Microsoft WebMatrix Lowers Barriers to Web Development on Windows

The Web tool eases development chores for Windows-based sites, and despite some minor issues, does a good job making popular open-source Web projects more broadly accessible.

Microsoft's WebMatrix is a freely available development tool that lowers the barriers to creating Websites atop the company's Windows operating system and IIS Web server tandem, both in terms of locating and installing needed components, and coding data-driven Websites.

Predictably enough, WebMatrix fills out the Windows and Internet Information Services stack with Microsoft's SQL Server database and .Net application-development components, but the tool makes it fairly easy to swap out these latter layers for open-source MySQL database and PHP scripting language.

In fact, one of the most impressive aspects of WebMatrix turns on its support of these and other open-source projects, which the product exposes in the form of a Web Gallery feature that offers one of the simplest paths I've seen to minting new Websites based on popular open-source projects such as Wordpress or Drupal.

With that said, I did experience a handful of snags during my tests with WebMatrix and MySQL, although nothing that a couple of workarounds couldn't address. Somewhat trickier is the product's affinity for SQL Server Compact Edition, which offers a smooth transition up to full-sized SQL Server, but suffers from a surprising lack of migration tools or of integration with the rest of Microsoft's application family.

I can recommend WebMatrix without hesitation to Windows users interested in exploring the wealth of open-source Web-application projects available and in getting started with Microsoft-centric Web development. I would love to see WebMatrix offer a broader set of deployment options; the tool benefits significantly from its embrace of PHP and MySQL, and would further benefit from support for additional open source-components such as Mono, Linux and Apache.

Browsing the Gallery

After downloading WebMatrix (from, installing the application on my Window 7 64-bit test virtual machine, I turned first to the tool's Web Gallery feature, which listed 41 different open-source Web-application projects powered by some combination of .Net, PHP, MySQL and SQL Server. I opted to install Wordpress 3.0, and after giving my Wordpress site-to-be a name, WebMatrix set about downloading the necessary dependencies-Wordpress, PHP, MySQL and a .Net MySQL connector.

It was here that I hit my first snag. The transfer rate I experienced while downloading the MySQL elements was extremely slow, so I canceled and restarted the process in the hope that WebMatrix would switch to a faster mirror. Although I restarted the process several times, WebMatrix always chose the same, slow mirror. I'd like to see WebMatrix include some capability for spreading downloads across the available mirrors. I downloaded and installed the two MySQL components manually, and let WebMatrix pull down the remaining dependencies.

With that initial dependency hiccup behind me, my Wordpress installation proceeded without issue. WebMatrix had downloaded a slightly old version of Wordpress, 3.0.3, rather than the current 3.0.4 version. However, I was able to upgrade to the latest release through the Wordpress admin console just as I would with any other installation of the blogging software.

WebMatrix offers a basic, usable interface for editing the files that comprise a Website, complete with code highlighting. It was easy, for instance, to sort out the PHP bits from the HTML elements in my Wordpress files. I made changes to the files-removing, for instance, the site title from the header of the default Wordpress theme-saved my edits and saw the changes live on the IIS instance running on my test machine.

I installed a handful of other projects from the gallery, with similar results-WebMatrix made the download and configuration processes very easy, and having set up MySQL on my test machine once, I didn't have to do it again. I initially was blocked from installing the open-source CRM project SugarCRM from the gallery due to a mismatched file signature, but when I tried again a few days later, that issue had been resolved.

Roll Your Own

In addition to its Web Gallery feature, WebMatrix offers options for building sites from scratch, based either on a series of packaged templates or on blank projects. I was particularly interested in trying out Razor, a syntax and methodology for mixing C# code in with HTML in pages to be served by IIS. I chose a fairly simple test case-writing out a bulleted list of eWEEK Labs stories from a database I use to track our work.

As it turned out, the coding portion of this couldn't have been much simpler: I pointed to my chosen database and query in the page I was writing, and mixed in with my bullet-list HTML a bit of C# code to iterate through the query results and print them out in a list.

Much tougher was the task of getting my data source straightened out. The WebMatrix UI makes it very easy to create a new SQL Server Compact Edition database, but offers no tools for populating a SQL CE database with existing data. It makes sense to offer a single-file database option with WebMatrix, but SQLite, for which an ODBC driver is available, would serve this function better than SQL CE does.

I turned instead to the MySQL instance I'd already installed on my test machine, which was easy to populate with data, and easy to connect to my WebMatrix site. I used the Database portion of the WebMatrix interface to query the data source and get my SQL statement squared away. When it came to testing out my page, however, I could not get the simple code I'd written to work. It turns out that the problem was another snag in WebMatrix's MySQL dependency handling. I had to manually upgrade from the 6.2.3 version of the MySQL .Net connector that the product specifies to the newer, 6.3.6 version of the connector.

Reports and Tools

For both the "roll-your-own" and Web Gallery project types, WebMatrix offers a handful of useful tools, including a feature that scans for and highlights potential search-engine-optimization issues in your project code. From this report, I was able to click through to the specific files in question and make the suggested tweaks.

WebMatrix also offers a handy view into the contents of the Web page requests that travel back and forth from browser to server, which can be very helpful when debugging page issues.