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Simple Site Building with Webmatrix

Microsoft WebMatrix is intended to serve the website creation, customisation and publication needs of designers and amateurs, and not as a substitute for Visual Studio or other professional development tools. As a professional developer, I can see why it might appeal to its target audience, but I can't stand to use it myself for more than 15 minutes at a time.
Rick Grehan's preview of WebMatrix in November covered most of the product features well, so I won't repeat his descriptions and analysis. Since then, a few features and gallery items have been added, which I'll discuss as I go along. I've included a handful of screen images at the end of the article.
Rick picked on the weakness of the editor and the lack of a debugger, and until I worked with the product myself, I didn't understand how kind he was in the way he phrased his objections. After spending time with WebMatrix, I know otherwise.

By choosing the WordPress framework, for example, WebMatrix will install and configure a fully working WordPress site running locally. The intention is that you’d put your site together on your PC and then upload it to a compatible host using Microsoft’s Web Deploy technology, but I haven’t yet had time to find out if that works in practice. Of more use, perhaps, is the sheer simplicity of being able to create multiple WordPress sites for developing themes and plugins, or testing new code before deploying by hand to your live site. None of this was impossible before using other tools, but WebMatrix makes it more convenient.
Choosing WordPress or Drupal for the first time will cause WebMatrix to download the underlying PHP and MySQL technologies as well as the chosen framework. This caused a major problem for me because WebMatrix couldn’t get the MySQL download to successfully complete. The workaround was to download it from within a browser  – choose mysql-5.1.53-win32.msi.
The end result is a fully working WordPress installation with the underlying files and database accessible from the WebMatrix control panel – yes, you can even edit a MySQL database this way.
Deployment is more problematic. The FTP method built into WebMatrix doesn’t upload the database, so the only answer would be to manually create a WordPress installation on your server with identical details. Microsoft’s Web Deploy function looks fiddly and typically idiosyncratic – hosting providers need to change their systems in order to work with it. This may prove to be the Achilles heel of WebMatrix.
Overall, a promising technology. I can see a potential use as a testbed for plugin and theme development in WordPress, Drupal and other frameworks. It remains to be seen whether the final step in integrating with web hosts proves to be a problem, but it could well be a good way for newcomers to .NET technologies for the web to get started with the minimum of fuss and no financial outlay. Let’s just hope Microsoft don’t drop it again.
Webmatrix Start Page

WebMatrix misses

When I first saw the WebMatrix demo, I was very impressed with the smooth way it calculated dependencies and constructed the application stack, database, interpreters and connectors, needed to run a public domain web application on Windows. It looked like the Windows answer to the auto-installer packages you get for free on hosted Linux websites.
When I tried it myself, I was bitterly disappointed. Sure, the dependencies were calculated, and the primary package came down quickly. However, the download stalled, and I was never able to do a successful installation from the Gallery, even after multiple tries on multiple days.
I had better luck with the templates, but there are only a few of them, and they don't do much. The Bakery demo does show off Razor markup, but frankly I'm not impressed. Yes, Razor requires less markup and simpler code than ASP, PHP or ASP.Net, but those technologies make a much clearer distinction between server code and client markup than Razor when you are looking at the source of a page.
The new SEO scanner can look at any site, not just your own and point out where the rules in its database have been broken and how to fix the problem. Many of the checks are useful, but mostly at a low level, such as "The page contains broken hyperlinks." Other checks seem to be misguided, based on my own experience doing search optimisation. For example, search engines tend to give higher scores to pages with organic body content and no keyword metadata, but the SEO scanner expects to see keyword metadata.
Import Sites from Web Gallery easily

WebMatrix hits

I like the WebDeploy feature a lot, although it's only supported by some Windows hosts and no Linux hosts. Instead of just uploading your files, WebDeploy can synchronise both your files and your data. If your hosting provider supports it, you don't even have to fill in the parameters on the publication configuration form yourself, brilliant.
The SQL Server Compact Edition database has SQL semantics but is entirely file-based. That makes it perfect for low-overhead development scenarios. WebMatrix's ability to upsize from this to scalable SQL databases makes it fit into the typical web development lifecycle. Of course, the free open source SQLite3 has many of the same characteristics, but Microsoft has always had a streak of NIH syndrome.
The product also includes an editor for the database. It isn't much, but it does the job for the schema, data and indexes, and it keeps the novice from having to learn SQL Server Management Studio or phpMyAdmin.
  • Lightweight desktop SQL database
  • Website deployment that synchronises databases and files
  • Simplified Razor syntax and single page model for server-side code
  • A small assortment of helpers to add common functionality easily
  • SEO site scanner and checker
  • Web application stack constructor depends on download servers being available
  • Oversimplified site editor, but easy link to Visual Studio
  • SEO checker not particularly useful
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