy to use, and relatively easy to manage and customize. It is a bit pricey at $1199, but if you need a Web-based collaboration package that can plug in to your existing environment or stand alone, you should consider WebBoard.

WebBoard 4.0
Contact: O'Reilly & Associates * 707-829-0515
Web: http://webboard.oreilly.com
Price: $1199
System Configuration: Pentium 166 (233 Recommended), Windows NT Workstation 4.0 with Service Pack 4 or NT Server 4.0 with SP4, 96MB of RAM (128 Recommended), 30MB of hard disk space if installed without MSDE (60MB with MSDE)