ERCIM News No.31 - October 1997

Three Worlds collide - The CLRC/DCI Web

by Victoria Marshal

There has long been a tension between three computing worlds when it comes to the Web. Database theorists have insisted that the information be structured properly, the user interface people want web pages to be navigable, while hypertext specialists look on in amazement at the whole anarchic mess and remember how they had exactly the same problems over 10 years ago...

For all sorts of reasons, the DCI web has just been updated. When we started work on this, one of the key features that we wanted from our new web was to make greater use of various databases (and in turn to be able to use the web database for purposes other than just for the web), but that our web should not 'look' as though it had been generated from a database.

After much discussion between the database and user interface people, we have produced a web which meets the criteria of both groups. Web pages are generated by a series of scripts, one script per page type, using telephone, fax number, description text, logos and so on from the underlying database. (The scripts are currently generated using Microsoft's Active Server Pages (ASP) technology and an RDBMS. For the future, we intend to port the system to platform-independent Java.)

One other key difference in our web is that the pages do not completely replace each other when you click on a link, but instead expand in place (a metaphor taken from Peter Brown's GUIDE system). This metaphor has three advantages: (a) The reader's context is maintained from page to page; (b) the number of navigational icons1 can be reduced (also reducing cognitive and transmission overheads); and (c) because some sense of sequentiality is introduced, individual web pages can be 'flattened' for easier printing.

Thus the database people are satisfied that the integrity of the data remains and that it is usable beyond this single application, the user interface people can ensure that the resulting pages are well-designed and are not too 'plastic', while the hypertext specialists see a small reduction of web anarchy in favour of a classical hypertext model.

Please contact:
Victoria Marshall - CLRC
Tel: +44 1235 446799

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