Flash: Once it was a web design tool for building cool-looking stuff. Which made it perfect for a Web that was about building cool-looking stuff. But cool-looking stuff isn't enough anymore. Increasingly, when you visit a web site, you're looking at the front end of a large-scale application designed to display the exactly right product (or message), retrieved from some industrial-strength database. Even if you're playing a Flash game, chances are it's dependent on access to external data sets and sophisticated communication with back-end servers.
Just try learning how to do all that with your typical Flash book. Most treat the subject like the guy lost in Plato's famous cave: There's a dim awareness of shadows outside, but no sense of what the shadows mean or how to come into deeper contact with them.
Finally, there's a book that covers the power behind the Flash -- the complex back-end connections that have become so utterly crucial. It's Server-Side Flash: Scripts, Databases, and Dynamic Development, by William Sanders and Mark Winstanley.
The authors have their subject matter down cold. Sanders, who's been a developer for Apple, is the author of Flash ActionScript f/x, among 30 other books, many on web technology. Winstanley is president and COO of Multimeteor.com, a rich media developer with clients like Virgin, Sony, Warner Bros., and Fox. As co-ounder of L.A's FlashCore Interactive Flash user's group, he sees about as much advanced Flash work as anyone.
Server-Side Flash starts with a review of the absolute fundamentals of data transfer over the Internet between browsers and web servers -- and Flash 5's innovations in sending, receiving, and processing this data. You'll learn how Flash uses standard URL encoding to transmit multiple variables between servers and browsers, encoded as one chunk of continuous data. You'll also learn easy ways to load variables from external text files or server scripts -- great for updating your apps without the hassle of re-exporting entirely new SWF files. (You'll need to do a little fancy footwork to make sure the user gets the new info and not the old stuff stored in her browser cache, but you'll learn how to do that, too.)
Next, the authors introduce several simple CGI and Perl techniques for moving data around, culminating in example applications that check passwords, write and read text files, and send e-mail directly from Flash. In Chapter 3 -- yes, you've learned all this by Chapter 3 -- you'll walk through linking Flash with Active Server Pages and Microsoft Access databases. One of the nice things about this book: it goes wherever it needs to in order to make sure you have the information you need. If that means showing you exactly how to set up your Access 2000 file and Data Source Name, no problem.
Prefer open source tools? That's no problem, either: Server-Side Flash presents detailed coverage of using Flash 5 with PHP 4 and MySQL -- from using PHP tags to testing scripts, using Flash data with PHP calculations, passing array data between Flash and PHP, using PHP functions specifically designed for MySQL (such as mysql_connect and mysql_query); and more.
Next, Server-Side Flash moves on to XML, the new lingua franca of B2B communication. You'll review the basics of structuring data with XML, reading XML data in Flash, and writing ActionScript that searches for XML data. After a full chapter on giving your Flash movies printing capabilities, it's on to Generator, Macromedia's tool for automating the delivery of on-the-fly web content.
In the second half of the book, Sanders and Winstanley move from "global" lessons to specific, application-focused techniques -- first for gaming, and then for e-commerce. They introduce dynamic game development techniques such as For/In statements, hit tests, and constraining movement with obstacles.
The book concludes with a 50-page e-business case study: planning, front-end site design, back-end database scripting, administrative controls, and more. If you're ready to take your Flash skills out of the sandbox and into the enterprise, Server-Side Flash is the book you'll want by your side. (Bill Camarda)
Bill Camarda is a consultant, writer, and web/multimedia content developer with nearly 20 years' experience in helping technology companies deploy and market advanced software, computing, and networking products and services. His 15 books include Special Edition Using Word 2000 and Upgrading & Fixing Networks For Dummies®, Second Edition.