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ASP.NET - Introducing the "DotNetNuke" Web Application Framework

Content management made easy and a new breed of highly functional Web applications has emerged

Over the past few years, a paradigm shift of monumental proportions has been quietly occurring on the World Wide Web. The traditional "brand-builder" Web site whose sole purpose was the delivery of static marketing information to potential customers has finally lost its appeal. Fuelled by the demands of Web-savvy business owners and consumers, a new breed of highly functional Web applications has emerged; these applications deliver dynamic content, community collaboration, interactive behavior, and real-time communication.

A Web Application Framework is a robust software library used as the basis for building advanced Web applications. A Web Application Framework typically contains a well-defined architecture and an abstract set of reusable components that are specifically designed to simplify development, enforce consistency, increase productivity, and improve application quality. Typical features include modular architecture, membership management, security and role management, site organization and navigation, error and event logging, data access and caching, search and syndication, and extensibility at every level. Frameworks are used in corporations, public sector, private sector, small businesses, nonprofit organizations, and even individual Web sites.

Although the concept has always been relevant, Web Application Frameworks have just come back into favor in recent years. This is likely a result of the ever-pervasive basic business philosophy emphasizing a reduction in the Total Cost of Ownership and increase in the Return On Investment. Web Application Frameworks can provide big wins in both of these categories because they allow developers to focus on the high-level business processes while leveraging a rock-solid application foundation.

DotNetNuke is a Web Application Framework that provides a highly extensible development environment, based on published standards and proven design patterns. Since Web Application Frameworks are generic by nature, they can be used as the underpinnings for any number of powerful Web applications. From Community Portals to high volume E-Commerce shopping malls, from Content Management Systems (CMS) to Customer Relationship Management Systems (CRM), the DotNetNuke Web Application Framework provides the fundamental services to build highly functional and scalable Web applications. To back up this claim, the DotNetNuke Web Application Framework is distributed as part of a fully functional CMS - the DotNetNuke Enterprise Portal.

Introducing DotNetNuke
Necessity is the mother of invention. In classic open source fashion, I originally created the application because I was interested in a way to provide functional Web sites to amateur sports organizations and could not find a suitable proprietary alternative. After investing significant effort only to discover that my business goals were not going to be realized, I decided to release the application as an open source community project. Version 1.0 of DotNetNuke was released December 24, 2002 (Christmas Eve). Since then, DotNetNuke has evolved at an exponential rate, recently surpassing 200,000 registered users, 800,000 downloads, and maintaining a consistent weekly project activity rank of #15 on SourceForge.Net.

A single DotNetNuke installation can host an unlimited number of portal Web sites, each with its own distinct URL. Each Web site is managed by one or more administrators. Portals can contain a variety of content, including announcements, events, discussion forums, links, images, surveys, galleries, directories, shopping carts, and many other features, all comparable to those available in proprietary content management systems.

DotNetNuke is developed on the powerful Microsoft .NET platform - Windows server, IIS, SQL Server 2000, and ASP.NET (VB and C#). Part of DotNetNuke's attraction is it can run on almost any database server, as long as someone has created the necessary provider (third-party providers include Oracle and mySQL). The flexible technical requirements make it possible to install and evaluate DotNetNuke on almost any computer. Its primary deployment scenario is to shared Web servers managed by Web hosting providers. However, it can also be deployed to dedicated Web servers and Intranets, where the administrator has much more control of the environment.

DotNetNuke is offered under a nonrestrictive BSD License, a standard open source license that allows for full usage in both commercial and noncommercial environments. The BSD, well-documented ASP.NET source code, an active developer community, and a modular architecture make it possible to customize DotNetNuke and leverage it as a mature Web Application Framework. For end users, all DotNetNuke requires is a Web browser and an Internet connection.

DotNetNuke provides the ability to manage content at a granular level. Essentially this means that a virtual page in DotNetNuke is simply a generic container that contains various content regions. Management of each type of content region is exposed through mini-applications referred to as Modules. Modules provide expert features for the display, configuration, and administration of specific types of content. For example, there are simple modules such as the Text/HTML module, which are designed to manage the display and administration of basic content information. There are also powerful modules such as the Forums module, which is designed to manage a full-featured community discussion forum. A page can contain an unlimited number of content modules, and a content module can be exposed on an unlimited number of Web site pages. This model is superior to other Web Application Frameworks that limit you to hard-linking content information directly to a single site page or that only allow a single type of content to be managed on a page.

The DotNetNuke name comes from a long history of open source content management systems that have adopted "nuke" as part of their project identity (the original credit belongs to Francisco Burzi, the creator of PHP-Nuke).

Installation and Configuration
At the time of this writing, the latest stable release of DotNetNuke is version 3.1.1, which was released on August 11, 2005. This release is compatible with the ASP.NET 1.1 platform. If you are interested in experimenting with the latest features, you can also check the downloads area on the www.dotnetnuke.com Web site for newer builds.

Installing DotNetNuke on a Microsoft Windows Server system (2000 or 2003) is straightforward and well documented. After unpacking the downloaded ZIP package, place all files and folders into your Web server's root directory. Create an SQL Server 2000 database and user account. DotNetNuke stores some files, such as user-uploaded images, in a special home directory for each portal. This directory should have write access enabled or else you are not going to be able to take advantage of all of the application features.

The default IIS settings on most Web servers should be adequate. DotNetNuke does not require session support, nor does it require custom mappings for specific file types or error codes. By default, the DotNetNuke application runs in a medium-trust Code Access Security configuration, which provides some critical security safeguards, especially for Web hosting providers.

A single file, web.config, stores the basic configuration settings, such as the database connection information, encryption keys, and provider configuration. Make a copy of the release.config file provided by DotNetNuke, name it web.config, and edit it using your favorite text editor. This thoughtful arrangement is especially useful when you upgrade DotNetNuke. DotNetNuke's release.config is upgraded, but your original web.config, which contains settings specific to your installation, is left untouched. The only value that typically needs to be modified on a new installation is the SiteSqlServer connection string in the AppSettings node. On an upgrade, it is also critical that you preserve your localized MachineValidationKey and MachineDecryptionKey values.

Next, visit the main page of your DotNetNuk Web site with a Web browser. From this point on, DotNetNuke handles its own installation and configuration, setting up the database, modules, and skins automatically. The default settings should work to get you started, and you always can customize them later. A Web site is created based on the values stored in the default template, which includes both an Administrator and Host user account. Since these accounts are common across all DotNetNuke installations, it is critical that you change the default passwords fot these accounts immediately upon successful installation.

Once DotNetNuke is installed, almost all regular administrative activities can be carried out using a Web browser. When logged in as the administrator, an admin menu appears as the right-most node in the hierarchical menu control (Figure 1). In addition, a control panel is displayed at the top of the browser window that allows the administrator to manage various aspects of the DotNetNuke site using a Web browser.

The Site Settings option controls the basic operation of the DotNetNuke site. In most cases, the default settings for most administrative functions should work fine. The Pages option allows you manage all of the virtual pages in your site. Security Roles and User Accounts enable you to manage the membership.

To add a new Page, while logged in as the administrator, select the Add Page icon in the control panel at the upper-left corner of your browser window. Pages are hierarchical and virtual, thus allowing you to add an unlimited amount of content at various levels in your Web site. Page settings can be edited, copied, and deleted using some of the other Control Panel icons. Pages and Modules are governed by a powerful role-based permissions model that allows you to selectively grant view and edit content privileges to users of your Web site. For simplistic Web sites that may only have a single content author, you should be able to use the default settings (see Figure 2).

More Stories By Shaun Walker

Shaun Walker is founder and president of Perpetual Motion Interactive Systems Inc., a solutions company specializing in Microsoft enterprise technologies. Shaun has 15 years of professional experience in architecting and implementing large-scale IT solutions for private and public organizations. Shaun is the creator and maintainer of DotNetNuke, an open source Web Application Framework written for the Microsoft ASP.NET platform.

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