Alternatives to MS Access?
May 19, 2009 1:14 PM   Subscribe

MS Access Alternatives? I have a user that needs to keep data in a relational database, but I'd like to advise her against Access because of it's various limitations. She has no programming knowledge. Any suggestions?

There's not much money for this, so cheap/free is better. They need to track medical records for a population of animals in a sanctuary. The existing data goes back ten years and is a few MB in size already even dumped to flat file.

The problem is that she's entirely Mac-based at home, and they have multiple people that would need to have access to it at once (which last time I checked was a problem for MS Access), and she'd like to be able to work on it at home sometimes. The school is entirely Windows/Microsoft based. I've suggested FileMaker Pro, but I'm not very familiar with it.

Any suggestions? We'd like to stay away from online-only vendors like Zoho and whatnot that may go poof with the data in the middle of the night.
posted by SpecialK to Computers & Internet (13 answers total) 6 users marked this as a favorite
I've faced this question several times before and I'm curious to see what other people say. I don't believe that there really is a good alternative to Access that is both easy to set up and use and scales well beyond a few MB and a few users. This may be an inherent problem with databases.

What about setting up either OpenOffice Base/MS Access/FileMaker Pro as a front end to access a MySQL/PostgreSQL database via OBDC? That may give you a nice easy to develop front-end with a more robust backend. You can put your MySQL/PostgreSQL database on an Internet accessible server and access it from work or home.

I would love to hear if there is a standard way of doing this type of thing short of rolling your own web app. Zoho is tantalizing but I share your fear of super proprietary SaaS solutions.
posted by ChrisHartley at 1:35 PM on May 19, 2009

I have no real world experience with Dabble DB is a web app/database that you design through a web interface.
posted by toddje at 1:44 PM on May 19, 2009

FileMaker Pro.
posted by The Michael The at 1:55 PM on May 19, 2009

I am a big free software booster. Honest.

However, here we have:
- no programming knowledge
- a small userbase
- a totally MS shop
- a small dataset

so that sounds like a slam dunk for Access to me, to be honest. There's nothing wrong with FileMaker Pro if you feel Access has cooties though.

I have no experience with OO Base, so maybe you could try hacking something up to see whether it will work.

Caveat: if by "no programming knowledge" you mean "I'm going to do it for her", then I would choose whatever YOU like best.
posted by i_am_joe's_spleen at 3:17 PM on May 19, 2009 [1 favorite]

Zoho DB write up on Techcrunch sounds pretty solid: Techcrunch Review

blist is similar and appears to have a slicker UI: Techcrunch Review
posted by hummercash at 3:28 PM on May 19, 2009

Response by poster: What I really want is something like Zoho, Dabble, and Blist -- but available for download to be hosted locally.
posted by SpecialK at 5:24 PM on May 19, 2009

1) MS Access doesn't work for the Mac

2) MS Access 2007 can handle multiple users fairly well, as long as it is not more than 15-20.

3) Nonetheless I'd caution against Access or any relational database unless it is designed, implemented, and maintained by someone who knows how to use them. My experience is that most people who don't understand databases have no interest in learning how to maintain them or modify them.

4) Of course, a flat file is not an ideal solution either.
posted by dfriedman at 5:51 PM on May 19, 2009

If I were in your position, I'd be trying Base before anything else.
posted by flabdablet at 7:16 PM on May 19, 2009

Tracking medical records is a common activity for shelters and sanctuaries - there's got to be some inexpensive apps out there that already do what she needs. Take a look at some of these:

Animal Shelter Manager (open source, web based)
Smart Pet Health

There are others, google animal rescue software.
posted by txvtchick at 7:45 PM on May 19, 2009

It would help to know what kinds of queries need to be run on the data. Here's what I'm thinking: A few megabytes is frankly not a lot of data anymore. In a current school project, I search and manipulate 8-10 megabyte datasets many, many times every afternoon, and I've seen some pretty complicated things go down in under two seconds. Flat text files: I loop over them in bash, do the easy stuff in grep and the hard stuff in Perl (I ought to learn awk to cover the middle ground), and review the results with diff and less. Result: My five-year-old iBook eats 10-megabyte datasets like potato chips.

Granted, my exact technique is probably not suitable for "no programming knowledge." But a simple textual interface (remember how your library catalog worked until 1996 or so?) shouldn't be too hard to build either, and if you do it in Perl and pay a little attention to end-of-line characters it will be cross-platform. And if ten years' data only takes up a few megabytes, processor speeds are going to grow faster than your runtime is, so the approach stays viable for a decade at least. If the sorts of queries to be run are sufficiently limited, or if there will be a maintenance geek on hand to code up and patch in new ones on request, this could be a very viable option.
posted by eritain at 7:53 PM on May 19, 2009 [1 favorite]

Is terminal services / VNC / GotoMyPC / etc an option? She could install an RDP client on the mac for simple remote access. No need for a terminal services / server setup unless you're going to need multiple users remoting in.

I wrote an Access DB with a "Data Access Pages" front end years ago and it was easily accessed by ~10 people at once. True (granular) "Access!" Control and HIPAA compliance don't really come with the package, though. And back that thing up constantly! Every writeable user can destroy the entire DB on purpose or by accident.

Nowadays I use SQL Server and write .NET or Office VBA apps. Definitely avoid re-inventing the wheel unless absolutely necessary. You can use MSAccess as a front end to the free MS SQL Server Express Edition but this is a decidedly technical option.
posted by aydeejones at 8:17 PM on May 19, 2009

Sounds more like a job for a CMS on a webserver.
posted by KimG at 4:09 PM on May 23, 2009

Filemaker Pro.
posted by Lukenlogs at 12:36 AM on June 1, 2009

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