Desktop databases have been around for about as long as there have been desktops. That would be since the 1980s for those of you who missed that decade. They are a favorite of Mom and Pop shops and smaller businesses in general for their low costs, ease of use, and easy integration with web pages.
In part one of this series, Database Types and Features, we covered the myriad of DBMS types out there. These include desktop, sever, web-enabled, and cloud DBaaS. Moreover, many database management software (DBMS) products are offered in free open source editions as well. After reviewing some of the more critical evaluation considerations throughout parts one and two, the time has come to present some real choices in each of the categories mentioned above. As you evaluate them, keep in mind that the products and services listed here represent one man’s opinion and scarcely scratch the surface of what’s out there, so feel free to do your own reconnaissance as well.
The big players in the Desktop databases category that we’ll be reviewing today are Microsoft Access, FileMaker Pro and Alpha Five.
Latest version: Access 2010
Price: $229.00 USD
Trial Version: Yes
MS-Access is the undisputed heavy weight champion of the desktop database world. But that doesn’t necessarily translate to the best tool. Rather, its ubiquity can likely be attributed to Microsoft’s ability to make it so abundantly available. One way that they made it easy to purchase was to bundle it with Microsoft Office. It may be purchased as a stand-alone product as well.
Perhaps the greatest strength of Access is its thorough integration with the other Office suite products. In fact, it’s pretty near impossible to beat for office automation tasks such as inserting database data into a Word document or distributing it via email.
Unlike many database products that are made up of both the storage engine and front-end interface, Access has the fairly rare distinction of being an all-in-one database. One of the more innovative uses is as front-end for other ODBC-compliant server databases. The Table Manager allows you to link to tables in other database and work with them as if they resided in Access. Very useful!
Being such a well known tool, there is no shortage of support available. One of the best features of Microsoft products in general is the oodles of documentation, from the MSDN libraries to independent forums and blogs. Any issue or stumbling block that you encounter has almost certainly been previously documented by someone. It’s so popular that you probably already know people who use or have used Access at some point. Other sources of information include online tutorials and printed books (remember those!?).
Outstanding Reporting Features
The reporting facilities in Access are unquestionably top notch. I have even seen companies that used Access to generate reports from their expensive database servers! They’re that good. Furthermore, Access comes with superlative a report designer, which explains how the reports come out looking so slick!
Quasi Standards-compliant SQL
Microsoft has a long-standing history of doing things their own way. This is certainly not necessarily a bad thing, but it bears spending a bit of thought on regarding potential repercussions to you. Access uses its own brand of SQL, some of it compliant with transact SQL and some of it less so. This is not so much an issue in Access itself due to its excellent Query designer tool, but there may come a day where your business grows beyond the capabilities of a desktop RDMBS and you’ll have to migrate your SQL code into a new database server. The more compliant your SQL statements are, the easier that part of the migration will be.
The makers of Access chose to implement an entirely different security model than any other database on the market. The results are a security model that is both confusing and cumbersome to use. I’m not even going to try to explain it to you here. You’d be better off perusing one of the numerous books dedicated entirely to Access Security!
There have been some persistent rumblings from customers that Microsoft is looking to discontinue Access in the near future. So far no official announcement has been made.
Latest version: 11
Price: $299.00 USD
Trial Version: Yes
FileMaker Pro is arguably the most sophisticated of all the desktop databases. A subsidiary of Apple, the company has been around for a decade. Hence, it originally gained popularity among Macintosh users, but it's rapidly being adopted by the PC crowd as well.
Graphical Design Tools
Most of the tools in FileMaker are graphical, with full drag and drop functionality. If you are familiar with general database concepts, you will be comfortable with FileMaker in no time.
Sophistication at a Reasonable Price
Not only are FileMaker Pro’s tool incredibly easy to use, but they can be utilized to set up extremely complex multi-table and multi-source views and queries. Like Access, FileMaker Pro can also manipulate data from external sources.
As with Access, security is a little lacking. Mind you, it’s about par for the course in the desktop database category. If you need a more robust security model, you’ll have to shell out more money for the Server version.
Latest version: 10
Price: $349.00 USD
Trial Version: Yes
Alpha Five is a descendant of a DOS database that could be compared to Paradox. Today, Alpha Five is geared more toward the creation of Web applications than on standalone databases, but don’t let that deter you. Version 10 allows users to create Ajax-based Web apps, with only minimal programming experience.
Web Application Development
Alpha Five’s Web app development facilities not only provide a way for non programmers to create Ajax Web apps, it can actually make it fun! There are many tools for customizing your applications and numerous components such as drop-down boxes, text fields, and more. Applications don’t require any special tools and are all accessible via a browser.
There are plenty of help resources both within the software and on Alpha Software's website, including an active user community.
Some Knowledge Required
Although it's designed for those with modest coding skills, that doesn't mean using it's a walk in the park for the average person. Getting the most out of Alpha Five benefits from a working knowledge of databases, fields, forms, and tables. Without that, it takes some time and patience to master.
Alpha Five’s run time licensing model may impact the cost of your solution if you need to deploy to many users.
Today we looked at three excellent desktop DBMS choices, suitable for small to medium sized businesses. If those are too “Mickey Mouse” for your tastes, stay tuned; we’ll be moving on to the larger Server DBMSes next time.
See all articles by Rob Gravelle