NetObjects helps Web teams shine

Authoring Server Suite 2000 provides all the tools needed for collaborative design and maintenance of agency Web sites

The traditional mechanisms for collaborative design and content for a World Wide Web site have been monstrous, usually requiring a thorough understanding of each team member's role, responsibilities and strengths, as well as cobbling together Web documents from each participant. Authoring Server Suite 2000 from NetObjects Inc. changes all that.

Authoring Server Suite 2000 includes the Authoring Server, the control center for team Web site development and TeamFusion — the primary Web authoring client. Together, the software allows multiple content contributors to create, review and publish Web content on a centralized server, maintaining workflow and revision control.

The TeamFusion Client is similar to NetObjects' Fusion 5.0 product, itself a highly rated standalone Web development package. The learning curve, however, would be less steep for TeamFusion if the two products were a bit more similar, because many Web developers are familiar with Fusion.

Both programs support the use of "styles" — canned sets of graphics, buttons and templates that can be used to quickly develop a sharp-looking site. Alas, the two products don't offer the same set of styles, and it was not readily apparent how you could import the styles from one package to another. We'd like to see NetObjects combine both sets of styles in future versions, but this is nit-picking.

Simplicity Through Teamwork

Granular control and management is Authoring Server Suite 2000's greatest strength. The software enables administrators to restrict user access to specific areas of the site, including individual components, such as a graphic, a table or a plug-in. Specific teams or users can be assigned to create or review content and then pass it along to an authorizing manager and then later check on its progress. Types of privileges for users include site creator, site structure, review coordinator, master border, site styles, publish, assets, page layout and content contributors.

Accounts for Authoring Server users can be generated individually or user lists can be imported from Lightweight Directory Access Protocol, Microsoft Corp. Windows NT Servers/Domains or Novell Directory Services. Creating or importing lists allows you to assign privileges, roles and a password (one that is separate from users network passwords, if you want). Once user accounts are created, the teams can be created and users assigned to them. Finally, privileges are assigned to users, restricting who has access to what components of the site.

Workflow control over a particular Web page or component is accomplished with a simple check-in/check-out mechanism. Based on the user's role and privileges, a user can alter components and check them back in to the Web site. This feature has the potential to save an incredible amount of time and conflict because it eliminates the possibility of two people simultaneously working on the same component. The page is then passed on to the next contributor or reviewer until the process is complete and ready for final approval.

We liked the messaging feature in the TeamFusion Client, which allows collaborators to send notes and messages to other developers, keeping them informed on progress and talking in a real-time manner. We preferred this feature compared with a traditional e-mail system because it is easier to keep the notes associated to the work performed.

NetObjects Fusion owes much of its epic popularity to its ease of use, site designs, site templates and styles. On all these scores, TeamFusion Client does not disappoint. The interface and features within TeamFusion are almost identical to Fusion 5.0, with the exception of the Ad Banner, Go Menu and Screen Door components, which are not in TeamFusion.

We were a bit disappointed that TeamFusion could not handle importing a site that uses frames. Instead of interpreting frames and translating them into a typical NetObjects template, it simply stopped downloading. Also, Fusion niceties such as navigation bar customization are missing.

Multisite Management and Publishing

Another strong suit of Authoring Server is its ability to manage multiple sites, giving the administrator finely tuned controls over shared resources and content. In addition, Authoring Server allows backup, restoration, and versioning control so when something goes wrong with a particular version, you can revert to a working one quickly. The restoration feature can be a lifesaver when you throw caution to the wind and post a new site without thoroughly testing it.

Making frequent updates to a site could not be easier with TeamFusion. Administrators can choose between manual updates or a hands-off scheduled update of Web sites. If you schedule updates, you can do so on a recurring basis. Database and application integration is comprehensive, with support for Oracle Corp., Sybase Inc., MS SQL Server, and ODBC/JDBC. Application server support includes Microsoft's Internet Information Server with Active Server Pages, Allaire Corp.'s ColdFusion, Lotus Development Corp.'s Domino and IBM Corp.'s WebSphere.

Previewing a Web page or site is easy with the local preview or server preview features. Unlike previous versions of Fusion, the preview options are built in and readily available.

The real problem with large-scale intranet projects is getting content providers to post information on the intranet server. If the task of updating Web pages is too difficult or time-consuming, many will fail in keeping the information on the site current.

For example, if a salesperson needs to learn HTML to post daily sales figures, the likelihood that he will consistently post content is slim. NetObjects offers a simple way for the true content providers to submit their content with literally no knowledge of any Web language or Web product (except a browser).

The feature is called the Content Contributor Client, and it allows anyone to upload content to a Web site without having to upload any software. Using any Java-capable browser, someone in a service bureau can connect to the site and input information.

Quibbles aside, NetObjects Authoring Servers is a first-rate product. Despite the minuscule issues with TeamFusion, NetObjects Authoring Server Suite 2000 is a highly usable, feature-rich package that should be seriously considered by any department or agency that has multiple authors contributing to a Web site.

— McClure is president and chief technology officer of Rampart Security Group (www.ramsec.com) a security consulting and training company.

REPORT CARD

NetObjects Authoring Server Suite 2000

NetObjects Inc.

(650) 482-3200

www.netobjects.com

Price and Availability: Street price for a two-client server system with two concurrent users is $1,985.

Remarks: NetObjects Authoring Server Suite 2000 offers a remarkable suite of distributed Web authoring and publishing software for Windows NT. The traditional boundaries of a distributed, task-oriented Web development environment fall with the Authoring Server and TeamFusion Client, which provide a controlled and effective workflow process.

Final Score: Very good

BY Stuart McClure
Feb. 16, 2000

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