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DotNetNuke Websites: Problem - Design - Solution. A review.

The days are getting shorter and the temperature is dropping (we already had our first snow). So what better than to snuggle up next to the fireplace with a good book? The success of DotNetNuke has also resulted in a steady stream of books about this platform. One of the latest is "DotNetNuke Websites: Problem - Design - Solution" by Tracy Wittenkeller. I've known Tracy for several years now and I hold his DotNetNuke skills in high regard. Those of you not familiar with him: he's the principal of T-Worx and one of the top ‘skinners’ in the DotNetNuke ecosystem. So I was eager to get my hands on his book and find out what he had to offer us in DNN insights.

DNN Websites Book


For the record: DNN is now way beyond the point where a single person would be able to know ‘everything about it’. I’m still amazed, in conversations with someone like Shaun Walker, that there are people that really have a good overview and in depth knowledge, but to know it all? No. Impossible. There are now people that make a living out of specific areas of DNN. I am a developer focused 100% on module development. But there are many more disciplines. I distinguish 3 main areas of expertise: (extension) development, skinning, and administration. The book focuses on skinning and administration. So for me this is not a “o … yawn … knew that already” book.

The target audience for the book, though, is not developers per se, but more ‘beginning integrators’ I’d say. Integrators are people that build sites using DNN and (acquired) extensions for a third party. These are people that have a very concrete task at hand. How do I fulfill all my customers’ needs using DNN as base platform?

One thing I’ve discovered in my interactions with integrators is that DNN is a developer oriented platform. It is truly a wonderful toolkit to build web applications. But this has thrown off some potential integrators as they were confronted by a lot of tech talk in the forums and a not so great looking standard DNN Blue skin. And skinning is not trivial. That is, yes, it is quite easy to make a skin, but it is hard to make a good skin. It requires not only a good understanding of HTML, CSS and browsers. It also requires you to understand DNN. In my attempts to teach skinning to designers, I have found that this is often a bridge too far for them. So I was very pleased to see the book approaching site building from the other side. What if you’re someone who knows already how to make a site using something like Dreamweaver, for instance, but you want to get into the powerful world of DNN? I have heard, or sensed, all too often the skepticism. “Surely you can’t build this with DNN, can you?” Now there is a book that will help you convince others that, yes, this can be built with DNN. That DNN is not a toolset for techies, but that it can make a good looking professional website. And that that is not too hard to achieve either. The one thing I find most useful in this respect that is used in this book is having a single leading example. All chapters come back to the goal of creating a site for MBR Design Corp. It really helps focus on this challenge of using DNN as it should be, without getting lost in details.

The concept of ‘problem – design – solution’ is not hard to grasp. In ‘problem’ the MBR example is used to illustrate a need regarding the subject of the chapter. ‘Design’ then lists what we’re going to try to do, and ‘solution’ walks you through this. This approach does not always translate well to every chapter, IMO, but that is nitpicking. The book looks at the following in turn:

  1. Installing DNN
  2. What is a skin?
  3. Making a skin
  4. Rolling out a skin
  5. DNN Page management
  6. DNN Module management
  7. CSS tweaking to get the bits and pieces looking the way you want
  8. DNN User/Role management

From my own counting about 60% of the book is dedicated to DNN administration and 40% is about how to make the site look good. It does that using the standard available (core) modules. I realize this is a necessary choice (you’d get into a minefield promoting the various third party modules probably) but it is unfortunate for integrators that there is no book that reflects real world practice in this respect. Very few sites are built using only DNN core modules (none that I know of, in any case). And this is not a shame. It is a strength of the project that you have such a vast array of available extensions, for free or paid. In defense of the core modules it has to be said that these are coming of age in the new ‘projects model’ of DNN (but this is a biased opinion of course).

Back to the book. Several other things deserve mention here. The first is that it is filled with screenshots. IMO you can’t have too many screenshots. It really leaves no more room for error when you’re using this book in your first DNN project. Second, we also get some Photoshop tips and tricks. Again, this avoids leaving ‘blanks’ in the path from problem to solution. Finally, it goes deep where others might not. For instance, do you know how to tweak the default editor in DNN so that it shows the correct list of styles used on the site? I certainly didn’t. I’ve always wondered why the editor didn’t show me my styles, but never had the time or energy to find out why. This book is showing us how to make a site the way we want it. I’d advise this to anyone who has a hard time getting their DNN site to look the way they (or their customer) want and to all those that are still in Web 1.0 development wondering how to leap across the moat to our side.


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