Creating Members-Only Family Web Sites With Tools for Novice Developers

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Would you like to bring your far-flung family and friends together with a members-only website for sharing photos and family news?

Web sites with restricted access are called membership sites. It used to be the case that they were developed only by experienced web developers who were experts in database security and dynamic web pages. Microsoft has opened up new avenues for novice and hobbyist developers by providing a free development environment and Personal Starter Kit designed to get family web sites up and running.

The Development Environment

Go back a few years and the preferred development environment for membership sites was MySQL for the database and PHP for the programming. The PHP / MySQL route is still an excellent option but one that comes with a steep learning curve.

With the launch of Visual Web Developer Express (downloadable from the Microsoft website), Microsoft has provided a free development environment aimed at novice developers. You want a registration and login page on your web site? VWD Express comes with ready-to-use membership features that let the developer "drag-and-drop" login controls onto their web pages.

Of course, the Microsoft option requires a Windows operating system and web server. This will not wash with Linux devotees, but is appealing for developers used to working within a Windows environment.

The Personal Starter Kit

Even with a graphic drag-and-drop development environment, there is quite a bit of coding required for a full-blown membership site. Creating sites from scratch is challenging even for experienced developers. It's easier to work with an existing application that provides most of the functionality required.

The Personal Starter Kit is a Microsoft-provided sample application designed for family web sites. Its membership features allow for secure login to share photos and family news. This kit actually comes with VWD Express – you will see it as an option when you use the tool to create a web site. You then use VWD Express to modify the sample application with your own personality.

The Database

When you start using membership features in your VWD Express web applications, a standard security database is created on your development PC for the storage of data such as login details. VWD Express uses SQL Server Express as its database engine, which is a scaled down version of the Microsoft flagship SQL Server database.

For those who are new to databases, Microsoft seeks to insulate you as much as possible from complex database tasks. VWD Express provides a visual environment for working with web components that access data.

Potential Pitfalls

It's possible for a novice developer to get the Personal Starter Kit up and running on a PC in a single evening, followed by an enjoyable weekend of adding personality to the look-and-feel of the site. The potential pitfalls usually occurs when trying to put the web site live. I'll share with you my best advice for a smooth deployment.

1. Go live early and often!

It's much easier to get a small website live and working than debugging pages and pages of modifications and extensions. I advise getting the Personal Starter Kit working on your live host site with minimal changes. A successful deployment can be followed by incremental and ongoing modification.

2. Modify the database connection

Judging by internet forums, getting the live web pages to connect to the live database is the most common problem experienced. Because VWD Express takes care of setting up the database connections in the local configuration file, developers get stuck on modifying the details for a live configuration. Take heart – once you have this issue sorted, you will not have to look at it again.

3. Work with your live database security restrictions

Many hosting providers do not let you run remote tools against the live database. Although VWD Express comes with an application for managing web site members, you will not be able to use it on the live database in this case. There are a number of alternative options depending on your database expertise. Novice developers may want to use a packaged set of database programs , known as stored procedures, to manage users.

4. Understand the Live Database

Many hosting providers do not support SQL Server Express. Instead, you will have to get your application working with SQL Server itself (its big brother). Do not worry – installing the database structures is done via scripts, and your hosting provider should have more information. Be prepared to spend a bit of time getting to know the live database environment.

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