postheadericon TECH TALK: Playing With The Big Boys of Web Publishing

This week I thought I would blather a bit about web publishing and competing with the big boys in that domain. Since I’ve just spent an entire week locked in my cubicle, head down in manuals and filled with strong coffee, the act of creating a dynamic website has completely clogged my brain - it’s all that I can think about!

A “dynamic” website is often called a CMS, which stands for “Content Management System” - which is just fancy web lingo for a website that can do a lot more then display some “static” text and images. If I’ve lost you already, hang on; I’ll get to Facebook in a minute.

Today, all business and large organizational websites are dynamic, which means that the pages are created on the fly, depending on what link or button that you click. The actual content is stored in a database (most likely MySQL) instead of living in HTML files, and these sites go far beyond what a typical ‘90s website could ever do.

Take Facebook for example. In Facebook, you can see status updates from your friends in real-time, meaning that your Wall is being populated with your friend’s updates about new babies and Farmville activity every second of the day. This is all accomplished under the covers using one of today’s modern web authoring tools like Drupal, Joomla, or Wordpress.

Social networking websites like Facebook, Flickr, Bebo and the now fallen-from-grace MySpace, all use a sophisticated CMS under the covers to provide the cool features that we (as users) are becoming accustomed too: like hitting Like and Dislike buttons, or being able to watch the tally rise on how many friends we have garnered in just one day on Facebook. One might think that back at FB headquarters all of this is accomplished with a heavy lifting of programming code, but not so.

Nowadays, modern open-source CMS systems are available to anyone who cares to download the modules, set them up, and produce a dynamic website on their own. You don’t need a degree in programming (although that never hurts, even if you run a cold store). Why you or your business might consider doing this is two fold. First, sites like Blogger.com, Facebook, and MS Small Business Online literally own your information, and while these sites proclaim your privacy is protected and your data is secure, no one in the industry really believes it. Most businesses and many private citizens feel that the only way to protect and secure data is to run websites from their own webservers, just as they have done successfully for decades.

Second, having a web presence on a Facebook or on an Ebay is limiting, both in the design of the site and in what content that you can post. Rolling your own website is still preferred by folks serious about web publishing. Take for example professional photographers, who find Flickr and Photobucket far too restrictive on how they can present their work. Even videographers find YouTube restrictive, as nowadays you are limited to just 10 minutes and so many megabytes per video posted.

So using a CMS to build your own mini-Facebook or Flick for business or pleasure gives you total freedom - to do whatever the heck that you want, and to make your site “look and feel” as you want, yet have no web overlord imposing rules over your publishing (or selling your vital info to others).

But freedom and security come at a cost - as anyone knows from our political system - so expect a small price due when creating your own content management system. First, you need a web hosting provider, that’s a given, but there are tons out there for just a few thousand rupees a year. Domain names such as HYPERLINK "http://www.yourname.com" www.yourname.com are just Rs.750 from folks like godaddy.com and many others. With just these two items, you can now download Drupal, Joomla or Wordpress building blocks, and off you go constructing your own Facebook or Flickr.

As someone who just did that this week, here is my advice to folks just starting out: prepare yourself for lots of reading re: the tool that you choose. While the major CMS tools mentioned advertise “no programming needed,” you will need to understand how a Drupal or Joomla does what it does – before your begin. Next, do download a manual or two on PHP and MySQL, then let your eyes glaze over for an hour or so (at least). While you will mostly be installing pre-built modules of functions, you might have to edit a few php files and do a little tweaking now and then. For eye-popping visual appeal, in case you are not a Photoshop design wizard, consider using a site like drupalgardens.com, which headlines “Build a powerful website in minutes”. And what they say is somewhat true; it took me just 4,800 minutes to get mine working.

But it was two weeks well spent, as I caught a glimpse into the future of web publishing, which just like desktop publishing of yesteryear, will give any normal individual with a bit of gumption and spitfire, the ability to play with the big boys on the playground of publishing.

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Jiggy Gaton
lives in Kathmandu and is an aging technologist - has been since the days of Woodstock - so in the words of Roland The Gunslinger "he is from a world now gone by." However, Jigs is extremely up-to-date on all things tech and is also available for hire.
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