March 10, 1997 10:00 AM ET
Focusing on simplicity
PC Week Labs finds a strong business case for intranet version of Simon & Schuster's Corporate Digital Archive
By Jim Rapoza

  By keying in on the more elemental portions of its client/server predecessor and using relatively simple development tools, Simon & Schuster Inc. has transformed a limited access and proprietary photo archive into a system that's readily accessible to the company's employees around the world.

True, the intranet version of the CDA (Corporate Digital Archive) lacks critical image annotation features, and it doesn't completely eliminate the need for the client/server version, which is still required to actually retrieve an image. However, by simply opening up the archive to Web browser users, Simon & Schuster shows you don't have to be on the cutting edge of technology to provide something useful.

In its client/server implementation, CDA is a large-scale and fairly complex system, designed around an Oracle database and the proprietary Photofile database from SRA International Inc., of Arlington, Va. Macintoshes are used to enter cataloging and permission information about the new images into the archive. The images are then scanned into the system and burned onto CDs that are stored in a CD jukebox attached to a Windows NT server. The jukebox is connected back to the main databases and also to a data-entry center that manages image descriptions using SunSoft Inc. Solaris workstations. The final piece is the Mac client, which is used by the production staff to search for images and perform basic edits.

By adding a Web server, Simon & Schuster was able to extend access to CDA to all of its editorial and management staff and to the various dispersed offices attached to the Simon & Schuster WAN, according to Ken Flannery, director of the CDA, in Upper Saddle River, N.J.

Although Flannery's group chose very basic intranet development tools, the resulting application was relatively effective, even without some of the functionality of the Mac client. Employees can use any browser to access CDA over the intranet.

From their browsers, users attach to the CDA Web server, which interacts with the databases using CGI (Common Gateway Interface) programs written in Perl. Although CGI is slower and sometimes less powerful than more advanced programming interfaces such as Netscape Server API, it is much more portable.

Because most of the internal staff came from a development background, the Simon & Schuster group chose the Unix editor VI for HTML authoring, instead of more popular WYSIWYG tools such as Microsoft Corp.'s FrontPage. However, this did not seem to be a drawback: The pages on the site were functional and attractive.

Simon & Schuster's choice of a Netscape Communications Server on an RS/6000 system running AIX as the Web server for CDA was also surprising. Communications Server is Netscape's low-end server with no support for secure transactions. Both of Netscape's newer servers-the low-end Fasttrack 2.0 and the high-end Enterprise Server 2.0-support Secure Sockets Layer and are much easier to manage. Flannery said the Web server decision was motivated by the need for AIX support; at the time, Simon & Schuster was not aware the new versions ran on AIX.

Once into the intranet-based CDA, users can search for images using nearly all the advanced search capabilities of the client/server version, including real-language queries. Results are displayed in a contact sheet format within an HTML page. Clicking on an image brings users to a page with a description of the image along with detailed information such as the source and copyright holders. Users can tap their choice for tests and what-if scenarios on pages, but the images are watermarked to prevent unauthorized use.

This leads us to the most important element missing in the intranet-based CDA: the ability to annotate and request images. In the client/server version, employees can use a sort of pre-scan utility to set output parameters such as size and color space and can even do basic cropping. Once the output options are set, they can request the images.

Users of the current intranet version, however, can only determine if a particular image is in the archive. If they want to request the image, they still have to contact someone with access to the client/server version. Flannery is looking into using Java to provide these types of capabilities for CDA on the intranet in the future.

In the meantime, however, PC Week Labs found that the publishing house has done an impressive job of putting the latest intranet technology to work to solve a real-world problem.

Copyright(c) 1997 Ziff-Davis Publishing Company. All rights reserved. Reproduction in whole or in part in any form or medium without express written permission of Ziff-Davis Publishing Company is prohibited. PC Week and the PC Week logo are trademarks of Ziff-Davis Publishing Company. PC Week Online and the PC Week Online logo are trademarks of Ziff-Davis Publishing Company.

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