It doesn't take much Web browsing to see that most businesses still treat their Web sites as high-tech bulletin boards, where data is simply posted by a webmaster for general consumption. That's like using the telephone to send Morse code. The technology is capable of much, much more.
Eprise's Participant Server shows just what can be done with a Web site. This Web content-management program offers sophisticated controls over both Web site creation and consumption. No other product I'm aware of offers this particular mix of capabilities. Some programs, such at InfoAccess Guide Passport, let you customise what content users will see but do not let you control access to editing rights via the Web.
Participant Server is an Internet Server API (ISAPI) plug-in filter that mediates between your Web server and your site visitors. Site content is stored in a SQL database and is managed via Participant Server's Content Center. The webmaster uses Participant Server to dole out responsibility for Web content to various users company-wide. The administrator decides what content different site visitors will see, using a browser to access a cleanly designed interface that offers a toolbar for quick access to the program's four main modules: Work Center, Content Center, Participants, and Admin Center. Using the Participants module, the administrator defines participant roles and grants users permission to read, edit and manage the various pages and data that comprise the Web site.
Although the ability to add and edit content can be granted to users, Participant Server is not a Web workflow program. That is, you cannot set up a work schedule that prompts specified users to deliver content - a new price list, for example - by a specified date.
But if Participant Server doesn't provide tight control over the flow of content to the Web, it does offer detailed control over the structure of the content and also offers flexibility in specifying how it is delivered to end users.
Participant Server actually stores Web pages in multiple `page blocks'. The site designer can assign different access rights to each block. Thus, a customer visiting your site may see an entirely different page than would a staff user. You might, for example, assign your sales staff appropriate rights so that when they access a page of products they also see wholesale prices, something customers cannot do.
This block structure allows webmasters to assign editing rights on a per-block basis, and blocks can be reused. That is, you might have a block containing corporate contacts. Instead of duplicating the data on multiple pages you can simply designate the same block for inclusion on multiple pages.
As a result of the program's block structure and its ability to provide tailored access to users, it should be no surprise that constructing a Participant Server page - much less a multipage site - is a more complex undertaking than designing a plain-vanilla site with an HTML editor. I did feel that the program's dialogue boxes could be designed better to explain options and next steps to site designers. But once you've designed a couple of pages successfully you start to get the hang of Participant Server, and the results are well worth the learning time.
Participant Server also delivers the behind-the-scenes tools that administrators need. For starters, the program supports several methods of user authentication, including Lightweight Directory Access Protocol, NT Domain, and Eprise's own built-in authentication.
In addition, the program keeps a log file of user log-ins and activities, and administrators can set the program to monitor activity down to a very fine level, including such actions as users modifying or deleting page blocks or changing permissions. And just so that you can find out whether you need to tune Participant Server's performance, Eprise has provided more than a dozen extensions to NT's Performance Monitor. If you find that performance is lagging, Participant Server allows you to adjust the program's caching to optimise performance. You can adjust such things as how long a visitor's user information will be stored during a session and the number of simultaneous users that can be cached.
There are some things Eprise could do to make the user's experience a bit easier. Although the program has pop-up cues for icons in the main toolbar, for example, it does not offer the same help for icons that appear with each module, such as the Content Center or Work Center. Also, as noted above, the options available in dialogue boxes are not always as clear as they could be. Finally, Participant Server configuration employs a series of separate configuration files that must be edited in a text editor instead of via a GUI.
However, these are all relatively easy-to-fix shortcomings. In the meantime, Participant Server already offers a powerful solution for generating low-maintenance Web sites that deliver a customised Web experience to users. At $US50,000 per server, the product is not inexpensive. But if you've got a large site with frequently changing data and you want to customise your visitors' experience, Participant Server is well worth a look.the bottom lineParticipant Server 2.01Summary: Participant Server lets webmasters customise workgroup content delivery content access. Its Web-based GUI needs work, but the program saves site designers from having to write extensive code.
Business Case: Web site design with Participant Server is more complex and time-consuming than it is using an HTML editor, but the program allows delivery of custom-tailored site content to visitors. The program's modular approach reduces site-maintenance costs.
Pros: ¥ Web-based interface ¥ Eliminates most script writing ¥ Modular approach to content structure and accessCons: ¥ Requires manual editing of configuration files ¥ Dialog boxes not always clear ¥ Utility for converting existing Web sites costs extraPlatform: Windows NT 4.0 (Service Pack 4).
Cost: $US50,000 per server by application through the Web site.