Cold call for content

Cold call for content

Dr Jeff Jones had an opportunity to test the latest offering of Allaire's content management application, Spectra.

Allaire Spectra is a package designed specifically for businesses who wish to make accessing and publishing their data online, as well as customer management and e-commerce, a less onerous task. It is built using Allaire's Cold Fusion application server, which has gathered a good degree of support over the past few years. Cold Fusion (CFML) is simply another markup language, designed to "wrap" around HTML in order to dynamically access and publish content from an SQL or other external databases. As businesses are relying on the Web more often, they must be able to efficiently access company databases in order to keep customers up to date on their latest offerings.

The aim of a content management system is to link the site participants in a fairly seamless fashion. The roles of system administrator, interactive developer, site designer, business manager and the various types of users, must be integrated if the site is to run as efficiently as possible. To make this range of accessibility available in one suite of packages is a fairly daunting task, and it will be interesting to see whether Spectra will be up to it.

The Webtop is the key to Spectra's ease of use.

The Spectra programming language is similar to Cold Fusion in that it is an extension of CFML, however it is more flexible and easier to use than its predecessor. This is courtesy of the "Webtop" site editor, which facilitates the design and manipulation of the site's page templates, caching, security and content. It does make use of Cold Fusion Studio, a CFML editor, similar in some respects to Macromedia's Dreamweaver HTML editor. However as with any WYSIWYG editor, knowledge of the underlying code is still essential for controlling the full functionality of the output.

Allaire Spectra differs from Cold Fusion in that it makes use of object based programming, with the ContentObject API model being the core of its design. While external databases are still just as accessible, the addition of a ContentObject database adds another dimension to data storage. Objects can be anything, from pieces of text, to images, multimedia, or databases, and they form the building blocks of the site. A standard example of the use of ContentObjects is the design of a Web page, which can contain banners, navigation items, images, keywords, and text. Editing of these is via 'handlers' that can (and should) be customised to produce the desired result.

The Spectra programming language is similar to Cold Fusion in that it is an extension of CFML, however it is more flexible and easier to use than its predecessor.

The Webtop is the key to Spectra's ease of use - it is a browser-based tool, allowing the various site participants to log in from anywhere they have access to a browser, and change information, depending on access privileges. A series of navigation buttons covers areas such as content manipulation, site design, business management, and system admin. These broad menus are subdivided into more detailed ones, enabling ease of control of the site without a lot of coding. For example, the system design section enables access to the site object designer - a tool that contains several standard handlers, allowing 'standard' content editing and publishing. For more advanced content publishing involving complex database queries, knowledge of the Spectra scripting language and SQL is necessary.

To this end, the usefulness of Spectra will depend on the skill of its programmers, but for an experienced system designer, this is not a daunting task. Allaire has attempted to make its content management system as accessible to as many levels of user as possible, and the program contains a number of functions to enable this. It brings businesses closer to the goal of a 'universal' content management system, but is not there yet. It is another step from Cold Fusion and Microsoft's Front Page, but it remains to be seen whether the object-based programming model is taken up by other content management systems.

Dr Jeff Jones, PhD (Ch), is online editor of, a KnappComm property.

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