You have a small custom-made database on your network that has
information about your clients, members, and programs. Your
staff needs to access this database on a regular basis. Unfortunately,
your computer systems are not standardized. Users on both Macs
and Windows PCs need to get at the information, and some staff
members need to connect to the database remotely. How can everyone
get access to the database without having to give up their personal
By John Blair
If you are considering purchasing
or building a new database, or expanding or converting an
existing database, it is important to consider how to make
your database -- and the mission critical information it contains
-- available to everyone in your organization.
Choose a Database Program Everyone Can Use
The program most commonly used for small database projects
Access. Its power and ease of use makes it an excellent
tool. There is, of course, a catch. MS Access will only run
on a PC with Windows. Filemaker
Pro, another popular and easy-to-use database program,
runs on both Windows and Macintosh platforms. It is relatively
inexpensive and can be quickly learned. While Filemaker may
be an excellent solution for a relatively simple database
such as a client tracking system, it may not be appropriate
for more complex needs such as donor management or inventory
control. For larger projects, server-based database engines
SQL Server, Sybase
can provide some flexibility. These back-end systems use industry-standard
communication methods, so there are many front-end interface
programs that can access those servers. You can develop an
interface for just about any platform, but you would need
to invest time and money.
Use the Web
An increasingly popular solution is to "Web-enable" your database.
A Web-enabled database provides the user with a secure means
of accessing data dynamically using her Web browser to input
information, search, or view reports. The user is free to
use any computing platform she wishes. This method is very
effective for remote users. Much less data must travel over
the network connection with a Web-based system than with other
methods, so someone accessing the database with a slow modem
will still get reasonable performance. This system is completely
centralized, so everyone can immediately see any changes to
the design or data. You can also design and configure a Web-based
system to provide limited access to your database by the public
over the Internet, if you so desire.
While this solution is ideal for the user -- the familiar
browser means a lower learning curve -- it requires more programming
and development work using several different systems such
as a Web server, browser, and "middleware." It can be difficult
to create new forms or reports, since there are few user configuration
capabilities. This system also generally requires a more robust,
thus expensive, server machine since all database processing
is performed on the server for all clients.
Some programs -- Oracle, Filemaker, Access -- have some built
in abilities to generate Web pages, but there are limitations.
Filemaker Web output is not very flexible, and would not be
the best solution for a more complex database. MS Access will
only interact dynamically if the user is running Microsoft's
Web browser on a Windows computer.
For the most flexible system, most programs require "middleware"
-- software that serves to "glue together" two existing programs.
In this case, middleware connects the database server to the
Web server, and provides a development environment for customizing
the Web interface. Some middleware applications that work
between most database and Web servers are ColdFusion,
and the open source Zope.
Creating a Web-enabled database system does require a great
deal of work. Not only is database design and development
involved, but Web site development as well. Most organizations
would need to hire an outside developer to perform the work,
which could be costly. Deciding to do it yourself may require
a smaller outlay of cash but will be expensive in terms of
time -- both the high learning-curve and the development time.
The Envelope Please
So, the solution to your
cross-platform blues is: It depends! Different options may
be appropriate depending on the complexity of your database
system, your budget, and the flexibility you require. I hope
the issues outlined in this report help you find the answer
for your own system.
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