Deploying an Office Wide Web
Just as a World Wide Web browser provides a single unifying application for accessing a wide variety of disparate information services around the world, the same technology can be applied effectively at a local level. A web server on an office network makes corporate information available, provides a user front-end for access to internal databases, handles simple forms-based input, and advertises the next company outing. No internet connection is required for these applications, as all of the transactions happen on the LAN. Each user accesses the data using a standard WWW browser like Netscape, Mosaic, Internet Explorer, or Arena.
For example, I recently setup a web server for a hardware and software development group. It allows access to all of the product specifications and requirements, the latest internal test documentation, and preliminary user documentation. As many of these are "live," growing documents, it used to waste a lot of paper trying to maintain up-to-date printed copies for all of the staff that needed them. Now, the latest version of the documents of immediate interest can be browsed on-line. Relevant sections can be printed only as needed by each user.
To present information in an easy to navigate hypertext form over a web server, explicit links are created from one document to another. This is done using by "marking-up" a standard ASCII text document with the Hyper Text Markup Language (HTML). There are a variety of ways to make HTML versions of documents as a by-product of the normal creation process. In this development group, a lot of the product specifications and internal documentation is prepared using LaTeX, the text formatting language. By using the freely available LaTeX2HTML tool, these can be converted to HTML documents that are provided by the local web server. Sections of the printed document are automatically converted to hypertext pages, with headings and sub-headings becoming HTML headers. For non-textual items, like graphics and tables, LaTeX2HTML creates Postscript output, converts it to GIF images, and stores inline links to the figures within the web output so they can be easily viewed with a standard web browser.
Other documents are created using a document format defined using a Standard Generalized Markup Language (SGML) template. Simple scripts produce LaTeX output for beautiful printed output or HTML files for web access from the same original document.
The testers in the group log problems uncovered during informal testing using HTML forms. Some fields use pop-up menus of choices, while most are fill-in-the-blank entries. When the user completes the information, it is submitted to the server which stores a copy, mails another copy to the project coordinator, and sends a brief acknowledgment to the submitter.
Some of the latest PC word processors are able to generate HTML output from the standard versions. Plain text documents can be served in their raw form as a last resort. It is best to avoid creating completely separate editions of the printed and on-line documents. This reduces extra work and ensures the two versions remain in sync, ensuring that the users have the latest info on their screens.
It is also possible to add access to standard databases. Individual records can be queried and displayed. Overall results can be extracted and graphed using standard internet tools, creating an image on-the-fly and displaying it on the user's browser.
Setting up a server in the office doesn't need to be expensive. The security needs for a LAN-based web server are generally much less stringent than for an internet host. There are a variety of freeware, shareware, and commercial servers available, covering a range of platforms from Windows for Workgroups, OS/2, Windows NT, Macintosh, to Unix. I like using one of the freely available Linux (Unix) implementations, since it makes it easy to take advantage of all of the tools that have been developed for "real" internet web servers. It also simplifies the transition to the internet web when some of the information needs to be "published." Complete Linux distributions, including web servers, are available on CD-ROM for under Y2000. Machine requirements are modest. A 386DX with 8 MB of RAM is usable, with a 486-class machine with a fast hard disk providing excellent service in this application.
Others may prefer using a Windows-based server, for ease in maintenance and developing specialized scripts. The processing requirements of a typical office server are small. The server can often coexist on an existing server machine with minimal impact. Windows httpd V1.4 is a shareware (US$99) server that will run on a Windows for Workgroups host. It provides access to a tree of standard HTML documents. For specialized processing or forms handling, simple scripts can be written using the standard DOS batch language. More sophisticated scripting can be done with Visual BASIC.
Start small. Try making the internal data for one project available on an office web. You'll find it an easy and cost-effective way to improve communications.
ResourcesInformation about LaTeX2HTML is available from http://cbl.leeds.ac.uk/nikos/tex2html/doc/latex2html/.
The QWERTZ SGML document type definition and formatting tools were developed at the German National Research Center for Computer Science. The latest version can be obtained from ftp://ftp.gmd.de/sgml/. The Linuxdoc-SGML is a derivative of QWERTZ that is easier to use, while sacrificing little of its power. ftp://ftp.cornell.edu/pub/mdw/
The NCSA httpd web server is available from the US National Center for Supercomputing Applications. http://hoohoo.ncsa.uiuc.edu/
The Windows httpd home page is http://www.city.net/win-httpd/
Jim Tittsler has built web sites both on and off the 'net. He can be reached at Jim.Tittsler@tokyopc.org or on the TPC BBS.
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