Web 101, 202 ... and 303

It’s one thing to sit back and prophesy on the trends affecting this industry. But it is far better to experience the challenges the computer industry faces firsthand.

Such is the case with the growth of Web technologies. In December 1995, along with a handful of other curious tinkerers here at ENT's parent company, Boucher Communications Inc. (BCI), I helped develop a Web site for the publication that I was working on at that time.

Because there was no such thing as corporate backing for Web development back then, many of the pages of that first, clunky Web site were built in the evenings on my laptop while I sat on my living room sofa. When we had a completed site, we presented it to corporate management, which -- at first -- was leery of the ramifications on our business should we take the site live.

We also quickly learned we had created a monster that proved to be difficult to maintain. Six months later, rewrite #1 took place. That was a painful lesson, one that seems destined to be retaught every year or 2 because of Web technology shifts.

Since then, nearly every one of our sister publications at BCI has launched its own Web site. Somewhere in there, we migrated from NT 3.51 to 4.0, and off an early version of Netscape onto an O’Reilly Web server package. We cobbled together a collection of Web technologies from at least six vendors using several consultants and a number of staffers. What made things unmanageable is that we ended up with certain sites becoming dependent on some of these technologies, which were either discontinued or no longer supported by the vendors, making it highly difficult to modernize our infrastructure across the board.

We needed to move to a common technology base using dynamic pages built atop IIS, along with one set of support components. What started out as a grass-roots development effort had grown into a collection of sites that presented a migration challenge of professional proportions.

Fortunately, we found a hosting organization to take over management of the now-complex hardware and software infrastructure that our sites require. Thanks to the hard work of a couple of members of the professional services organization at Digex Inc. (Beltsville, Md., www.digex.net), our hosting service provider, our sites now use a common set of technologies and can now enter their next phase of growth.

The teams managing the content of each of our sites are feeling some degree of pain from this transition. For some sites, it is mostly a matter of relearning how to manage content deployment. In the case of ENT, we’re forced to rename nearly all of our content pages from .html-ssi to .asp, which effectively breaks all external links, and lots and lots of internal links. By the time you read this editorial, our site will be live on the new server. If you have bookmarked or hyperlinked to anything with a .html-ssi extension, you will need to change the extension to .asp. Then your link should still work.

What have we learned in the process? For one thing, if we use products that are changing as quickly as Web technology does, we can also expect migrations that include difficult jumps. On the other hand, we now have a common technology base that should prove to be a stable platform for growth over the next couple of years. After that, it probably will be time for another jump. I guess that lesson will be Web 404.