Let Your Browser Do the Walking

Directory assistance on the desktop

If you work, you use the phone. And if you use the phone, chances are you've called directory assistance a time or two. Now think about all your coworkers: sales and marketing people, accounting people, human resources, and the list goes on. All these departments are likely to call directory assistance a lot.

I decided to see how much we call directory assistance where I work. I asked our MIS chief, David Geiger, how much we spend in directory assistance each month.

"A lot," he said.

"A thousand a month?" I countered.

"Nah, maybe three, four hundred."

We spend between $3600 and $4800 a year on directory assistance. I knew I was on to something big. Initially I thought I could find a database with most US phone numbers, stuff them in my database, and then access them from an intranet. Quickly I found that government agencies and telephone companies offer different databases, but nothing comprehensive--not to mention affordable.

CD-ROM Phone Books
A little research on the Net led me to Phone-Disc, from Digital Directory Assistance (DDA), and two promising products: PhoneDisc PowerFinder and PhoneDisc PowerFinder US. It has six CD-ROMS, each covering a region of the US. If the number you want is in California, you look in the West region disk, for example. The next product, PowerFinder USA One, is what I was looking for. It comes on six CD-ROMS, like PowerFinder, but DDA designed these CDs for simultaneous access by the PowerFinder client, which has native NT clients for Intel, Alpha, and PowerPC (sorry, MIPS). You can load these clients on your workstations and access the entire USA One database, about 112 million records simultaneously.

I shared the six CD-ROMs from various networked machines. I connected to each machine and made the networked CD ROM drives local to my machine. Voilà! The client saw them. Unfortunately, I had to do some setup on the client side, and I still hadn't achieved my goal of providing the database over the intranet so I could use my Web browser.

On the Intranet
A quick call to Jeremy Cook at DDA gave me the answer I was looking for. I visited DDA's Web page at www.phonedisc.com/tech/ soft.htm and downloaded pdhttp.exe and pdhttp.wri, which is a write document that explains how to set up and run the pdhttp.exe program, an intranet server for the PhoneDisc PowerFinder USA One database. DDA recommends that you purchase a hard drive capable of handling the database, about 3.8GB, all at once. However, you can share the database's six CDs from networked CD-ROMS and provide the completely qualified path to the software for each CD.

I purchased a 4GB SCSI hard drive. These drives are generally available for under $1000, or less if you go IDE.

I copied each CD-ROM to the hard disk. Six CDs and about 3.8GB later, I was ready to try the server. After I installed the pdhttp.exe server and told it what port I wanted it to listen on and where the database resided, I was ready to access the database with my browser.

The Search
Screen 1 shows how the default search screen looks when you access the server. I selected a familiar name, Duke Communications, and did a search. Screen 2 is the result screen, complete with company name, address, phone number, and SIC code. I didn't specify an exact match, so I also got some close matches.

If this program only did searches, it would be worthwhile, but it does even more. Knowing that no two people search alike, DDA gives you the mechanism to create search pages. Screen 3 is a form I created by following the instructions in the pdhttp.wri document (with a little beautification from our Web master, T.J. Harty).

Listing 1 is the source code for the new search form. The call to the PhoneDisc intranet server is in the line <FORM METHOD="POST" ACTION="/cgi-bin/pdlookup">. PhoneDisc collects the information and passes it to the lookup program through these special PhoneDisc variables:

sstr The string used for the search

looktype The type of search to do:

Name, Address, Phone, SIC

numreturn The number of matches from the search

matchtype 1=Exact, 0=Closest

hn.lim House Number

sr.lim Street

ci.lim City

st.lim State

zi.lim Zip

ac.lim Area Code

busres databases to search BUS, RES, BOTH

Win-Win Situation
Setting up a directory assistance alternative on your intranet is a win-win situation in many ways. You can save your company money, and the search capabilities PhoneDisc offers are far superior to those of ordinary directory assistance--try asking directory assistance for that printer on Cleveland Street. So with a small investment ($800 for a 4GB IDE drive and $259 for PhoneDisc with one user at a time), you can set up this system quickly.

On One Disk
PowerFinder USA One is available on Digital Voice Data (DVD)-ROM. This format makes the entire USA One database available on one disk. Tune in to DDA's Web site for more information.

Digital Directory Assistance * 301-657-8548 or 800-284-8353
Web: www.dda-inc.com
Price: PowerFinder: $129 (average retail price); PowerFinder USA One; One concurrent user: $259; Two concurrent users: $449; Five concurrent users: $799
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