Database Backed Web Sites:
The Thinking Person's Guide to Web Publishing

Philip Greenspun

Ziff-Davis Press 1997
A book review by Danny Yee © 1997
Note: there is a new version of this book available, with the title Philip and Alex's Guide to Web Publishing.

There are many books on web publishing which provide technical information about HTML, site design, server administration, scripting, and related topics. How to be a Web Whore Just Like Me (Greenspun's original title for Database Backed Web Sites) provides the background information and understanding without which all the tools and technical knowledge in the world will only result in projectile injuries to the feet. It is a funny, irreverent, and intelligent look at web publishing which, despite the title, will appeal to those without any interest in databases.

Greenspun starts with five chapters on creating a web site, taking an approach quite unlike anything I've seen before. He begins with an explanation of how to think about the web and a brief look at its commercial potential, at how to "make money fast" from the web (and why that isn't always a sensible goal). Chapter three, an introduction to HTML, is mostly concerned with preventing people from using it to injure themselves. ("Learning basic HTML shouldn't take more than a few minutes. The more HTML you know, the uglier and harder to use your site is likely to be.") Chapter four is an excellent guide to putting pictures on a web site. (Greenspun himself has a most impressive collection of photos on the web; he also runs Chapter five, "Publicizing Your Site", is actually all about how search engines work and how to make your pages search engine "friendly".

Chapter six explains how to set up the necessary infrastructure for web publishing: hardware, an operating system, server software, and net connectivity. Most of this is aimed at system administrators ("Lesson 2: Mirrored disks on separate SCSI chains. Period."), but you don't have to be in charge of hundreds of thousands of dollars worth of hardware to enjoy Greenspun's acerbic take on hardware vendors, operating systems, and software products. Chapter seven explains how to read web server logs, introduces Greenspun's own clickthrough tracking service, and surveys some of the web statistics packages available. It also includes one of the clearest descriptions I have seen of how cookies work and why they are a threat to privacy. Chapter eight explains what Java is and how it fits into the broader landscape of programming languages, as well as giving advice on when it is and is not appropriate. And chapter nine covers scripting, server APIs, and HTML extensions (which Greenspun sees as the way of the future).

Databases finally enter in the last half of the book, in chapters ten through thirteen. When is a web-site really a database? How does SQL work? What is an RDBMS anyway? How do you interface one to the Web? How do you do it so that it works efficiently enough to handle tens or hundreds of queries per second? What are some of the products available and how do they compare? Several case studies are then presented, complete with source code, based on the free RDBMS services Greenspun offers for web publishers from his own servers. Some of this gets pretty technical, but chapter fourteen looks more informally at the evolution of his web publishing ventures.

The final chapter considers some issues for the future of the web: a new model for selling software, personalization, and collaborative data models. The closing words are left to Noam Chomsky.

Greenspun writes in such a way as to be interesting to the non-specialist and the specialist alike. Where he deals with subjects I know little about (such as photography or SQL), I found him informative and insightful; where he deals with subjects I know a lot about (such as maintaining Unix servers or analysing web server logs), I still found him interesting — and never the least bit boring. Sometimes he indulges in whimsical flights of fancy:

At noon, an ugly mob of users assembles outside your office, angered by your introduction of frames and your failure to include WIDTH and HEIGHT tags on IMGs. You send one of your graphic designers out to explain how "cool" it looked when run off a local disk in a demo to the vice-president. The mob stones him to death and then burns your server farm to the ground.
He is prepared to say what he really thinks about people, institutions, companies, and products.
I don't think I made enough enemies in Chapter 10 by saying that commercial Web/RDBMS integration products in general are inferior to thrown-together public-domain hacks. So now I'll review some specific products.
Sun, Microsoft, the MIT Media Lab, Dave Siegel, C, Oracle, and pretty much everyone and everything come in for criticism.

If you happen to be into building big corporate RDBMS-backed web sites (or paying someone to do this for you), then you really should read Database Backed Web Sites. But while it will be appreciated most by those with some computer science background, it is a book that will inform — and entertain — anyone who is prepared to learn how to think instead of being fed pre-digested details. Database Backed Web Sites is simply the best general book on web publishing I have seen — and certainly the most entertaining!

Note: Even if you decide to buy the printed version of Database Backed Web Sites, you should still look at the online copy (link below). This contains updated and additional material, including the story of how the book came to be written, an amusing look behind the scenes of computer book publishing.

November 1997

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%T Database Backed Web Sites
%S The Thinking Person's Guide to Web Publishing
%A Greenspun, Philip
%I Ziff-Davis Press
%D 1997
%O paperback, index
%G ISBN 1562765302
%P xvii,362pp,16pp colour