How the "New" Beachview.com was Created

From Whence We Came .:. History...

Beachview.com is the electronic child of Steve Metzke. Steve created the Internet site in 1995 with the first web cam at St Teresa Beach. It was his purpose to show the beauty of the area with the background of the changing sea and sky. It was through the local support of our sponsors that Beachview was able to add cameras at Alligator Point and St George Island. By 1999 the final cams were added in Destin and Panama City Beach. Beachview made it's jump to television when Steve worked with WTXL Channel 27. For 5 years Beachview served video feeds to WTXL's Tom Siler for his nightly TV weather reports. Steve also worked as a field producer for WTXL. Reporting news and weather stories in Franklin and Wakulla counties. Beachview continued to expand by adding weather radar, tidal information, a live real-time weather station (at St Teresa), points of interest, shopping guides, a news blog, charter fishing listings and more sponsors. Steve's vision of Beachview is that it was to be an Internet Portal site. A source for information for north Florida coastal residents and visitors. In 2000 Steve began to work with Mike McCall and WCTV the CBS affiliate in Tallahassee, FL. WCTV uses the Beachview streaming weather loops every night on their weather segments at 5.40PM. WCTV is the areas oldest and largest Television network covering north Florida and south Georgia. For much of its existance, the site has been built and maintained using Microsoft FrontPage. However, with the demise of FrontPage, it was time for a change. In 2009, Ed Perrine joined Steve and brought Beachview to it's next level of evolution. What you see in the site today are the results of Ed's extensive proramming kowledge and the use of the newest cutting edge web development software. Enter the world of DNN.

The Engine Within .:. DotNetNuke...

The new site has been built in DotNetNuke (DNN). We are using the 'Community Edition', version 4.09.03 as of deployment. While there's a shiny new version 5.00.00 out there (and even a 5.01.something) we're just not keen on being that close to the bleeding edge. It's OK to lead, but let's not get obsessive about it. DotNetNuke has already empowered substantial enhancements to the site with quite reasonable effort. In fact, if we were a little less OCD it might have even been minimal effort. However, we like things "just so" and that takes a little more work.

Elements such as the blog, the feedback form, the iFrames which contain tide and weather station information, all of the pagination and menuing, and even the cam map are basic modules of DotNetNuke. There is a complete user management structure to allow different roles so you can assign users to administer different areas or control what they see (i.e., a VIP area which might have additional menus or menu items). There are quite a few other tools we're not even using (at least not yet). There are tools to allow you to build user forums, do basic document management, and several other functions which we are doing with third-party modules that add additional features beyond the basics included.

DNN is one of a class of web development tools refered to as Content Managers. Historically, having a web site meant that everytime you wanted a change, you got to pay your designer (and wait for them to get around to doing your update). This can be pricey and the delays are annoying. Content Mangers empower (oooh, a buzzword) mere mortals to handle many aspects of site management on their own. Want to change a paragraph on the front page? That's about a minute's work (and your designer would have charged you $25.00 for it). Add a blog entry? Thirty seconds if you type quickly. Many similar routine functions are a matter of minutes and require only the most basic skills.

Don't think, however, that you're going to get rid of the geek in the closet completely. Certain aspects of setup can be a challenge. And a site that has complex features and require considerable effort in the early stages of deployment. Beachview.com has had the skin (see below) tweaked, a lot of CSS written, some pretty nasty XMod code (also below) and a fair amount of JavaScript. However, once most of that's done, the day-to-maintenance is geek-free (or at least, geek-lite).

Oh, and what does it cost? Nothing. Nada. Free. If you're interested, you might want to explore their site at http://www.dotnetnuke.com.

Making It Look Pretty .:. The Skin...

DotNetNuke as shipped is pretty bland. Don't let that bother you, though, as there are (literally) thousands of skins from which to choose. The skin defines the overall appearance of the site and the positions of the default 'panes' -- the areas where stuff is going to go later on. Skins range from cheap (free) to relatively expensive (upwards of a hundred bucks). And make no mistake, the quality covers the same range. Before you decide on a skin, have someone who knows what they're doing give it a look. A poor skin can make for a disappointing DNN experience.

The two major shopping areas for skins are the DotNetNuke Marketplace and Snowcovered. While the Marketplace is directly associated with DNN, Snowcovered has many more skins and modules and it is easier to browse as well. Most (though not all) vendors list their products in both locations. Our skin was purchased through Snowcovered and was designed by Alldnnskins.com. They are a prolific design house located in China. Many, many skin developers are China-based. And many of them are doing very nice work.

Once the basic skin was loaded, we did quite a few tweaks to make it look more like we wanted. Skin tweaks are usually straightforward for someone with the right skills. You are modifying .aspx files and changing CSS so you need to know what you're doing in those areas (or at least be willing to go through a lot of trial and error). And you can break a skin pretty badly, so make sure you have backups of everything at various stages throughout the process.

A final note on skins: choose carefully from the outset. Some will tell you that you can change skins later and your content will simply drop into place. Yeah, right. It is supposed to work in theory. In practice, a clean skin change without a fair amount of cleanup is pretty rare (maybe if the skins came from the same vendor and are structurally very similar, you would be OK). In practice, make sure that you have a skin that is aesthetically pleasing to you and is appropriate to your needs (both aesthetically and structurally). You'll be much happier and spend less time kicking yourself later.

Making it Work .:. The Modules...

DotNetNuke is the shell, the shell contains pages, pages wear skins, skins define panes (regions of the design area) and panes contain modules. We've already mentioned some of the built-in modules: blog, feedback form, map, etc. And the most commonly used module, the Text/HTML module. Each of these is purpose-specific and has a number of controls for the particular features of that module. The Text/HTML editor has a fairly complete WYSYWYG editor (like Microsoft Word) for those that are alergic to HTML. It serves the purpose for basic editing, but some HTML skills and time looking at the raw source will give you cleaner results. The blog editor has tools to enter, edit, list, and summarize the blog (such as the calendar at the bottom).

Some of the built-in modules are pretty strong, and some offer only basic functionality. Hey, it's free. But when you want real power there are almost always several vendors ready to offer add-ons. The key modules we've added follow. (And yes, you do have to pay for these. Prices range from twenty dollars to nearly a hundred but each and every one added important functionality and was well worth the price.) We've just mentioned each and listed some of the capabilities, but don't think that's all they do. In most cases we've only touched on the highlights of their feature set that applied most to us.

That Cool Home Page Effect .:. 3D Gallery...

There's some guys in Germany doing some great graphics presentation work. mediaANT has a number of carousel-type display modules that allow extensive control of the look and function without so much as writing a line of code. Their customer service is outstanding and their product has been rock solid. The 3D Gallery module adds some nice pizzazz to the home page without jumping the shark.

Paying the Bills .:. Banner Management...

While DNN has a built in banner management tool that's reasonably good, we wanted more control and tracking than was included. For this we turned to Aaron and the crew at Smoke Ranch. Every ad you see on the site is controlled by their Ad Banner Manager module. We can define advertisers, campaigns, or individual banners (display and text). Campaigns can have start and end dates or be set to display a certain number of times. Every clickthrough is tracked. In addition, we can control the display of outside ad providers such as Google AdSense. And if we want live, AJAX-driven banner rotation that's also available.

Behind the Scenes .:. Visitor Tracking...

You'll never see this module doing anything, but it's there on every page. The Visitor Tracking module from DNNModules.cn (another Chinese vendor) controls the interaction of our pages with Google Analytics. It's simple, inexpensive, and simplifies what can otherwise be a tedious task. We like it!

Keeping It Together .:. URL Management...

Many years of growth have resulted in Beachview.com enjoying a very favored position in many search engines. However, the site change meant that those old URLs were no longer going to exist - every page, even if offering content identical to what was previously presented, had a new link. Giving up years of search engine positioning was not an option. So we went south of China to Oz (Aus-tralia, that is). iFinity's URL Master is another tool that you'll never actually see. But when you go to Google and the old links still work and are cleanly updated it's doing its thing. This is another excellent product that's cleanly coded, fairly priced, and reliable.

What's Happening .:. Events Calendar...

After deciding to add a community events section to the site, we looked at the offerings on Snowcovered and selected Event Calendar & Registration from InvenManager. We're still working out some of the bugs (almost entirely conflicts between modules) and Gary has provided outstanding technical support. Continuing our international theme, InvenManager is in Indonesia. It really is a very small world.

Data Crunching .:. Information Management...

Without question the most powerful module in use is XMod. At one point DNNdev used a slogan to the effect that "XMod won't do everything, but you might not notice." They're not far wrong. If you need to manage medium-sized data sets and control data entry and presentation then this is a great tool. All of the lists you see on Beachview.com are managed using XMod. In fairness, there's a lot of tweaks added in there (some of which actually broke new ground) but the core product is simply incredible. And it's important to stress that we're only using a fraction of the power available.

But Wait, There's More...

We'll be adding UltraMediaGallery in the near future to handle a photo gallery for our users. It's already in use on some other sites our developer (yeah, more below, again) has done and will allow us to control presentation, uploading, copyright management and more.

And then there's the other couple of thousand-plus modules available. If you can imagine doing something with your site, there's likely a module to help you do it easier, faster and better. As we take the site in this new direction we'll likely be experimenting with some of these and will keep this colophon updated as we do.

So, Uh, Who Does the Work? .:. The Site Developer...

As mentioned earlier, you still need a geek. Certain aspects of DNN development are simply not for the faint of heart. However, you hopefully won't need to talk to them as often -- everyone knows that most geeks can barely speak normal English. Beachview's tame geek is Ed Perrine. He and Steve have known each other for longer than either wants to admit (as it hints at their respective ages). All of the site tweaks whether they be to the skin, the modules, the containers, the CSS, or XMod (more CSS and some JavaScript) are to be blamed on Ed. If you've got a gripe, use the feedback form and Ed will hear about. Trust us! And if you have something nice to say, or have a question, let him hear that as well.

Beachview.com in this deployment probably represents about a man-month of time. That may sound like a lot (that's a low five-figure bill, just to give you an idea) but for a site with this feature set it's remarkably cheap. And that includes significant amounts of time fighting the learning curve of XMod (steep, but worth it) and the time to transfer data from the old site and re-design and recreate most of the old site grahics and ad banners. Eliminating learning curve issues (which a customer should not usually pay for unless the learning in question is purely site-specific) would cut that estimate by about twenty percent. Another twenty to thirty percent for data transfer and the cost has been cut in half. And the recurring geek cost? Nil. Don't short your initial development partner, you'll regret it, your site will suffer, and it will cost you in the long run.

And Where Does It Live? .:. The Host...

There are a number of hosts around the country that support DotNetNuke to varying degrees. DNN does have some specific server requirements and some hosts are a bit antsy about security (DNN wants lots of permissions). Hosting charges range from dirt cheap to ridiculous and really depend on your needs. If you get a hundred visitors a month you don't need the resources that a site like Beachview.com (more than a quarter-million page views monthly from late spring to early fall) requires. Check around and find someone with whom you're comfortable.

Beachview.com is hosted with Network Tallahassee, Inc. (NetTally) where it's lived for nearly a decade. NetTally is a regional provider offering hosting services and Internet connectivity (dial-up, DSL, and fiber) in Tallahassee and all other areas in Florida where Embarq (soon to be Century Tel) is the incumbent carrier. If you're located in the Tallahassee region it's quite nice to host with someone where you can actually walk in and talk to a human. Clearly, the Beachview.com site embraces vendors from around the world (the United States, Germany, China, and Australia just to list the ones we've named) but it's still nice to be able to shake someone's hand (or give them a piece of your mind if necessary).

Wrapping It Up .:. Where Are We Going?

With the new tools available, we are going to be able to devote more time to content and less time to code. That means we'll be looking for new features to offer our two-million-plus annual visitors in our effort to make their time on Florida's North Coast as pleasant and fun-filled as possible. We want to expand our services to become more of a resource for vacation planning (or spur of the moment research once you're already here). This will likely include more information on area events (event calendars for our three primary regions are already in the works), attractions, dining and entertainment, and whatever else our visitors find of benefit. We welcome your suggestions: just pop over to that feedback form and drop us a note.

And thanks for visiting!

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