SQLServerCentral Article

Building SQL Server Central


Backstage - Discussions

This series is a look at the way we've built things at SQL Server Central.com. Not that I necessarily think that we do things the best way, but we've made choices and decisions based on what we thought at various times and I decided to provide some information to everyone out there.

It's an opportunity to see how things are built by real people out in the field and learn a bit about that we think at various times.

It's also a good chance for those with more experience to critique our choices for everyone to see (and maybe teach us a thing or two).

This first article looks at the forum software, something that more than a few people have commented on. I've seen good and bad comments, complaints and criticisms, and just plain missing features. We've added some and delayed others, and here's the story.

We built this site kind of a spur of the moment thing. We had some hosting space, decided to try and build a community and got going. Money was tight at first and we had limited server access, so we looked at a few forums and decided on Snitz. For better or worse, we thought that this was a good choice. It ran on ASP and SQL Server, which were our platforms of choice (what else would we use?). And it was free; an overriding concern early on.

We also felt that most forum software was very similar and the glitz of avatars, skins, etc., wasn't a huge concern. We did want to be able to make this fit our vision of the site, but because it was early on and our vision was limited, we weren't overly concerned about this.

One main feature that we wanted was a login. More on this in another article, but that was important. So we installed the software, started adding ourselves as members, testing the registration, posting, etc. and went from there. Basically we made the site available and started accepting posts.

Of course we realized very quickly that this needed work. One of the first things was to assign each of us some forums to moderate based on our strengths with SQL Server. And we needed to add some forums. So we built some of those and continue to do so based on your suggestions. Over the past few years we've added main forums for Announcements, Service Packs, and the ever-growing-in-popularity, Anything that is NOT about SQL!

. I've personally enjoyed that one quite a bit as it really brings us together as a community.


This Snitz forums use cookies and their own set of SQL tables that store all of the data about the members, their posts, topics, etc. We mostly left this intact, but added on to it. Our authors are stored in a separate table and linked to their member entry. We also built a system that creates a forum for each author as we add them as well as a subtopic for each article.

This got a little tricky as we were trying to get everything connected from the article and author to the forum software. It seems to work well, but as many of you have pointed out, we have a few bugs here and there. Apologies for that and we try to work on them when we can.

The login system is used as well because that is how we determine if you are an author and if you can see how many times your articles have been read, their rating, most popular, etc. There are various checks we've added to reference your Snitz profile.

We've also had to modify the layout slightly to allow for advertising. I know it can be annoying to people, but this site grew much quicker than any of us expected. And hosting got quite expensive quite quickly. So we were really searching for ways to do advertising without being to annoying. The forums provided one of those means since they were heavily accessed. The ad software we picked was cheap at the time and like with most software integrations, occasionally introduced bugs. These are usually weird display things that happen in the forums from time to time.

One other thing we've avoided is that we don't include the previous post in your answer by default. Or any of the previous items. You can quote them (I discourage this), but I've found that this often takes away from the "conversational nature" of the posts. More on this later.

The Community

The community, however, depends on all of you. Those of you who visit the site provide feedback, answer questions, and make it an enjoyable and valuable place for everyone. Since this was the case, we've gone back and forth on the email discussions. In case you're not aware, there are two types. One of these is the forums sending you an email (if you ask) whenever someone posts to your topic or replies to your post. This was great early on since you could post, go about your business and get notified when there was a response.

Most people like this (if they aren't a moderator getting dozens a day) because it's convenient. Personally I'm not thrilled with it in its present form because people don't have to come back to the site. Why do I want that? One is for advertisers; we do have to pay the bills. Two, however, is that it brings you back to the community where you might see something else interesting or help someone else.

I know people are busy, and I'm not against notifications, I just wish that the notification was just that, a notification and didn't contain the text of the post. Curious to see what people think of this.

The second email discussion was a pure list based one, similar to BugTraq. I hate this. We debated on this and since there was interest, we set it up. But I dislike it and think it really fractures the community. I find when I'm busy, the BugTraq discussions gets launched out of my inbox very quickly. Same for the SQL Server Central items. I'd personally like to see this go away. I know if I also have concerns about the privacy issues with each person's email on the list, but I guess if you subscribe then you know what you're getting into. Again, curious about if there's still a call for this.

The community also has some standards that have evolved by themselves. People don't like being flamed and we don't tolerate personal attacks. Except against ourselves on occasion. You won't see them because if I do or they are brought to my attention, I usually delete or at least censor them. Inappropriate language is also not tolerated and I'm quick to censor profanity. Not that it offends me, but it might bother someone else and this isn't the forum for it.

The Future

The future is ASP.NET. Or at least that's what Microsoft is pushing and since we tend to follow their lead, that's where we're heading. We've been debating about which method to use, but we recently purchased a VB.NET/ASP.NET forum software and are currently customizing with all the enhancements we need for the site. Lots of feedback and suggestions are being considered, but we're just 3 guys and this is a part time thing for us, so don't expect the latest in amazing WWW design. But I do hope you like it and we'd love to have any feedback that you have once the new site goes live. Especially the bugs :).

I hope you found this a little interesting, gaining some insight into what went into the current state of the site. We feel the discussion areas are a foundation of the site and hope you do as well. I'll tackle some of the other choices we've made once I get some more time and if anyone finds this article interesting.

Steve Jones

©dkRanch.net May 2003

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