Essential free apps for your web design toolkit

From design to testing - open source programs to do it all

Controlling content

With content management systems, much of the site planning and management is taken care of for you. There's little fiddling about with FTP after initial installation, and content is placed directly into templates. If you have a PHP enabled server and a spare database ready to install the software, the only hardship is deciding which one to use.

PHP-Nuke and its progeny (Zikula and Plone) are beloved by some hardy acolytes, but our consistent favourite is Joomla. Branching off the community- based CMS Mambo, Joomla is a rare open source PHP script that's built to professional standards across the board, from front to back. The result is a modular CMS that provides developers with everything they need to build community driven websites.

If the benefits of a browser environment and live database appeal to you but you don't fancy setting up a script yourself, a hosted solution might be more appealing. Web logging sites such as www.blogger.com and www.livejournal.com offer free content management for personal sites. Blog software is basically a type of specialised CMS and you might be surprised at how flexible it can be.

However, it can't compete feature-for-feature with dedicated, server-side blogging tools. A PHP publishing system loved by Mac users, Movable Type supports features such as blog categories and is skinned using a simple CSS-powered template system.

We should also mention WordPress, which has similar features and is also entirely open source. Why choose something like WordPress or Movable Type over PHPNuke or Joomla? The answer is their relative simplicity. Blog-based sites are easier to configure, with fewer bells and whistles out of the box.

Next up is ecommerce. PayPal, eBay and Amazon all provide secure and stable shopping cart features to integrate into dynamic sites. There isn't much to set up and the code you insert into your page is cut and paste. They'll take a percentage of your cash, but that's true of any credit card gateway.

If you'd rather build an ecommerce presence from scratch, open source choices include OSCommerce and offshoot Zen Cart. Both enable you to integrate shopping features into a pre-existing site with editable templates.

Once you've got your site nailed, you may want to add some community with a message board, and phpBB is the default open source choice. It's mature, has strong security features and robust user management.

While it lacks some features found in commercial message boards such as vBulletin, it has a strong following and is widely used. An integrated message board system can be more than just a set of forums, though. Some sites use phpBB forums as rudimentary CMS, while others integrate them into blog engines to replace existing comment features.

If you want more than bulletin board services, consider SurgeMail. It supports Windows, Linux and Mac OS X and is reasonably easy to get up and running. There's a web-based interface, so users will have the security of accessing email directly through your site.

Testing time

AWStats is a CGI script that takes the raw data in your log file, analyses it and presents the results in a series of glorious Technicolor charts and tables, starting with a summary of how many visitors you've had that month and how much bandwidth they used. Webalizer is another popular choice. A fully fledged server-side application, it generates statistics in chart and tabular form. Go to mrunix.net/webalizer to learn more.

Your site is nothing if it doesn't work properly, which is where a slew of testing tools come in. In fact, with accessibility legislation, they're essential. Cynthia Says evaluates your site against Web Content Accessibility Guidelines, now pole-position in the testing stakes since IBM bought out the famous Bobby Online suite and shut it down.

And to see how your site will render in different browsers and platforms, use free service Browser Shots. You can enter any URL and see screenshots of the results on Mac, Windows and Linux rendered in all the top browsers. It's terrific!

Finally, no test of site validity is complete without the Word Wide Web Consortium's suite of tools. Go to www.w3.org/QA/Tools for the full set.

First published in .net magazine, Issue 182

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