Now that webs have become the backbone of corporate communication, webmasters are clamoring for authoring tools that let them centrally manage server assets while enabling distributed content contribution from business users.
NetObjects pioneered this space last year with TeamFusion 1.0, its collaborative authoring tool for intranets. At a price point well below that of top-end publishing systems such as Vignette StoryServer, NetObjects delivers a Windows NT-based client/server solution that lets teams of web developers collaborate on site design.
NetObjects Authoring Server also allows business users to contribute content using a standard web browser. The result is a winning product that can meet the intranet design needs of workgroups up to about 50 web workers (i.e., contributors and developers).
The current release addresses the most important drawbacks of earlier versions. Installation and documentation are now mature, making it possible to set up and put the product to work in under an hour.
Respectable, too, is the quality of HTML now generated by Authoring Server, even when importing existing sites.
And in this release NetObjects lets authors write good old-fashioned HTML, a crucial enabler for site migrations that the earlier version lacked.
In cost and functionality, NetObjects Authoring Server and TeamFusion Client are a step up from intranet-in-a box products like IntraNetics 2.0, and a step below enterprise application servers such as BlueStone Sapphire/Web.
For small businesses requiring custom web sites, or for IT departments tasked with banging out custom departmental intranets, NetObjects’ solution may well be the answer.
To Serve And Protect
Authoring Server installs as an NT service on NT Workstation or Server. I loaded it onto a Pentium II 400 MHz machine running Windows NT Server (sp4) in 96 MB RAM. README.TXT contains some good notes on performance tuning which led me to reduce server threads from the default 2 to 1 (since I was testing under 10 concurrent clients) and to increase the database cache. stores information about each web site under its control in a database created and administered through the centrally located NetObjects Authoring Server.
Developers design, modify and publish sites from one or more workstations running the TeamFusion Client.
Performance was fine, although it was clear from the churn of virtual memory that more RAM and a faster disk subsystem would have helped.
TeamFusion Client comes in a separate box. I loaded it onto two machines: a 200 MHz Pentium Pro running NT Workstation 4.0, and the same PC as the Server.
NetObjects recommends a 100Base-T network, but for evaluation my 10Base-T setup proved adequate.
After installation an administrator can set up team members, granting them role-based development privileges that range from contributing text to full site administration.
Users can be set up individually or imported, along with their passwords, from an NT domain. I especially liked the ability to assign or remove team members to projects simply by dragging-and-dropping them onto site icons.
Once one or more team members have been assigned to a project the action moves to TeamFusion Client, two seats of which are included with Authoring Server.
TeamFusion is a beefed up version of NetObjects Fusion 4.0, the company’s mature, stand-alone site-building tool for Windows and the Macintosh.
To Fusion’s page design tools and associated property sheets, TeamFusion adds controls for checking elements in and out of projects – essential lest concurrent users step on each other’s work.
A Workgroup Palette shows which site elements are checked out, and by whom. A typical TeamFusion screen is shown below.
I was glad to see that NetObjects has added support for styles and DHTML in the Client. Concerning layout, the designer can choose from three technologies:
- absolute positioning via CSS, for v4.x browsers
- nested tables (HTML 3.2)
- flat tables (HTML 2.0)
Moreover, TeamFusion makes it a snap to assign complex behaviors to document objects.
I found NetObject’s interface for setting up Actions superior even to those in such excellent page authoring tools as Macromedia Dreamweaver 2.0.
It took me about a minute, for instance, to create a page in which three graphics zoom in from different corners of the screen. The code worked equally well in Netscape 4.5 and IE 4.01.
Complementing TeamFusion’s workgroup features is a thin client Java application called Content Contributor.
By pointing at a specified port on the Authoring Server, users anywhere on a corporate web can access an applet that authenticates them, then returns a list of allowable content contribution forms.
These forms are produced on the fly from assets called Data Objects embedded in TeamFusion web sites.
Similar to data-aware components of the type found in client/server RAD tools, TeamFusion Data Objects enable site designers to specify areas for update within web pages.
Updates can come either from Content Contributors (via Java applet) or from external ODBC data sources. Note that this is not the same as making a web site “data-driven.”
TeamFusion sites must be periodically generated and uploaded, whereas sites with true database connectivity depict current data at all times.
But for slow-changing sources such as press releases or the company phone book, letting the author update the site directly is a real breakthrough.
Adding Data Objects to your pages is simple. A Data List or other connectivity asset is defined simply by drawing it on the Page Layout with a tool.
Double-clicking on this asset brings up a dialog like that shown at right. Define your fields, sort order, and whether field contents are HTML links, and you’re good to go.
When someone with Content Contributor privileges logs into the TeamFusion Authoring Server, he or she sees a form displaying precisely the fields defined for the Data Object – no more, no less. Safe, simple, productive.
As strong as this feature is, I was disappointed that remote contributions are still limited to vanilla text, as they were in version 1.0. Why not add a few formatting buttons of the kind that e-mail clients provide for composing HTML messages? On the other hand, where rigid style guidelines apply, the absence of creativity is probably a virtue.
NetObjects Authoring Server Suite includes one Authoring Server with two concurrent client capacity and two TeamFusion Clients.
The product is available in this configuration for $1595 from a network of authorized distributors and resellers, as well as directly from NetObjects. Other configurations and volume pricing are available.
When budgeting for a team solution, don’t overlook server hardware requirements. For concurrency above 5 users NetObjects recommends 256 MB ram, multiple processors and 100Base-T connectivity