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ColdFusion: Article

Helping Yourself

Helping Yourself

In my work as an Allaire-certified instructor, students often ask questions, and while the courses address most of them, they sometimes have some really interesting ones that I know have been asked and answered before.

Often they'll be the frequently asked ones, but occasionally they have some really specific needs that may not be that common.

In such cases I try not to just answer the question but also point them to resources where they can find such answers themselves in the future.

In this month's Journeyman column I'd like to carry on that notion of "teaching a person to fish" by identifying various available resources - Web sites, e-mail services, print materials and so on where you can learn more about working with ColdFusion.

My special focus will be on resources where you can get questions answered. This may mean a searchable resource, or it may mean a place you can ask questions and engage in discussions with others in the CF community.

I won't just list them, though. I'll also discuss some common problems (and "beefs") that some folks have with them - and offer some solutions to help make the most effective use of such resources.

As I'll always intend in these columns, I think even experienced CF developers will find something useful. Since no coverage can ever be exhaustive, I welcome all feedback at [email protected]

The Supportive CF Community
Right from the get-go the CF community has been a strongly self-supporting one. Not only have the Allaire Forums (http://forums.allaire.com) been at the root of much of early Allaire CF support, they have also boosted the very growth of CF as a widely used platform. (For anyone not familiar with the forums, I'll explain them shortly.)

Like so many net-centric entities, Allaire's early and active involvement in this free "support" forum was part of what made people both willing and open to taking in this new platform. As most folks were at pretty much the same level of expertise, the forums' interactive question-and-answer style was perfect not only for answering specific questions but also for spreading knowledge about topics for those simply following the threads for information's sake.

Like so many resources of this kind, the forums have perhaps become victims of their own success. There are now so many discussion threads that searching the forums can take quite a long time. And that's only if the search doesn't "time out" in the first place - again, something I'll discuss later.

As the overall knowledge of the community grows, another problem is that the forums bring questions from new users at a never-ending rate. The loyal following of folks who used to contribute to the forums have now either moved on (perhaps they're self-sufficient) or have created alternative forms of finding questions and answers (such as the CF-Talk list, also discussed later).

Sadly, even these spin-off resources eventually meet a similar fate. The CF-Talk list generates on average 150 messages per day, making it nearly impossible to digest on a daily basis - for anyone but the most avid reader.

Don't Give Up Hope!
All this may lead some to conclude that such resources are simply no longer useful. But that would be a sad conclusion since both the forums and the CF-Talk list still provide tremendous value (as their continued use suggests). Even if you've given up on them as a daily source of info, I'm going to show how you can still make use of them on a need-to-know basis. In other words, I'll show you how you can search rather than simply browse them.

Yes, there are searchable archives for both these resources!

There are also ample alternative sites and resources that have stepped in to fill the void or to create new subareas of support. I'll list some of the more interesting new resources out there and point out other non-Web resources that may be useful alternatives.

I'll conclude by offering a step-by-step list of places to search for answers in a pinch.

Resources for Help
Let's look at the five main types of resources:

  • Web resources (including forums, e-zines, informational sites, metasites and online tutorials)
  • E-mail resources (including list servers, newsletters and tip lists)
  • Print resources (books and magazines)
  • Training (computer-based and instructor-led)
  • Online help

    Web Resources
    Web-based resources include sites of all sorts. Some provide a place for interactive discussion. Others offer online magazines, provide detailed technical information, serve as lists of other sites or offer online tutorials. What follows are some of the more popular and useful of those sites.

    Among the Web-based forums, where questions are asked and answered by many people, are:

  • http://forums.allaire.com (Allaire Developer Forums)
  • www.cfadvisor.com, www.defusion.com

    These are useful resources when you have a question, as there may be people available to answer your question. You can also search for information gleaned from questions already asked by others. (We'll discuss searching these resources later.) The next category of Web-based resources is online magazines (e-zines). There are a few in the CF world, including:

  • www.cfadvisor.com, www.defusion.com,
  • www.sys-con.com/coldfusion/, www.cfmasters.com

    These resources offer regularly scheduled content that changes weekly, monthly or sometimes even daily. You'd do well to read them regularly for their informative article-style content.

    Still other Web sites offer general- interest CF information. These sites include those mentioned above but also:

  • www.allaire.com (DevCenter, Knowledge Base, etc.)
  • www.houseoffusion.com, www.fusionauthority.com, www.teamallaire.com
  • www.cfdev.com, www.cfscripts.com, www.cfmcentral.com, www.cfspot.com
  • www.cfprogrammers.com
  • www.forta.com/cf/ (Ben Forta's site)

    These sites have frequently updated (if not regularly scheduled) content.

    Some sites are devoted to subareas of CF interest, including:

  • www.hshelp.com,www.hsguide.com (for help with the HomeSite editor)
  • www.fusebox.org, www.wddx.org

    Sites devoted to providing a constantly updated list of the kinds of sites mentioned above - metasites - are useful directories for monitoring the ever-changing world of online CF resources. They include:

  • www.houseoffusion.com (see their "bookmarks" section)
  • www.cfmasters.com (their entire left navigation bar is a list of such links)
  • www.ihs.gov/misc/links_gateway/sub_categories.cfm?Sub_Cat_ID=050102 (Indian Health Service site - worth a visit!)
  • www.forta.com/cf/links/ (Ben Forta's list of links)
  • www.webring.org (ColdFusion Web Ring)

    Along the same lines, there's also a "metasearch" site devoted to ColdFusion. Andy Edmonds, of Fig Leaf Software's Atlanta office, put together a resource that indexes several of the sites we've mentioned here. Check out:

  • http://psyberspace.net/coldfusion/search/ You can enter a word or phrase and the site will return a list of sites that mention it.

    The final set of Web-based resources includes online tutorials. There are at least three:

  • http://alive.allaire.com/ (Allaire Alive)
  • www.figital.com (Spectra tutorials)
  • www.cftutorials.com

    Spotlight: The Allaire Developer Forums
    The Allaire Developer Forums (http://forums.allaire.com) are a primary resource for asking and seeking answers to questions. The forums are a ColdFusion-built tool that provides a means for threaded conversations. You (or others) ask the questions, and enthusiastic fellow-developers - and occasionally Allaire staff - provide the answers (or debates).

    One aspect of the forums is often misunderstood: they are a repository of much more than the couple of days' worth of material shown at the site's address. That front page is just a list of the most currently edited discussions (with two days' worth being the default). It is not the sole listing of messages - far more than just two days' worth of material is available for researching.

    You may notice that some recent threads include discussions from quite a while ago, perhaps weeks, months or even years. This is because what gets listed are those threads that have had conversations in the last two days.

    If you ask a question and it's not answered, the question doesn't "disappear." It merely scrolls off that front page. Anyone can still find the question by searching the topic. Allaire staff and Team Allaire members also have a mechanism to list still unanswered questions.

    One great feature of the forums is that once you post (or reply to) a question, you will (by default) be flagged to receive by e-mail any other messages posted to that particular thread of conversation.

    Note too that the forums are indeed searchable. At the top of the screen you'll see a small "search" button. This allows you to search all the archives - three years' worth! - a treasure trove of questions answered. (Check the date of any answer you find, as old messages may sometimes be obviated or made obsolete by later changes in the CF product.)

    Sometimes you'll find that your search "times out." This could be because the server is busy, so try again later. Or maybe your search is too broad. Consider refining it to limit which forum you intend to search (there are several to choose from), or to limit the number of days back you wish to search (the maximum you can limit is 90 days, but often the most relevant messages are the most recent ones).

    Finally, you should be aware that there's a "login" feature for the forums. If you use that option, the system will remember your name and e-mail address so that when you create or reply to messages, you needn't identify yourself. A cookie will remember your previously entered contact information. Also, once you log in, you can then edit any messages you created while logged in.

    E-Mail Resources
    Moving from Web-based resources, which rely on your remembering to visit them if you intend to enjoy their benefits, there are also several e-mail resources. The benefit of these is that they are brought to you on a regular basis, in the form of mailing lists, newsletters or daily tip lists.

    The mailing lists, or list servers, include several arranged by Michael Dinowitz at the houseoffusion.com site. Mailing lists are a resource by which folks participating in the list send e-mail messages to each other via a central server, which forwards the messages to all participants in the list. The lists include the very popular - and busy - CF-Talk list (more on this later), as well as Spectra-talk, wddx-talk, jrun-talk, cf-linux-talk and a fusebox-talk list. Directions for finding and joining these can be found at www.houseoffusion.com, under the "mailing lists" link on the left.

    The e-mail newsletters include Allaire's developer newsletter (sign-up information at the Allaire Developer site), Hal Helms's newsletter (available at www.teamallaire.com/hal/index.cfm?fuseaction=newsletter) and a newsletter available at www.cfdev.com.

    Yet another e-mail resource is the TipWorld daily CF tips, which can be requested at www.tipworld.com (along with daily tips available for sign-up on all sorts of topics).

    Spotlight: CF-Talk Mailing List
    The CF-Talk list, king of e-mail-based resources, is a list server that generates some 150 messages per day on average. If you're considering signing up for the list, bear this in mind. The quality of the discussion is worth the effort, however; it's a great place not only to ask and get answers to your questions, but also to simply "lurk" - reading the messages for their occasional gems of information (especially from frequent contributors like Dave Watts, Michael Dinowitz, Cameron Childress, Raymond Camden and others).

    While the volume may perhaps be overwhelming, there's good news on a couple of fronts. When signing up, you can request that you receive just one e-mail a day in the form of a "digest" of the day's messages. It's a little hard replying to any one message when using the digest format, but for "lurkers," it's a great way to read the day's "news" easily.

    Even better for managing the volume of information is the Web-based resource at egroups.com that serves as an archive to the CF-Talk list. Listed as a hyperlink from the CF-Talk area of the houseoffusion.com site, it can serve as a place to read the day's messages at your own pace (allowing you to skip days and not flood your mailbox when you simply can't keep up) and, more important, to search against the list archive.

    Unfortunately, it seems that the search (and archive) only keeps a month or two of information from the list. Someone has promised to create a full archive of all 65,000+ messages. It'll be no easy feat, but let's keep our fingers crossed! Being able to search resources like the Allaire Forums and the CF-Talk lists provides the best of both worlds in finding answers that include rich debate and considered replies from many people.

    Print Resources
    For all the power and "coolness" of online resources such as Web sites and e-mail resources, sometimes it's easiest or more effective to learn from print resources, such as books and magazines. And the CF community has several such resources available.

    As for print magazines, the best (and only one, currently) is the one you're reading. ColdFusion Developer's Journal (CFDJ) is published by SYS-CON Publications - the same folks who bring you Java Developer's Journal, PowerBuilder Developer's Journal, and others. CFDJ is well regarded for the depth and quality of its articles, and its broad range of popular and creative authors. Learn more at www.coldfusionjournal.com, or perhaps from the technical magazine section of your neighborhood bookstore.

    As for books, the most popular has been and continues to be The ColdFusion Web Application Construction Kit, from Que, now in its third edition (1998). Edited by Allaire product evangelist Ben Forta, and written by him and several other authors, the book is considered by many the "bible" for CF development. It covers all the important topics useful to new CF developers, but also database design, SQL and lots more.

    For more experienced developers, the same group of people came out with Advanced ColdFusion 4 Application Development (1998). This book takes on several intermediate and advanced topics, and focuses especially on topics introduced by new features in CF 4.0.

    Both books are widely considered to be must-have resources for every CF developer.

    A more recent book, with similar breadth and depth, is Mastering ColdFusion 4 (1999), from Sybex, by longtime Forum contributor Kristin Aileen Motlagh and Arman Danesh. A 4.5 update version of this book is due in April.

    Another recent book is ColdFusion 4 for Dummies (published in February) by Alexis Gutzman and John Paul Ashenfelter, which is clearly less ambitious - and much lighter! - than the other two, but suitable for its intended audience.

    Two other books worth mentioning, though not specifically on CF, are Teach Yourself HomeSite in 24 Hours (which covers the HomeSite editor and will be of value to Studio users as well) and Teach Yourself SQL in 10 Minutes. Both books are by Ben Forta, and the latter is an especially well-done book that describes the simplest and most important SQL needed for typical CF developers. Though not CF-specific, it takes an approach to describing SQL that is well suited to CF development.

    Training Resources
    Useful as all the resources discussed to this point may be, for some people there's no substitute for instructor-led training. This realm harbors quite a few choices. Allaire publishes a computer-based training CD, Skill Building with ColdFusion, that covers the most basic topics of CF development. It provides a multimedia approach - with instructor videos, interactive walkthroughs and more.

    For live, instructor-led training, Allaire has a series of several topics that are taught regularly (often a few times per month) in major cities throughout the country (and world). See the Allaire site, under Services, for a complete training schedule and descriptions

    Online Help
    For all the usefulness of the aforementioned resources, they lack the immediacy of a resource that you can turn to in an instant while at your computer. Fortunately, Allaire offers online help for both ColdFusion Server and Studio. And the help for both is available if you have either product installed.

    In Studio, help is available by choosing Help>Contents (or choosing the "Help" tab in the resource toolbar). This shows the available online references (which include CFML as well as HTML references, and lots more). You can also get immediate access to help on any tag (CF or HTML) or function by pressing F1 with the cursor on the intended tag or function (as of release 4.01 of Studio).

    If you have ColdFusion Server on your workstation, you can access the help using Start>Programs>ColdFusionServer>ColdFusion Documentation. If you don't have the server on your workstation, but have it available on another server in your network, you may be able to access the help via http:///cfdocs/dochome.htm. (Actually, if the server is one that can be reached publicly on the Internet, it may be best not to be able to access the help this way. An Allaire Security warning recommends that the help not be made available on publicly accessible servers.)

    You can also download the online help from Allaire's site at their Developer section's "documentation" link.

    Allaire's online help feature, both in Studio and Server, is a complete and faithful HTML rendering of the printed manuals that come with the product. Both versions offer a search feature that provides rapid searching for any topic in all the included manuals.

    So...Where to Search?
    You now know about a number of resources where you may find answers to your questions - or at least be able to learn more about a given topic. Which one would you turn to in a pinch? I'd recommend the following list to find the most specific to the most general answer:

  • The Allaire online help/docs
  • The Allaire Knowledge Base
  • The Web-based CF-Talk Archive
  • Andy Edmond's CF "metasearch" engine
  • The Allaire Developer Forums

    I mention the forums last only because the resource they constitute is so large that it can sometimes take a long time to search, and your search may even timeout before completion. Alternatively, you may get a set of results so large as to be overwhelming. I do think it's a valuable resource, but you may find the answer more quickly using one or more of the previously listed resources. And don't forget to look in the index of the CF books you may own!

    The bottom line is to remember that you aren't alone. Any question you may have has almost always been asked and answered by others. The challenge is trying to find that answer. To that end I've described a wide variety of resources, each with different challenges and benefits. I hope you'll check them out - and may they prove useful to you!

  • More Stories By Charlie Arehart

    A veteran ColdFusion developer since 1997, Charlie Arehart is a long-time contributor to the community and a recognized Adobe Community Expert. He's a certified Advanced CF Developer and Instructor for CF 4/5/6/7 and served as tech editor of CFDJ until 2003. Now an independent contractor (carehart.org) living in Alpharetta, GA, Charlie provides high-level troubleshooting/tuning assistance and training/mentoring for CF teams. He helps run the Online ColdFusion Meetup (coldfusionmeetup.com, an online CF user group), is a contributor to the CF8 WACK books by Ben Forta, and is frequently invited to speak at developer conferences and user groups worldwide.

    Comments (4) View Comments

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    Most Recent Comments
    Sandra 04/07/03 04:47:00 PM EDT

    I'm new to CF. I have to build a CF site by 4/15. I'm looking at someone else's code. Please tell me what all this stuff means:

    *

    *

    What's a fusedoc?

    Thanks!

    David Armstrong 02/05/03 08:50:00 AM EST

    What are the advantages of using coldfusion as opposed to other development languages like java? What are it's difficulties?

    Any advice gratefully received.

    D

    Charles Arehart 02/23/02 09:38:00 PM EST

    Sorry Mandy, but this article feedback section isn't really an appropriate place to request such help. Indeed, see the many resources offered in this article for that. :-) Also, since it was written the CFDJ's very own CF Forums have become more popular. Check out http://www.sys-con.com/fusetalk/categories.cfm?catid=6

    Minnie 02/10/02 03:39:00 PM EST

    Hi there, I am a VERY new user to cold fusion. I am trying to develop a questionnaire. I have radio buttons - but I need them to be reset if the user clicks one, in a section, by mistake. I therefore need a button that will uncheck. How do I get a button and how do I reset???? Can you point me in the right direction???
    Thanks,
    Mandy

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