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Accessing Data

Writer(s): 
Paul Daniels

Here's a number language buffs might enjoy. In 2002 alone, humans saved five trillion megabytes of data, roughly the same as all words ever spoken by human beings. See siliconvalley.com for more on this. As our generation is drowning in data, the ability to organize and provide information to those who need it is becoming a tricky task.

In this month's column, I'd like to share a database solution that can be used by educators to collect, organize, and distribute content over the Internet. You will also find links to several database solutions useful in educational settings as well as an explanation of how to set up your own online database server on a Windows computer.

Traditionally, databases have been the backbone of large companies who need to manage vast amounts of data. Today, databases are becoming widely utilized by average desktop users like us who need to organize and share information with students, teachers, or administrators over networked computers. Databases can enable us to swap lessons with colleagues, distribute grades to students, teach courses, update course calendars, or hold discussions all online. Text, video, or sound files can be presented, searched, shared, downloaded, or edited over the Internet more efficiently with the help of a database.

If you have ever used a spreadsheet, you probably have some concept of the inner workings of a database. A database, in its simplest form, consists of a table filled with cells organized into rows and columns. Text, html, word-processing files, or even video and sound can be stored in each cell. Two common database packages that many of you are probably familiar with are Filemaker Pro www.filemaker.com and Microsoft Access microsoft.com. Filemaker Pro runs on the new Macintosh OS X Panther as well as on Windows while Access runs solely on Windows. They are great for desktop database tasks and are simple to use, but are not designed to serve a large number of users over the Internet.

A better server solution for sharing data online is a database application called MySQL http://mysql.com. It is both powerful and adaptable, and runs on Macintosh, Windows, Unix, or Linux. Best of all, it's free. MySQL works together with a scripting language called PHP php.net. PHP works a bit like a messenger, sending and retrieving data between a webpage and the database. Many of the interactive portions of the JALT website, such as the Event Calendar and the online conference schedule, rely on MySQL and PHP to serve information to readers, as does the JALT Publications website.

Below are several open source applications written in PHP that use MySQL as a database to share information to users over the Internet. You can find thousands more at hotscripts.com. Most of the scripts at this site have very detailed installation directions.

When setting up an online database, you can choose either to install MySQL on your own server or use a web hosting company that supports MySQL databases, such as www.ipowerweb.com, which runs US $7.95/month. Other hosting companies that support MySQL can be reviewed at www.webhostingratings.com. If you decide to install MySQL on your own server, you can download it directly from MySQL.com but I recommend installing a package called Appserv www.appservnetwork.com that will install and configure Apache web server, the PHP scripting language and the MySQL application on a Windows computer, all of which are needed to share content over the Internet. For Mac users, you may want to read www.entropy.ch/software/macosx/mySQL/. Linux users can find MySQL and PHP on the OS installation disk.

By far the easiest method I have found to get everything up and running smoothly is to use Appserv. Install it by double clicking on the downloaded .exe file. The installation program will require you to enter your computer's hostname and a username and password for your database. If you don't know your computer's domain name, enter localhost. You can enter anything you like for the username and password, just don't forget it. Once Appserv is finished installing, you can access the MySQL server from any computer through a web browser. Using the same computer that Appserv was installed on, open the web browser and type in: <http://localhost/phpMyAdmin/>. If you see: Welcome to phpMyAdmin, you suceeded with the installation. From this page, create a new database called scores and click on the create button. Your database has been created.

If you've made it this far, then you are well on your way to creating interactive content for your website. You may want to run through an online tutorial at: hotwired.lycos.com/webmonkey/programming/php/tutorials/tutorial4.html. Skip ahead to page 4 of the tutorial if you had success in installing MySQL. Another great site for MySQL and PHP tutorials is: www.devshed.com. A superb repertoire of PHP scripts, many of which require MySQL, are available at www.hotscripts.com/PHP/. If you are still interested, check back for my next column where I will show you how to connect Hot Potatoes with your MySQL database called scores in order to log students' online quiz scores.

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