I work as a software developer in a department that supplies the rest of the company with software solutions. In my spare time, of which there is much, I usually look for and evaluate pieces of software that might make my life, and the life of my fellow web-monkeys easier. So it was that I came upon ColdFusion. Now produced by Macromedia, but previously by Allaire, it provides an alternative to the more widely recognised Active Server Pages and a more polished alternative to php. Comprising of two parts – Server and Studio – it allows the user to develop web sites that allow for some pretty powerful functionality with one of the most intuitive and comprehensive language and interfaces I’ve seen. This is done by the use of ColdFusion Tags. As HTML pages contain such tags like the break and paragraph that tell the browser to display the appropriate formatting, the ColdFusion Tags on the web page tell the ColdFusion server to perform some operation (eg produce a graph or run a database) and return the result to the web page on the users computer. NOTE: For non-computing people who may be interested it works like this: an analogy would be placing an order with a waiter at a restaurant, that order (the HTML page) going off to the chef (i.e the Server) who does all the hard work and the completed meal being returned to the customer! The customer doesn’t need to know the ingredients, recipe or the cooking process, nor does the chef need to know who ordered the meal and why. Therefore, the web server does the complex processing stuff at the other end of the connection and only the simple HTML is returned to the user. ColdFusion Server is not only used to process the CF tags, but to administer the site; providing the database connections and security setting that may be needed. When compared to other web servers that I’ve encountered (notably Apache) CF server is a revelation. It’s intuitive, powerful and does exactly what it says on the tin. Read the tutorial provided and you’ll be away very quickly indeed, far faster than you would if you weren’t a web guru and using Apache. ColdFusion Studio is where the programming occurs. Like FrontPage or Dreamweaver it allows the user to design and assemble the various HTML pages that form the structure and window dressing of the site, and also to insert the server-side language that provides the server with the instructions – like database queries and validation. Speaking as someone who has used ASP as a programming language (and the Microsoft equivalent of CF – InterDev) I now much prefer CF. ASP is very thorough and capable and indeed has the might of Microsoft behind it, but it does suffer from not exactly being intuitive. The process of establishing a (working) ODBC connection, creating a recordset and then applying the information to the objects on a web page when done in ASP is shown to be very laborious when compared to the similar operation done in CF. The same also applies to the actual design of the web pages. Any one who’s used Microsoft FrontPage to design their sites is losing out big style. Now that Macromedia has bought Allaire, sites designed using the FrontPage competitor DreamWeaver will be importable (and vice versa) into CF Studio. DreamWeaver walks all over FrontPage and I urge to all to shift over to it. I’ll admit that CF attempts to place a fuzzy layer between the user and the actual ‘guts’ of a working web site, which may not appeal to the experienced developer who’ll want to tweak a site towards optimum. However if, like me you’d rather have a working site that’ll be up and running with the minimum of fuss, this will be a small drawback. Another minor issue may be hosting – sites that’ll support the hosting of pages created in CF aren’t as prevalent as ASP on e’s, but there are enough to make it worth considering. The other point in CF’s favour is the wealth of support that’s out there. Not only can both products be downloaded for free from the Macromedia site, but rather than simply timing out, CF Server will simply lock itself to only work on one computer, allowing development and evaluation to continue. The documentation and tutorials available for download and within the application itself are all excellent and very readable. Also, there are a number of sites out there offering user’s forums to post questions and developmental problems to other users. I’ve solved several issues this way, and have nothing but praise for these sites (the www.alllaire.com site and the third party www.fusebox.org n particular). Do yourself a favour – when you next design a site, consider CF. I don’t think you’ll regret it.