A decade ago you could whip together simple database-driven web applications using, among other things, classic ASP. If you were handy with Microsoft Access, or better yet SQL Server and you knew a little VBA or VB Script, it was a pretty trivial matter to build a relatively impressive database-enabled website.
Below is one page from a site I built for a non-profit organization that had a total budget of $1800. It includes 45 Classic ASP pages and is driven by a Microsoft Access database. I gave them my discounted rate of $50 per hour but probably realized less than $40 per hour since it was a fixed bid. It's not pretty but they didn't need pretty ... they needed a Web database and this one continues to work fine for them.
Before long, ASP .Net came on the scene and I built a few Web apps, but I never got very comfortable with it. Nowadays my team builds MVC2 applications but try as I might, I can't seem to find the time to get up to speed with the technology. I keep busy managing projects and building databases, but from time to time I get asked to build Web pages and the only skill I have is with classic ASP.
Well, not any more. I was recently asked to evaluate a product called Iron Speed Designer. This development tool will build your websites for you. Just point it at a database, check off a few options and let it run. The final product requires tweaking, but yes, it really is that simple.
Introducing Iron Speed Designer
To test out Iron Speed Designer, I pointed it at the Microsoft Access database used to build the classic ASP application described above. In about five minutes, the process was finished and I was informed that my ASP .Net / VB .Net application was ready to run. According to the report, 154 project files were created representing 459 hours of code time, which translates into $18,360 at my $40 per hour discounted non-profit rate.
Some may take exception with the hourly calculation, but I have to tell you that this tool generated a lot of code. I found the page that corresponds to my classic ASP page above and checked it out for usability. The Iron Speed Designer version is shown below and it's remarkable. Sure, there are a few issues needing attention and some control sizes to modify, but there is also a lot of functionality that didn't exist in my simple application. I am very impressed.
It should be noted that the issues I ran into were a direct result of my inconsistent database design. I had accidentally named the [StateID] field as simply [State] in the Participants table. That's why it couldn't figure out how to auto-populate the drop down box. Everywhere else that I correctly named ID fields to match their lookup tables, the drop down boxes were built correctly.
At this point I'm not sure what the Automatic Generated control is for, but it's probably something that can be hidden or removed. Text boxes need to be resized and controls shifted around, but it should be noted that the better designed your database is, the cleaner will be the resulting pages.
Keep in mind that to get to this point I did virtually nothing. I didn't read any help pages, didn't watch their comprehensive demo and for the most part, didn't even read the options. I accepted the wizard's defaults wherever possible. The result for this "Participants" page includes:
- search function to load selected record
- correct style controls for all the fields
- correct representation of foreign key relationships
- nested sub-forms for related tables
- paging controls where appropriate
- new, edit, delete, save, refresh and filter action buttons
- complex navigation and full menu options
- export to Word, Excel, CSV and PDF
That was easy and it honestly only took five minutes. Of course, the project isn't finished. There's a lot to do to make the website look and behave the way one wants it to. At this point, I still haven't finished watching the video demo nor have I read a word from the help file, but I understand there are two aspects to creating the website you desire:
- Select the appropriate wizard options when building a new app
- Learn to use the Designer IDE window
By now, it's too late for the first option, but it's given me a chance to see what the wizard can
do. It generated way more pages and views than I really want in the application. It's probably worth it to spend some time learning what each wizard option is for and culling out those you don't need. As shown in the screen shot below, I selected only nine of some 23 available options.
A quick search of the Help/Tutorial website failed to produce a comprehensive explanation for each option in the list, but I suppose one could simply run a build with every page option selected and see what comes out. It will take some time to figure out which pieces you prefer, which you like and which you need. This is the first investment you need to make in the tool to be successful.
The other investment is in the designer window. The good news is that the folks at Iron Speed have made it intuitive and simple. Add to that the many fine video demos at their website and you're on your way to customizing your application.
The Hard Part
With my article deadline swooping in on me, I ran out of time to learn how to use the designer for anything but the most modest of modifications. I did read the code documentation and poked around in a few of the generated code pages. I also realized that my application was going to need a login page and I would need to adjust the menus. This was going to require some learning.
That is, in fact, the hard part. There is a lot to learn. Thankfully, there are a lot of resources provided by Iron Speed to prepare you for the work ahead. According to their FAQs, most customers experience no difficulty learning Iron Speed Designer. In addition to a comprehensive online help system, there is also a Technical Support site as well as an active user forum.
Iron Speed Designer is without a doubt, the most ingenious product I've ever reviewed. Mastering it will take some investment, but the rewards appear to be disproportionately great. The price, while not trivial, is commensurate with this type of enterprise level software (see http://www.ironspeed.com/products/Pricing.aspx). If you're a dabbler with Web pages, it probably won't pay off for you, but I have no doubt this product will pay for itself after just a couple of website projects.
If you want to try Iron Speed now, then use the following form to request a product key and download.
Note: This web site does business with IronSpeed.
See all articles by Danny Lesandrini