Roisin Woolnough meets the architect of a site that puts essential travel information within clicking distance
When Excite UK and the Rough Guides joined forces to provide travel information online, the hardest challenge for Stephen Barrett, production engineer on the project, was to create a user-friendly experience.
A wealth of information was necessary for the service, but it all had to be instantly accessible to users. Barrett feels this was achieved. "Although a lot of work goes on in the background - the feeds, the search daemon, the HTML generation - the user is simply presented with an easy to use and easy to navigate page of information," he says.
The Excite travel channel disseminates the usual Rough Guides information, such as where to go and what to eat and visit in more than 14,000 destinations worldwide.
The data is sent from Rough Guides to Excite in XML, a language that Barrett says is ideal for his purposes. "Like the other well-known markup language HTML, XML uses tags to format data. However, unlike HTML, XML has very few predefined tags, instead allowing you to define your own tags. The power of XML is that it allows data to be associated with context and meaning, making it much easier to store and transmit information, rather than just data."
To prevent users from having to wade through reams of information, Excite runs back-end processes known as feeds. These feed the information to Web servers. "These feeds are written primarily in Perl, an interpreted scripting language that is very easy to use, is very extensible and has powerful text processing methods," says Barrett.
Most of the work on the feeds had already been carried out by the US service, which made Barrett's task easier. He says another important function of the feeds is indexing files and building the search index. This index is used by one of Excite's search daemons to enable users to search for cities by name.
The site runs on powerful Unix servers, with the feeds running on a separate server. The daemon also runs on a separate server, to avoid overloading the Web servers. The Web server is Netscape Enterprise, running with customised plug-ins, software modules that it uses to interpret the templates and data to generate the final HTML. A proprietary language was used to present the pages.
Name: Stephen Barrett
Job title: production engineer
Qualifications: BSc in computer science from the University of Strathclyde
Hobbies: badminton, swimming, reading
Favourite pub: The Counting House, Glasgow
Favourite film: Leon
Favourite book: The Cryptonomicon by Neal Stephenson
Barrett on Barrett: serious, surreal, simple
E is for excellence
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