Leverage ASP.NET in your Next Knowledge Base System
By Anand Narayanaswamy
Development of a perfect knowledge base system is crucial for the success of any business that provides services for the community particularly in the area of customer support. But, as the process is very tedious, it can take several months for the development of a perfect knowledge base system. This is where the importance of products developed by popular vendors comes into play. Although there are several free knowledge base applications available on the Web (in both ASP and ASP.NET), each one of them lacks important features and often contain banner advertisements. I was recently on the lookout for a knowledge base application for my hosting business (for customer support); I ended up with InstantKB.NET. The product is not free, but I must say that the application is worth the amount I invested.
InstantKB.NET (http://www.instantasp.co.uk/products/instantkb/) is very easy to install and deploy on the server. It is an ASP.NET-based application with tons of cool features. After payment authorization is completed the vendor will create a MyInstantKB.NET account for you (http://my.instantasp.co.uk/Default.aspx?ReturnURL=/MyProfile.aspx). You can download the product from the secured location. You can also request additional licenses and create support tickets from your secured area. The download file is available in two formats, MSI and ZIP. You ll need to place the extracted ZIP file inside the wwwroot folder. The product ships with the required database scripts. You should execute the two important script files before attempting to access the knowledge base system. The first SQL script will create the required tables and stored procedures. The second creates default content for your knowledge base. You won t be able to log in to the admin area if you don t run this script. Although I encountered this problem, it was promptly resolved by the vendor.
Once you set up the database, the rest of the work is very easy. You can run the application by using the URL http://localhost/InstantKB13/. You should give the real URL if you are testing it on the Web. Moreover, you should also create databases either by using Query Analyzer or by using the Web-based tool provided by your hosting provider. The vendor responded to all my support queries immediately.
Initially, the knowledge base will contain the default content from the database. You can then log in as an admin and modify the settings according to your preferences. You can easily create roles, categories, and articles from the admin area. You can also modify your password and e-mail addresses. It is indeed very easy to work with this product once you understood the basics behind how it works. Before the creation of an article, you should create the required categories and assign an ID for each one. An interesting feature of InstantKB.NET is that you can assign icons to the category nodes. There are several icons available inside your admin area, and you can make use of any one of them according to your requirement.
From my point of view, the vendor should add more icons for various business purposes. There should be a feature, available inside the admin area, to upload your own images for the category nodes. I hope the vendor will consider this while developing the next version of the product. The product comes with a read-me file and also the required documentation regarding the classes. You can access a comprehensive step-by-step Getting Started tutorial from the MyInstantKB.NET area. After you create all the categories, the next step is to add articles into the system. You must assign a category for each article and it will appear under that category head on the left side. An interesting point to note regarding InstantKB.NET is that it comes with a rich text box editor with cool features. You can also add attachments such as source codes in ZIP format after saving the article. You can modify any data at any time by logging into your admin area.
InstantKB.NET comes with powerful search functionality. Some of the other notable features include the provision for adding unlimited articles, Role-based security, Ask a Question, and much more. Another notable feature of the product is that you can add links to articles. These can be either external links or links within the knowledge base. The application can be easily customized depending upon your requirements. You can modify headers and footers by adding your own content and images. These are made up of .NET user control files (.ascx) that you need to modify only once. Any modifications to these files will be reflected across the whole system. I noticed that the article content gets erased after I add a related article link. I hope the vendor will look into this matter and issue a hot fix to resolve the problem.
Let s now see how to work with this product. You must first log in to the admin area to add categories. You must use the default username and password initially, but you can modify the credentials from the admin control panel. Your initial screen after logging in will look like Figure 1.
Figure 1: Your initial view after logging in.
Select the Add New Category link to add a new category; provide the required information. You should provide a sort order for your category; this determines the placement of the category. You should also assign the appropriate role for the category. You can supply an icon for the category by checking the relevant check box. The Manage Categories link will enable you to modify an existing category. After you have added a new category for your knowledge base, the next step is to add an article; click the Create New Article link (you ll see a screen as shown in Figure 2).
Figure 2: Create a new article.
The application ships with a cool and robust text editor for formatting articles. I found that adding images will take some time as the system performs additional tasks, such as uploading, etc. You should also assign a type for the article from the list of choices provided. The vendor should provide a facility to add our own type, but the built-in types are sufficient for general use. An important point to note is that you should assign an appropriate category for the article. Your article will appear inside that category. You can also provide relevant external links and assign the desired skill level. If you decide to publish the article straight away you must change the Article Status option to Publish To Web. There is also a facility to add the name and e-mail address of the author who suggested the article. I left this option blank as I am the author of all the articles.
The Manage Articles link will let you edit the published articles. An interesting fact is that you can search for a specific article and then step forward to edit the article. This will surely help a site where there are hundreds of published articles.
Let s examine the product from the perspective of end users. Two sections, titled Most Popular Articles and Latest Additions, are shown in Figure 3.
Figure 3: Most Popular Articles and Latest Additions.
Select a category node to view a list of articles under that particular category. Users can rate an article, as well as add comments for each published article. One of the important points to note is that users can ask questions of the administrator. However, this feature will be available only if the administrator has enabled it on the system.
The product comes with different types of licenses, such as user, developer, single-domain, and unlimited domain (visit http://www.instantasp.co.uk/Products/InstantKB/Order.aspx for more detailed information regarding pricing).
I didn t experience any difficulties working with the product. I also deployed the product to the Web server and the whole process went smoothly. I did, however, face some critical issues during the beginning stages but I got all the required clarifications from the vendor without any delay. However, I found that the loading of the site is initially a little slow. Once it loads completely the rest of the link will work fast. I suggest the vendor look into this area more carefully when releasing the next edition of the product.
For my money, InstantKB.NET is one of the best applications for setting up a complete knowledge base system. The product is packed with rich features and leverages the full potential of Microsoft s .NET Framework.
Microsoft MVP Anand Narayanaswamy works as an independent consultant and runs NetAns Technologies (http://www.netans.com), which provides affordable Web hosting services. Anand also runs LearnXpress.com (http://www.learnXpress.com), Dotnetalbum.com (http://www.dotnetalbum.com), and http://Csharpfaq.com, and regularly contributes articles and product and book reviews to various Web sites. He can be reached at mailto:[email protected]
Price: End User License, US$119; Developer License, US$299