Web sites used to be simple propositions--a little HTML code here, a Web server there, and that was about it. When you wanted to update the site, you put whatever page you wanted to change into your handy-dandy text editor, made the changes in raw HTML, then FTPed the new page to the live site, hoping you hadn't just overwritten something by mistake.
Well, things have changed a lot over the last few years. Both the technical environments used to host Web sites and the tools used to create and administer them have become more powerful and complex. At the same time, users' expectations of what a Web site should do have risen. Live online training calendars, automatically updated announcements, online grades and testing information, and Web-based curricula are no longer exotic, leading-edge features--they are what people expect as a matter of course.
But while the technology advances and users' expectations increase, it's likely that there have been no corresponding increases in human resources and technical staff to make all this happen. So, how do you reconcile the need for data-driven Web sites with the reality of your current infrastructure? We'll give you a brief run-through of some strategies for giving your staff and users what they need and expect.
By definition, a data-driven Web site is one in which the content comes from some back-end data source, such as a database, and is then formatted and presented to the user by the Web server. Typically, data-driven sites are dynamic; they present information that is live rather than static. The benefits of using data-driven sites are numerous. For starters, instead of requiring technical staff to manually update Web pages any time information changes (such as a class time update on a calendar), a data-driven site can automatically present the most current information available.
It is also much easier with a data-driven site to allow for two-way interaction with the user. This makes the site work more like a true computer application than a bulletin board, providing for interactive functionality such as live searching and real-time queries. Because users of a data-driven site can edit and modify their own information, data-driven systems enable a much more self-service approach to updating information hosted on Web sites. This removes Webmasters and other IT staff as potential bottlenecks, freeing them up to work on the problems which are truly technical and not content-related.
Districts: it's All About infrastructure
Implementing data-driven Web sites requires choosing and deploying the right infrastructure for your school system. The ideal setup is robust and reliable, provides adequate performance, and gives users a range of solutions in terms of complexity and flexibility. Some users need simple and lightweight, others need heavy-duty and high-performance, and many others some fall somewhere in between.
A full architectural how-to is beyond the scope of this article, but here are some of the solutions that have been explored at Fairfax County Public Schools and elsewhere. At Fairfax, some of the pieces were put in place quickly, while others took longer or had to be modified due to limitations of various components and budget and licensing issues. However, with the proper planning, a wide range of resources can be made available district-wide, without breaking the bank.
The first step to implementing a robust three-tier architecture (see sidebar, "Three-Tier Architecture" below) is having load-balanced Web servers on the front-end, middle tier servers for the applications, and back-end data sources, potentially using some centralized mass-storage for the whole system to simplify capacity planning, maintenance, and backup. The bottom line is to make sure there is adequate capacity in place to support current and anticipated future needs and to make the resources which are offered easy to access and maintain. …