5 essential tools for a database driven site

So you’ve honed your HTML skills and now you want to take your site to the next level by adding some database interactivity. You’ve browsed around the net looking for ideas, tried out some web-based tutorials, and you’re raring to get going with some real code. Here are five essential resources you’re going to need on your journey — don’t set out without them!

1. A text editor

Yes, the advocates of tools such as Dreamweaver Ultradev and Visual Studio claim that you can build your site just by pointing and clicking, without writing a line of code. These packages even come with excellent tutorials which appear to prove this point. But believe me, out there in the messy real world, when you are working on a live application, you will need to edit that code by hand! Ignore all those seasoned webhands who boast that they only use Notepad, and get yourself a proper programmer’s text editor. It may cost you all of $20 (US), but it will be worth every cent.

I’ve been using Textpad constantly for years, and I wouldn’t exchange it for anything else. But there are quite a few equally good editors out there: NoteTab, EditPlus, UltraEdit … try a search at a site such as Download.com to find them. Some are free, others cost a few bucks. Download evaluation copies, try them out, and register the one you feel most comfortable with.

Then spend some time getting to know its capabilities — all these editors offer some incredibly powerful features, such as advanced search and replace options, which can save you hours of tedious work.

2. A test environment

Set up a web server and database on your own computer for testing. When you’re just starting out in server-side programming, you will make plenty of mistakes, and some of these mistakes will crash your machine.

I can assure you that it’s much less hassle to crash your own PC, rather than your live webserver. If you’re paying for your Internet access by the minute, testing offline will also save you money.

Windows 98 and 2000/ME both come with a webserver built into the operating system (Personal Web Server in the case of Windows 98, and Internet Information Server for Windows 2000) so you likely already have one installed. You’ll probably also need to set up a database connection using ODBC between your selected database (e.g. Access) and your web server.

If your target environment is a Unix webserver running Apache, PHP, and MySQL (a very common configuration) you can still set up a reasonably close approximation on your PC — Windows versions of all three of these applications are available. Setup is considerably more complex, but you’ll find some good tutorials at Webmonkey which take you through the process step by step.


Which brings me to essential tool number three — a collection of bookmarks to help you learn your chosen technology. Whatever you need to do when you’re starting out, you’ll almost never have to develop it from scratch — you’re certain to find an example which you can adapt to your needs on one of the many tutorial sites on the Web. Even when you’re more experienced, these sites are a rich source of information.

4. Find your community

Of course tutorials often raise more questions than they answer. When you’re really stuck, you need a community of other developers to turn to — if you are working on your own this can be a lifesaver.

Seek out mailing lists and Web-based discussion forums covering the technology you are using. Sitepoint has some very lively discussion forums for developers which are well worth checking out. And Wrox Press back up their excellent reference books with a Programmer to Programmer site which includes online discussions and mailing lists.

5. Invest in some reference books

Although the Web is bursting with free resources for developers, in my view you still can’t beat a good book. Books will usually cover the material in more depth than a web-based tutorial, you can personalise them with Post-Its and scribbled notes, and when you just need to check some point of syntax, picking up your well-thumbed reference book is often quicker than using online documentation! Visiting an online bookstore and browsing through customer reviews will often suggest which titles are best — there may even be sample chapters available.

Many programmers swear by the books published by Wrox Press, and I found their “Beginning ASP Databases” great for getting started. But the “best” book is often a matter of personal style — for example I detest the “Dummies” series but lots of people find them very helpful! If you have a good bookshop nearby, browse through the available books and see whose style you prefer.

Don’t forget that whatever development environment you are using, dealing with a database means that you will have to learn SQL. Buying a good book on this could save you a lot of trouble later. Many rookie programmers spend hours struggling to identify bugs which arise from simple errors in their SQL statements.

I’ve been using SQL for so long I can’t remember not knowing it, or how I learned it. But Addison Wesley’s “SQL Queries for Mere Mortals” looks like a good bet for newbies.

Web development is a constantly changing field. But with these tools by your side, you’ll be well equipped to handle the challenges it throws at you.

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