Categories
Technology

A Simple Solution to the Complex Distribution Problem

Recovered from the Wayback Machine.

Any information system group that has a client base that is split geographically will have a problem with distribution: how do you notify the clients that a new version of the tool(s) they are using is out, what the version contains, and how to upgrade.

You can automate the upgrade process by using tools that determine that the application a person is accessing is now out of date and upgrading it accordingly. The problem with this approach is that the user will not have control of when the upgrade is occurring and may be wary of an update that they know nothing about.

You can take a more passive approach by sending an email or memo out to all of your clients that an update has occurred to the application and they then can access the update on a certain sub-directory. The problem with this is that unless the update is fixing a problem that the client specifically wants or asked for, they may not be as willing to take the time to make the upgrade to their own installation, and then you in the IS department are now faced with trying to support multiple installations using multiple versions of your product. Additionally, the application user will then have to find this upgrade, download it on their own, and install the upgrade, a multiple step process which can generate problems.

Is there a simple solution? There is a simple possibility.

Many companies are interested in porting applications to the Web in some form of an internal intranet just for this problem. Unfortunately as many IS departments are finding out, most applications will not port to the web that easily. However, this is not the only way the web can be used to solve migration and upgrade problems.

Another approach is to use techniques such as Server Side Includes and to use the concept of the personalized user page. This is a web document that the user will open every morning. The contents of the document have been personalized for the user and presents information from categories that they have chosen. A case in point is that a person who works with Group A in Department 1B for Division J for Company XYZ. They will have a web page that contains new information pertinent to Company XYZ at the top, then information pertinent only to Division J next, information for Department 1B next, and finally information for Group A.

A Server Side Include (SSI) embeds a command line in the HTML document given an extension which is usually .shtml or .stm (the webmaster can determine what this extension is). This type of extension tells the web server to parse the web document for SSI commands before sending the document to the browser. An example of one of these commands is:

<!–#include file=”company.html” –>

This SSI command will instruct the web server to open the file called company.html and load the contents of company.html at this point.

The advantage of this approach should be fairly obvious: the information is specific to the interests and needs of the individual and is presented in such a way that they can examine it for the entire day if they need to; the information can include links to other documents if the person wishes to pursue more in-depth knowledge; and the document can be saved using most browers SaveAs capability. In stead of a flurry of emails which may or may not contain information that is relevant and that can be ignored and difficult to follow or read you have one document that contains all the information.

Another advantage is that no programming is required, and the information for each department can be maintained by each department. Group A maintains the HTML document that is specific to them. If there is no new information a blank HTML document or one containing the words “No New Information” can be given. Division J can maintain their own HTML document, and so on. With the many many simple to use HTML tools this should not be a solution that requires programming intervention.

While presenting a unified approach to information presentation, each group maintains autonomous control over what information is presented.

For our distribution problem, if IS has upgraded software that is in use throughout Division J, a notice can go into the Division J section that a new version of the software is being created, what bugs it will fix and features it will add. When the software is ready, a link can be inserted into the document that will allow the person to download the upgrade with one click of the button. The user can then double click on this file as soon as it is on their machine and the upgrade process can occur.

What is the advantage of this technique over others? The information about the upgrade is presented in the same format and in the same context as the upgrade itself. Information about the upgrade and the upgrade itself are only given to those who are impacted by it.

How can this solve the multiple version problem? After all the user can continue to ignore the upgrade notice and continue on their merry way. Well, this is where the concept of something called a Netscape Cookie comes in.

A Netscape cookie, implemented by both Netscape and Internet Explorer browsers, is a tiny bit of information that is stored locally on the client’s machine and that can be accessed by the browser when a specific web document is loaded. When the document containing the information about the upgrade is loaded, this value is set for the first time. After that point every time the person accesses their personalized web page the cookie is accessed and the value is incremented or decremented. Information can be printed out to the effect that they have so many days to make the upgrade, and this value is decremented for each day.

If they make the upgrade, the cookie information is destroyed and the reader will no longer get the count down.

With additional sophistication, one can create the page in such a way that the download no longer shows once they make the upgrade. To use this approach, persisten information about what HTML documents one specific person will see is kept in a file on the server. When the person logs in and gives their user name and password this file is accessed. Instead of an HTML document the person accesses a file that is called index.cgi. This application will access the file containing the person’s preferences and the information is then used to determine how to build the page the person will see. The application does this by opening up the individual HTML documents that make up the person’s preferences and printing them back to the browser, in turn.

With this approach, after a person makes an upgrade their personal preference file is accessed and the entry that contains the upgrade information is removed. Not only will the person receive timely information that is pertinent to their needs, they will receive content that is dynamic and also matches their choices.

Finally, if the person still does not upgrade by a specific date an email can be generated automatically that will be sent to the IS department informing them of this information.

A link file containing sample Perl script that demonstrates the CGI based approach and that demonstrates the use of SSI can be found here.

Categories
Just Shelley

Working at Home

Imagine this scenario: You get up in the morning, grab a cup of coffee, and wonder out to the Living Room. You stand and gaze out the window for a few minutes taking advantage of that great mountain view. Then you casually go into your home office and start looking through your email. After you handle your email you take a shower and get dressed, sweats or jeans or shorts maybe, and you go back to your office and get down to some serious work. You break when you are tired and you eat when you are hungry. When the kids come home from school you chat with them about the day and maybe you even go for a walk with them. Later you get back on the computer for another few hours and quit for the night, satisfied with your day’s work.

Okay, everyone, you can stop crying now. And you can stop shaking your head and saying that this is impossible. With today’s technology, this is not only possible it is becoming cost effective and practical.

Today many of us have access to computers in our homes that enable us to do anything from creating a report, researching a product, to writing complex computer software. With the increased proliferation of ISDN lines and alternative connectivities being explored, we can connect into our jobs and have virtually the same access as we would sitting at a desk on site. And that office does not have to be in the same town.

Security? This does not have to be a limitation. We are learning more about computer security then ever and we are finding more ways to increase the safety of our systems.

Cost? How much does it cost you to maintain a workable environment for each of your people? If you are maintaining a site for a software developer you are maintaining software, a machine, a phone line, rest rooms, an ergonomically designed workstation, and you are maintaining a location. That last one is a real key. Companies are growing and are finding that they may actually be running out of room to house their people, so they double up and cram people in and they lose productivity and they may actually lose people.

Teamwork? Have you had a chance to try out Netscape’s new version 3.0 beta software with LiveChat. I went out and talked and shared a virtual white board with some person in Utah, and someone else in Texas. And this is a freebie add-on to an internet tool. You have the technology now to have camera’s mounted on PCs and have people share virtual working spaces and work cooperatively on line. The only thing you don’t share is bad breath.

Benefits? I bet if you promised this capability to people on only a partial week basis you will have increased worker satisfaction and a whole lot more people wanting to work for you. How about having to maintain less desk space if you have workers desk share? How about having less cars in your parking lot, which is probably overcrowded as it is. How about giving back to the community by less cars being on the road?

Sick Time? If you have an employee with a broken leg they can work at home. If they have a bad cold? The employee probably would come into work, be pretty uncomfortable and manage to pass their germs to half a dozen other people. Wouldn’t you rather they stay home? How about maternity or paternity leave? Nice option for those folks who would like to be available to their kids and still have a career. What a concept!

So, why is this not happening more? Some types of work just won’t make the transition to at home work such as factory and manufacturing processes and many service and other professions. If you have a home cleaning service, this usually means the customer’s home. And some companies are not set up yet, and may not be able to afford the type of setup that would enable their employees to work from home. Other companies may work on super secret stuff that has to be worked on behind armed guards and locked doors.

Now let’s look at the ‘bad’ reasons for not allowing people to work at home.

You don’t trust your employees and you have to have your eye on them at all times. Go Away. You have hired professionals and adults, consider treating them as such and you probably will not have the turnover you now have.

The work you do needs a centralized database. With the increased ISDN line connectivity you can connect to your database efficiently from home. How about taking snap shots of the database to work on from your home PC? Concerned about someone accessing company secrets from this? Ask yourself this: Do you think that your secret is important enough that a person will break into your employee’s home to access their PC? Do you have armed guards at your front doors to keep people from walking in? Do you have absolutly no connection between your internal computer system and an outside connection? If you answered No to any of these, try a different mind set.

A legitimate concern is the availabilty of people for mentoring, or for brain storming, or for any other cooperative task. You might want to consider how much of this really does occur and you then might want to consider a partial solution such as desk sharing: two people share a desk and a PC and work at home part of the week and at work part of the week.

Communication? Last I heard, homes had phones too, and email and internet connectivity…

Concerned about that security issue? Check with consultants in your area and find out the security risks. Don’t just assume that this type of connectivity will take your important systems down, find out the facts.

How about liability? Concerned that your employee may get hurt at home and sue you? Check with your lawyer and also your insurance companies about steps you and your employee can take. And lawyers and insurance companies, start understanding this type of business…it will only increase in the future.

Costs? You bet there will be costs to enabling off-site employees if they need computer access. But consider what you can get back: The main factor that raises envy in I and my professional peers is when one of us can work at home. It even beats out salary as the number one reason to take one job over another. And for most companies the number one cost is their employees. Want to attract and keep the best?

There are a lot of issues to working at home. I would like to hear from companies that have made this transition successfully and would like to publish your success stories in the month’s to come. And I would also like to hear from those companies who have made a choice not to allow off-site employees and their reasons. Let’s start exploring this issue and see “Why we CAN work at home”.

That’s it folks.

Categories
Technology

HTML Tables Tips and Techniques

Don’t shoot me for using HTML tables for formatting the page. This was the standard of the time.

An HTML table is more than a technique to throw a bar around some text; it can also be used to finely control the appearance of your entire page.

To start, we’ll create a table that is about the most basic table there is.

This is the header
This is the data

The table does not use any of the attributes that one can use with the table, row, header, or data definitions. It uses the defaults for each. Now, to create a table that is a little more interesting, lets add a border to the table and a little spacing:

This is the header
This is the data

A table with only one column is helpful, but lets add a second column and increase the width of the table to be equal to 60% of the window width, regardless of whatever the width is:

This is the header The Second header
This is the data The Second set of data

I don’t know about all of you, but I like a little color so lets add color to the whole table:

This is the header The Second header
This is the data The Second set of data

This might be a bit too much color. Why don’t we change the table to a nice gray background, and the headers to the bright red color:

This is the header The Second header
This is the data The Second set of data

Now, if you are using Internet Explorer 3.x you will be able to see that the following table actually uses an image as the background in the headers. If you are using Netscape or other table compliant browser, you will continue to see the red background color.

This is the header The Second header
This is the data The Second set of data

Now, let’s try making the table header stretch across both columns with the “colspan” attribute:

This is the header
This is the data The Second set of data

You can also make data occupy more than one row as the next table demonstrates:

This is the header
This is the big data The Second set of data
Third set of data

You can also color the borders of the table:

This is the header
This is the big data The Second set of data
Third set of data

Maybe we’ll say we can…and don’t. Finally, you can nest tables within tables:

This is the header
This is the big data The Second set of data
Third set of data

You can use tables to format your entire HTML page. The main YASD page makes use of table rowspan, background colors and images, and nested tables to present a page that combines the effective use of white space and content (at least, we hope it’s effective). Most of the pages located on this site use tables to manage the menu bar that is located at the top of the page as shown in the Samples main page.

Tables can be used to format a group of objects as shown at the GotaSee site. Tables can also be used as a sidebar in an online article, as shown in Page1-4 of the City Zoo Scenario.

Tables can even be used to frame a graphic as shown in the Main page. Look at the Finalist graphic at the bottom of the page and you will see an example of this technique.

All in all, the most useful HTML tag after those for images and hypertext links, is the table.

Categories
Government

Comments on the Communications Decency Act

Recovered from the Wayback Machine.

My first real experience with the Internet was subscribing to a Usenet on a symbolic modeling language. I remember reading a response from a researcher in Switzerland and deciding to write my first entry into the thread. Every time someone would write from a different country I was awed. Where else and in what other circumstance could people from different countries and different cultures converse in such a way that the topic at hand becomes the focal point, not the differences of those speaking.

Where governments have trodden through the front door with fanfare and progressed with little steps, or failed, the Internet has moved quietly through the back door and succeeded. Until now.

While the Internet was nothing more than an insider’s tool, it was for the most part unconstrained and relatively open. Now that the access to the Internet is open “to the masses” we seek to impose constraints and limitations. Worse, where before each country’s boundaries were transparent, they now seek to make them not only opaque but a virtual brick wall. The main benefit of the Internet is taking down boundaries not putting them up. The Internet is owned by no Man, no Woman, and no Country.

I was following some forgotten path through the Web once when I stumbled on a letter from an Irish environmental terrorist. He wrote the letter in prison after he was captured while attempting to bomb a factory that he believed was damaging to the environment. This letter was fascinating. It was not an interview on some slick TV show, or in some slick magazine. It was an unsolicited recitation of facts and beliefs of a person that most of us would have an easy time dismissing as a nut after a two paragraph word byte in the press. Did I agree with the person? No, and I do consider myself an environmentalist. Bombs and bullets are never the way folks, nor are bricks and bats. However, the letter did give me a perspective that I would never have had if I had not read it. I cannot as easily dismiss an act of terrorism as an act of a mad person, which in a way makes the act even more frightening. Would this letter be considered “excessively violent”? Would the group that posted it be in violation of the law?

Could something like this be considered obscene? In some countries and in sometimes it could be. In certain countries, a picture of a woman bare faced and holding a career would probably be considered obscene. Full frontal nudity is considered by many in the United States as obscene but is probably considered perfectly normal in other countries. The very thing that makes the Internet great, the absence of borders, makes it virtually impossible to determine a common point of obscenity or a common point of decency.

We in the United States cannot agree within our own borders what is ‘decent’. One person believes in allowing free choice for women, and another would consider this indecent and obscene. Would information on the Internet on abortions then be considered illegal? If your child read this material, and it was presented in a scientific manner and presented only facts, would the originators of the material be in violation of the law?

If all we read in books, or all we see on TV, or all we hear on the radio, and all we can discuss on the Internet is material suitable for small children neither they nor we will ever and can ever grow, and we as a society will never mature.

Perhaps that’s what some people, including Congress, really want.

That’s it, folks.

Categories
Just Shelley

Working at Home

Imagine this scenario: You get up in the morning, grab a cup of coffee, and wander out to the Living Room. You stand and gaze out the window for a few minutes taking advantage of that great mountain view. Then you casually go into your home office and start looking through your email. After you handle your email you take a shower and get dressed, sweats or jeans or shorts maybe, and you go back to your office and get down to some serious work. You break when you are tired and you eat when you are hungry. When the kids come home from school you chat with them about the day and maybe you even go for a walk with them. Later you get back on the computer for another few hours and quit for the night, satisfied with your day’s work.

Okay, everyone, you can stop crying now. And you can stop shaking your head,  saying this is impossible. With today’s technology, this is not only possible it is becoming cost effective and practical.

Today many of us have access to computers in our homes that enable us to do anything from creating a report, researching a product, to writing complex computer software. With the increased proliferation of ISDN lines and alternative connectivities being explored, we can connect with our jobs and have virtually the same access as we would sitting at a desk on site. And that office does not have to be in the same town.

Security? This does not have to be a limitation. We are learning more about computer security than ever and we are finding more ways to increase the safety of our systems.

Cost? How much does it cost you to maintain a workable environment for each of your people? If you are maintaining a site for a software developer you are maintaining software, a machine, a phone line, restrooms, an ergonomically designed workstation, and you are maintaining a location. That last one is a real key. Companies are growing and are finding that they may actually be running out of room to house their people, so they double up and cram people in and they lose productivity and they may actually lose people.

Teamwork? Have you had a chance to try out Netscape’s new version 3.0 beta software with LiveChat. I went out and talked and shared a virtual whiteboard with some person in Utah, and someone else in Texas. And this is a freebie add-on to an internet tool. You have the technology now to have cameras mounted on PCs and have people share virtual working spaces and work cooperatively online. The only thing you don’t share is bad breath.

Benefits? I bet if you promised this capability to people on only a partial week basis you will have increased worker satisfaction and a whole lot more people wanting to work for you. How about having to maintain less desk space if you have workers desk share? How about having fewer cars in your parking lot, which is probably overcrowded as it is. How about giving back to the community by fewer cars being on the road?

Sick Time? If you have an employee with a broken leg they can work at home. If they have a bad cold? The employee probably would come into work, be pretty uncomfortable and manage to pass their germs to half a dozen other people. Wouldn’t you rather they stay home? How about maternity or paternity leave? Nice option for those folks who would like to be available to their kids and still have a career. What a concept!

So, why is this not happening more? Some types of work just won’t make the transition to at home work such as factory and manufacturing processes and many services and other professions. If you have a home cleaning service, this usually means the customer’s home. And some companies are not set up yet, and may not be able to afford the type of setup that would enable their employees to work from home. Other companies may work on super secret stuff that has to be worked on behind armed guards and locked doors.

Now let’s look at the ‘bad’ reasons for not allowing people to work at home.

You don’t trust your employees and you have to have your eye on them at all times. Go Away. You have hired professionals and adults, consider treating them as such and you probably will not have the turnover you now have.

The work you do needs a centralized database. With the increased ISDN line connectivity, you can connect to your database efficiently from home. How about taking snapshots of the database to work on from your home PC? Concerned about someone accessing company secrets from this? Ask yourself this: Do you think that your secret is important enough that a person will break into your employee’s home to access their PC? Do you have armed guards at your front doors to keep people from walking in? Do you have absolutely no connection between your internal computer system and an outside connection? If you answered No to any of these, try a different mindset.

A legitimate concern is the availability of people for mentoring, or for brainstorming, or for any other cooperative task. You might want to consider how much of this really does occur and you then might want to consider a partial solution such as desk sharing: two people share a desk and a PC and work at home part of the week and at work part of the week.

Communication? Last I heard, homes had phones too, and email and internet connectivity…

Concerned about that security issue? Check with consultants in your area and find out the security risks. Don’t just assume that this type of connectivity will take your important systems down, find out the facts.

How about liability? Concerned that your employee may get hurt at home and sue you? Check with your lawyer and also your insurance companies about steps you and your employee can take. And lawyers and insurance companies, start understanding this type of business…it will only increase in the future.

Costs? You bet there will be costs to enabling off-site employees if they need computer access. But consider what you can get back: The main factor that raises envy in me and my professional peers is when one of us can work at home. It even beats out salary as the number one reason to take one job over another. And for most companies, the number one cost is their employees. Want to attract and keep the best?

There are a lot of issues to working at home. I would like to hear from companies that have made this transition successfully and would like to publish your success stories in the month’s to come. And I would also like to hear from those companies who have made a choice not to allow off-site employees and their reasons. Let’s start exploring this issue and see “Why we CAN work at home”.

That’s it, folks.