Drumbeat 2.0

Published on: December 7, 2002
Last Updated: December 7, 2002

Drumbeat 2.0

Published on: December 7, 2002
Last Updated: December 7, 2002

At this particular moment in the lifecycle of Internet media, the first question a reviewer must ask when faced with yet another website development tool is, What the hell for? With dozens of products in price tiers from commodity to $10’s of thousands, the ante is pretty high to get in the game.

So it was with a soupcon of skepticism that we fired up Elemental Software’s Drumbeat, which debuted in June 1998 to “enable layout-oriented users to build visually engaging, data-driven websites without writing code.”

This claim, emblazoned on the product packaging and reviewer’s guide we received, is not one Intranet Design takes lightly.

Last March we took Macromedia Dreamweaver 1.0 to task for generating unstable JavaScript in its dynamic HTML pages (a problem corrected in the current version, 1.2).

We faulted NetObjects TeamFusion 1.0 for its refusal to talk HTML and its promising but primitive data integration abilities. So we were prepared to play hard ball with newcomer Drumbeat.

Elemental hits the ball out of the park with its visual RAD tool for web design, which does for ASP and DHMTL what tools like Symantec Visual Cafe did for Java.

Drumbeat delivers a tsunami of next-generation features that raise the bar for data-driven page design.

The product supports all manner of client- and server-side components, including Java applets, ActiveX, Scriptlets, JavaScript, plug-ins, COM objects and plain old HTML.

While not quite as simple for non-programmers as the brochure implies, Drumbeat does make many complex scripting and data access tasks a drag-and-drop affair.

Drumbeat isn’t the answer to every prayer. Authors who enjoy composing websites in Notepad can save themselves $699.

And while Drumbeat accepts and respects existing HTML, it’s really about hiding the mechanics of markup language so designers can focus on impact and interaction.

The product’s ideal audience is web designer/developers who need to deploy sites rich in state-of-the-art technique, but who haven’t the time or inclination to master the technical arcana.

We did manage to find a few weaknesses in Drumbeat, detailed below. Mostly, though, we enjoyed exploring the product and rediscovering the fun that web page design can be once matters of browser compatibility and scripting syntax are left behind.

The Environment

Drumbeat sports a multi-pane visual development environment reminiscent of Allaire HomeSite. (See Figure 1.) Drumbeat integrated development environment. Enlarge (38k)

The largest area on the screen, lower left in the figure, is called the Layout and is where pages and templates are assembled. Drumbeat calls its basic building blocks SmartElements.

The metaphor for page construction is to arrange SmartElements on the Layout and imbue them with “interactions” – event-driven behaviors.

Drumbeat ships with an extensive selection of SmartElements, accessible through the tabbed Element Library (shown below).

Developers can put their favorite elements on a toolbar for handy access, a feature RAD programmers will recognize as a component palette for painting high-functioning objects on the Layout.

NetObjects Fusion and Dreamweaver also have simple element toolbars, but in SmartElements Drumbeat has lifted the web component model to new heights.

Developers can even construct their own SmartElements and add them to the Library for team reuse, or share them with other Drumbeat customers through Elemental’s web site.

Creating SmartElements requires knowledge of Visual Basic for Applications (VBA) and DHMTL – hardly a job for non-programmers. But true to the component software model, a single element architect can provide custom SmartElements for an entire organization.

Through SmartElements, Drumbeat makes it possible to create sites of three distinct types:

  • static with manually entered content – your basic collection of HTML pages. Static sites offer low interactivity but can be deployed on any platform.
  • database-derived – HTML pages populated from data tables at publication time but static thereafter.
  • database-driven – ASP pages populated from data tables on the fly. Data-driven sites built with Drumbeat must run on an ASP server such as IIS.

In the last two modes Drumbeat can work with data from any ODBC data source or CSV (comma-separated variable) file.

To create a data-driven pageset in Drumbeat you use the DataForm Wizard, which generates the underlying code and logic.

Besides separating the code from the page design, Drumbeat is capable of automatically creating browser-specific or cross browser versions of websites via a feature called SmartPages.

If any Drumbeat feature is tailored for non-programmers it’s this one, which at the click of button builds multiple, browser-specific versions of a website with graduated functionality, from “Generic” vintage-2.0 browsers to today’s 4.0 versions which support CSS (Cascading Style Sheets), DHTML, and JavaScript.

Drumbeat automatically creates both the requisite page versions and browser-detection logic that dispatches requests.

Users coming into the site are automatically redirected to the appropriate version for their browsers.

Drumbeat even lets you specify when setting up a new site how the redirection logic is implemented: on the client-side by JavaScript, or by a server-side CGI program.

Ensuring cross-browser compliance by hand is the stuff of nightmares, so the SmartPages feature alone makes Drumbeat compelling.

Test Drive

Setting up Drumbeat amounts to picking a directory and choosing the Typical, Compact, or Custom installation.

Recommended system requirements are a 200 MHz Pentium (133 MHz minimum), 64 MB RAM (32 MB min), 60 MB disk space and Windows 95 or NT 4.0.

You will also need a web server such as Microsoft’s bundled Personal Web Server to test and deploy Drumbeat-generated sites.

The Drumbeat interface can seem a bit intimidating at first, both for neophytes and for developers used to typing in code.

Those familiar with WYSIWYG authoring tools like FrontPage will find some aspects of Drumbeat intuitive, but only those practiced with visual RAD tools will feel fully at home. This is what we mean by saying the product isn’t as “non-techie” as Elemental’s literature suggests.

The well written Getting Started manual is indispensable for learning the interface. We followed it cover to cover and still felt we were skating on the tip of an iceberg.

In addition to keeping Drumbeat’s compendious User’s Guide handy, we strongly suggest installing the sample files (called Starting Points) and running the online tutorial to get oriented.

Drumbeat’s workspace is fairly customizable, allowing you to resize and reposition the various design and management panes as well as rearrange the order of panels on the main toolbar.

One nice-to-have would be floating panes of the type found in Macromedia Dreamweaver, which let you tailor the workspace still further.

Drumbeat excels at letting you filter and find site assets, which include media files (images, audio and video), text and RTF files, saved queries, pages, templates and other primitives involved in building a site.

These are tracked in a compact, browsable pane called the Asset Center.

Although Drumbeat does not offer workgroup features such as page check in/check out, the Asset Center gives teams a way to share and reuse components across a network.

The component design metaphor is powerful but takes getting used to, especially if, like us, you’ve been coding HTML by hand.

At first we were disappointed with Drumbeat’s WYSIWYG Layout panel, which serves as a mediocre HTML editor.

Creating a simple HTML table in Drumbeat stymied us, making us wish Elemental had included a Wizard or toolbar option for creating static tables.

But after studying the sample sites it dawned on us that Drumbeat ignores tables because they’re code-centric. Web designers use tables for layout and other visual effects.

Drumbeat lets you paint these effects directly, then generates HTML tables or CSS styles with absolute positioning, depending on the target browser.

The results are visually satisfying in 4.0 and later browsers, but Drumbeat’s layout of SmartPages for 3.0 and earlier browsers suffer from translation. Borderless tables remain a designer’s best tool for HTML layout, and Elemental needs to better support them.

Given the way it sweeps HTML under the rug, the quality of HTML code Drumbeat generates came as a pleasant surprise. 

View Source on a Drumbeat-generated web page and you’ll see clean, well-formatted HTML. Other authoring tools have something to learn from Drumbeat where automatic code generation is concerned. Even sites imported into the Drumbeat environment were handled efficiently!

Drumbeat also accepts Passthrough HTML, which allows developers to insert their own code written in HomeSite or Notepad.

Passthrough HTML elements are not interpreted by Drumbeat; they remain untouched in both form and function.

It works great, but given the product’s emphasis on visual layout, HTML components should be regarded as a nod to legacy code rather than a healthy practice.

For Whom The Drum Beats

Drumbeat really shines in the construction of data-driven sites. The DataForm Wizard can automatically create pages that search, display, insert, update, and delete records from databases.

True to its boast, Drumbeat enables developers to build entire database applications using the DataForm Wizard, without writing a single line of code.

Drumbeat’s visual creation tools allow you to lay out what are called Content Tables for displaying columnar data extracted from databases.

The DataForm Wizard automatically builds the SQL statement necessary to query the database for the information chosen.

After defining a Content Table, you associate it with a template, called a Pageset, that will later generate individual pages from each row in the Content Table.

Once the Content Tables and Pagesets have been designed, you can use all of the editing features of Drumbeat to customize the look and feel of the application.

Content Tables account for much of Drumbeat’s data-centric architecture, enabling users to update sites by maintaining the underlying data, rather than the web pages themselves.

Reliance on Content Tables has some peculiar side effects, such as the need to use them to generate graphic rollovers. A wizard to automate this commonplace was sorely missed.

One problem that haunts database-generated pages has to do with the spacing of data within individual cells. 

Data of varying length can throw off the design of the whole page as the results table expands or contracts, depending on the information returned.

Drumbeat solves this problem with a feature called SmartSpacers, which allow variable-length fields to display consistent spacing throughout an application – automatically.

Once a site has been completed, publishing it to a test or production server is as easy as a few mouse clicks.

Drumbeat can automatically publish and incrementally republish sites to any local or remote directory you designate.

No manual FTPing is necessary. Sites that interact with databases automatically have the necessary ASP code generated.

Thanks to Drumbeat’s extensible design, new SmartElements can be created that perform, for example, managed transactions via Microsoft Transaction Server (MTS). Elemental hosts a forum for the exchange of third-party SmartElements on its web site.

Conclusions

Moving from skepticism to admiration, we found Drumbeat to be that rarest of marketing stories: a product that lives up to its hype. Elemental Software has given us the first visual RAD tool for web design.

Despite being a bit constrictive for programmers who like to “get their hands dirty” in code, Drumbeat balances power and ease of use better than any web design tool we’ve used to date. It merits evaluation by anyone tasked with developing dynamic sites, especially ASP.

Those who need precisely laid-out, browser-independent pages should consider using Drumbeat for its SmartPages feature, which works well in the present version for simply layed out pages. SmartPages will be still stronger when Elemental gives designers full control over the tables Drumbeat generates to position SmartElements.

Drumbeat 2.0 comes at a price of $699 per developer and runs on Windows 95, 98, and NT.

A copy of Microsoft’s Personal Web Server is included as are trial versions of Allaire Home Site 3.01 (for hand tweaking HTML), and Chili!soft’s Chili!ASP (for running ASP applications on Netscape and Lotus Domino web servers).-fin-

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Written by Bobby

Bobby Lawson is a seasoned technology writer with over a decade of experience in the industry. He has written extensively on topics such as cybersecurity, cloud computing, and data analytics. His articles have been featured in several prominent publications, and he is known for his ability to distill complex technical concepts into easily digestible content.