DCN Web Authors' FAQ



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An Internet FAQ is a list of Frequently Asked Questions on a given subject -- along with their answers. This FAQ covers the questions commonly asked by prospective DCN web authors. It's meant to be a basic source of information for DCN members who wish to publish information on the World-Wide Web via their DCN accounts, and to serve as a course outline for the Information Providers Class.

Covered in detail here are issues that are particular to DCN web publishing. General web publishing is discussed in many other places on the web.

Q. What is web publishing?

A. The World-Wide Web is the grandest experiment in the history of electronic publishing. It's an open, interlinked set of hypertext documents published on the Internet via web servers. To publish on the web, you need only have access to a web server and the ability to create the files that make up web pages.

Q. What is a web server?

A. A web server is an Internet node that makes documents available using the HyperText Transfer Protocol (HTTP) communication standard. Web servers receive and respond to HTTP requests for text and images in a variety of formats. These requests are usually made by Web Browsers -- like Lynx, Mosaic and Netscape -- that hide HTTP from users.

Wheel, the UNIX server on which DCN accounts reside, is also web server. Most of DCN's web pages reside in special subdirectories of Wheel that are visible to the web server software. DCN has set up its web server so that any subscriber may also publish pages on the web by following a special set of procedures.

Q. What are web pages?

A. Web pages are document files and images that can be displayed by a web browser. The heart of each web page is an HTML text file containing the page's text and references to image files that may be displayed along with the text. Web pages are hypertext documents because they may contain links to other pages and files.

Q. What is HTML?

A. HyperText Markup Language is a standard method for encoding text for presentation on the world-wide web. It allows you to specify, loosely, how a document should appear when viewed via a web browser. Using HTML, you may indicate that parts of a text file should be displayed as plain text or as headings of ranked importance, lists, or block quotes. Parts of text may be emphasized, emboldened or italicized. Horizontal rules may separate sections and small graphics may be used for decoration, illustration or even menus. The document may also contain hypertext links that allow the user to "jump" to other documents, view images or movies, play sounds or download files.

Nearly all Web browsers are able to view documents composed using HTML version 1.0, which contains the elements mentioned above. Fill-in form support was added in version 2. HTML version 3.2 added support for columnar tables, mathematical formulae and text flow. Version 4 added support for Cascading Style Sheets and many accessibility conventions.

While web pages are composed of HTML text, you don't necessarily have to know HTML to compose web pages. Many HTML editors are available that allow composition of simple web pages without ever seeing an HTML code. Learning something about HTML, though, will demystify web page production and increase skill.

Several books teaching HTML are already on the computer shelves of bookstores. There are also excellent resources for learning HTML available on the web. One of the best is: A Beginner's Guide to HTML.

Q. Can DCN subscribers publish on the web?

A. Yes! Wheel, the DCN computer which hosts your subscriber account, is also a web server. Users may publish files on the web using the file-storage facilities included with every account. When files are properly placed they become visible -- through the web server -- to the entire Internet.

Q. How can I create web page files?

A. You can create the source HTML files on your computer with any web-page creation or text-editing program. You may find it easier to use an HTML editor or an HTML template for your favorite word processing program.

Q. How do I publish them on the web?

A. For detailed, step-by-step, instructions covering:
  1. Preparing your account
  2. Transferring files to the server
  3. Web addresses

see the DCN Web Page Setup page.

Q. What tools do I need and where do I get them?

A. Assuming you already have a DCN account with SLIP or PPP access, you'll need the following:

  • A text or HTML editor to author the hypertext files;
  • A paint or image-editing program to create any in-line images you wish to place on your pages. The program should be capable of exporting Graphic Interchange Format (GIF) images. There are also programs that can translate graphics from one format (like a Mac PIC or a Windows BMP) to GIF.
  • A file transfer program that can move files between your computer and the web server. The easiest method is to use a File Transfer Protocol (FTP) client program like Fetch (Mac) or WS-FTP (Windows). It's also possible, though more difficult, to use Kermit transfers in terminal mode.
  • A Telnet or SSH (Secure SHell) program that will allow you to log in to your DCN account and execute UNIX commands in terminal mode. This is necessary to create your public_html subdirectory and to tailor your directory and file permissions to make your web pages visible to the web server.

You can find links to all these tools -- for Macs and Windows PCs -- at the DCN Information Providers' Resource Page.

Q. How does web publishing affect the security of my DCN account?

A. If you set up your web pages using the recipe above, the security of your DCN account will be affected in the following ways:

  • Others will be able to list the files in your home directory (i.e., they'll be able to see the file names). So, don't use embarrassing or confidential file names;
  • Others will be able to read the files in your public_html subdirectory and all subdirectories you may create under public_html. So, don't put anything there that you regard as confidential.

Remember: there is no such thing as a private web page. If a file is available to the web server, it's available to the public.

While on the subject of security, here's a rule of thumb: Unless you know enough about UNIX to ensure privacy for yourself, don't leave anything on the server that's embarrassing or confidential.

Q. How can I find out if anyone's viewing my pages?

A. You can get statistics on web-page hits (a hit is an HTTP request for transmission of a page or file) from the access logs maintained by the web server.

The easiest way to do this is to use the Web Statistics Form page. Enter your login name or a fragment of the web address you wish to check. If you enter a web address, leave off the "http://www.dcn.davis.ca.us" portion. When you submit the form, it will run a script that reports several measures of usage.

If you're proficient with UNIX, you may wish to analyze the access logs yourself. They're stored at /usr/local/etc/httpd/logs.

Q. What limitations does DCN impose?

A. The materials you publish on the web are counted as part of your user storage space. DCN subscribers are currently limited to 5 MB (5120 kilobytes) of disk storage -- including your mail spool -- unless you've made arrangements to purchase additional storage.

To check your usage, use terminal or telnet software to log into your account. Select "UNIX Prompt" from the opening menu and press <return>. At the prompt, type the command disku and press <return>. The system will return a message like this:

Your disk quota is 10 megabytes
Your home directory contains 706 kilobytes
Your mail spool contains 512 kilobytes

Q. How do you do that fancy stuff I saw ... ?

A. Most web browsers have a "view source" option that you can use to take a look at the HTML used to produce a web page. If yours doesn't, try saving the page to a file on your computer and reading it with a text editor. That's how most "web wizards" learned their tricks.

Q. Will my work appear on the web the way I see it?

A. No. Even with the same browser on the same platform, appearance of a web page can vary when users change options. Between different browsers and platforms, presentation of web pages varies dramatically. In fact, a page that looks good on one browser may not even be readable with another. That's a good reason to keep your web page spinning simple. Rely on the fundamental characteristics of HTML styles (e.g., H1 is a higher level than H2) and not on the way they're represented on your computer with your browser.

If you want to make sure that your web pages are widely readable, try running them through an HTML validator such as the one listed on the resource page.

Q. How can I get a page linked to the DCN pages?

A. If you create a homepage.html file in your public_html subdirectory, it will automatically be linked to the "ALL" list off the DCN User's Personal Web Pages list. If you're authoring a web page for fun, as a resource for friends or for vanity, that may be all you want.

If your page can contribute to the community or advances DCN's goals, you may want to see it linked to one of the topical pages descending from the DCN home page. If so, The DCN Information Provider's Committee (IPC) asks you do the following to prepare your page:

  • Test your page with different browsers. Your pages should be legible with all common browsers and useable with or without images. They should not cause any common browser to fail or lock up. Common browsers include Netscape, Mosaic and Lynx.
  • Test your links. Hypertext links that don't work are disorienting and frustrating to the user. Test your links in place (on the web server) and make sure they work.
  • Sign your work. Clearly indicate on each page the individual or group responsible for the content. Provide a mechanism -- such as an email address -- for feedback. Don't leave the impression that DCN is responsible for the content if that's not the case.
  • Commit yourself to maintaining content and links. Web content should be timely. If your content or links fall clearly out of date, the DCN Web Team will eventually remove links connecting DCN pages to yours.

When you've done all the above, send email to msmosaic@wheel.dcn.davis.ca.us specifying:

  1. The content of your page and the way in which it provides a community service or advances DCN's goals;
  2. The location of the .html file to which you wish to see a link established;
  3. The URL of the DCN page that should carry the link;
  4. The proposed title of the link; and,
  5. The email address of the person responsible for maintaining the page.

If the webmaster agrees that the page is appropriate and meets the criteria above, the link should be established within a few days. If not, you should receive an explanation. If you disagree and can't work it out with the webmaster, please appeal the decision to the DCN Information Provider's Committee (formerly the Sponsored Projects Committee). Email addressed to dcn-projects-committee@list.dcn.davis.ca.us will reach all the committee members via listserver.

Q. Can I get help from DCN?

A. Yes! DCN offers several levels of help:

Information Providers' Classes are offered regularly for both Windows and Macintosh users. These cover in detail many of the topics in this FAQ.

Information Provider Workshops are occasionally held. At these, you can get together with web gurus to ask questions, polish your pages, use a scanner, etc.

If your organization needs a lot more help, you may want DCN to sponsor your web project. Sponsorship implies that the project is under the overall DCN umbrella, that the DCN is willing to be an umbrella organization for grant and other funding applications for that project, and help to look for resources like volunteers and vendor matches; that the DCN network infrastructure would be available (accounts, training, user support, etc.), and that the DCN would help evaluate the project. The DCN Information Providers Committee (IPC) selects and administers sponsored projects.

Less formal than sponsored projects are mini-projects. If your organization needs limited help and resources to bootstrap a web presence, contact the IPC and ask about becoming a mini-project. We'll ask you to make an informal presentation at one of the monthly IPC meetings outlining your goals and needs and then work out a quick plan to put you on the web.

You can contact the IPC by sending mail to the dcn-projects-committee@list.dcn.davis.ca.us. That will reach all the committee members via listserver.

Q. May I use CGI scripts?

A. Yes and no.

CGI stands for Common Gateway Interface. It's a specification for programs that may be run on a web server in response to http requests. CGI is useful because it can make web pages dynamic. Examples of web pages that make use of CGI programs include the Community Calendar, Web Statistics and Ask Ms. Mosaic pages on the DCN web server.

CGI programs also present a security risk and can consume inordinate system resources. For this reason, following the strong recommendation of Apache.Org, DCN does not allow CGI programs to run from user directories. Only CGI programs in a special "cgi-bin" subdirectory are recognized as such by the web server. One of the DCN web team's jobs is to make sure that these CGI programs represent the smallest possible security risk.

That's the bad news; here's the good news: The web team maintains several generally useful CGI programs that are available to web authors. These programs can handle image maps, forms and a few other functions. For a list of available cgi programs, see the DCN Web Author Tools" page.

If you need CGI functionality that isn't available, email a request to Ms. Mosaic or put a query on the Ask Ms. Mosaic page. If you've got a specialized CGI program that you'd like to use, you may submit it to the web team in source form. We'll vet it for security and system resource usage and, if it passes muster, we'll make it available in the cgi-bin directory. (Note: to vet it, we'll have to understand it. Short, well-documented scripts with clearly defined purposes and no fancy programming tricks will have a big advantage. It's even better if they're already running on other web servers.)

Q. How can I use HTML forms?

A. DCN has a generic form response script that will take input from a web form, decode it and mail it to a designated email address. The program, mailform, can also check to make sure that all fields are filled in and display a target web page on successful form submission. See http://www.dcn.davis.ca.us/tools/mailform.html for complete documentation.

Q. Can I use Server-Side Includes?

A. Yes. Just use ".shtml" rather than ".html"

You may use both the standard SSI commands and Apache's extended SSI (XSSI), but may not use exec or cmd. Standard SSI's are documented in an NCSA Tutorial. An XSSI Tutorial is available from Apache Week.

Q. Are Microsoft FrontPage Extensions supported?

A. No. Microsoft's FrontPage Extensions are proprietary Microsoft programs that give special web-site privileges to FrontPage users. The DCN web team has spent some time evaluating and discussing these extensions and has decided not to load them on DCN's main web server. We have two reasons:

  • The FrontPage Extensions are proprietary and do not use open protocols. DCN has a strong commitment to open standards and we believe it should not privilege one tool vendor over another.
  • The FrontPage Extensions, in our estimation, have serious security flaws at a design level. While it may be possible to minimize their risk, we believe the time and attention necessary to do so is best spent on supporting open-standard solutions.

Most of the functionality that would be available via these extensions is available in other ways. Polished, standard FTP clients provide an excellent way of maintaining web-publishing directories. And our library of web server tools provides form-handling, counters and other web-page functionality.

Please note: the fact that the FrontPage Extensions are not loaded on our server does not prevent you from using FrontPage for web-page authoring. It mainly means you'll need to use an FTP program to update server files rather than the built-in FrontPage web update scheme.

Q. Can I password protect web content?

A. Yes. You may use the standard HTTP user authentication mechanisms by creating special password files. A good tutorial, Using User Authentication, is available from Apache Week (ignore the part "making" htpasswd -- that's already done). Please note that this may be a good mechanism for restricting web access, but will not prevent other users of the server from viewing files.

Q. How do I get my web site indexed?

A. The DCN search engine should index your pages within a week of publication. But you're probably wondering how to get indexed by Yahoo, Google, Alta Vista and such. These sites employ web spider robots that visit and digest sites. They may find yours through its listing in the DCN subscriber web site table of contents. However, you'll probably have better luck visiting these sites and submitting your web site for indexing. There are also services which will take a single submission and create requests at several major sites. (Beware: Some of these will also pass your address on to SPAM servers.)

Q. How do I avoid getting my web site indexed?

A. Web publishing is, by its very nature, a public activity and there is no sure way to avoid that public character. However, if you visit the DCN Publicity Options page and set the no web-site indexing and no table-of-contents entries, you will at least increase the chances that web-indexing robots that play by the rules will not include your materials.