In a world of fancy apps and cloud computing, relational data managers are a little more down to earth but no less necessary a business tool.
In a world that is all about new apps and cloud computing, sometimes the important stuff doesn’t look new or cool. Sometimes key small business tools are just functional, they might have been around a long time and they might not look pretty, but that’s not their job – they just need to work. Take a relational database, for example. What it lacks in glamor it makes up for by being an important tool for storing and retrieving key data for your business. The problem is that good database software isn’t easy to find, and if you are moving from PC to a Mac, taking an old database with you can be fraught with problems. So whether you are taking an old database to a new operating system or building a new one from scratch, we’ve got some great solutions and workarounds for you.
In this round up I’ll look at applications that can handle relational data. This is one step more advanced than, say, the type of data you could enter into a table in a spreadsheet such as Excel. Relational data is more complex, and covers a situation where, for example, you keep a list of seminars you run and the participants for each. Instead of adding all the seminar details to each participant’s information (or vice versa), you’ll have a table of participants and a table of seminar details and you’ll link them together often using a third table. Creating a relational solution like this avoids unnecessary duplication of data and still makes it easy to query who participated in a particular seminar or which seminars a person has attended.
While OpenOffice and LibreOffice are different applications, they are so similar that they bear consideration as one application. The Base application is the database tool in each suite and it can handle simple tables of data all the way through to relational data. Both Base applications do, however, require a Java Runtime Environment to control options such as the Wizards (this is only required for Base and not the other applications in the suites). Getting the JRE up and running can be an issue for some users so be aware of this and test your setup before committing to either application. As open source software Base is, of course, free and can run on a range of operating systems so it is attractive for businesses with cross platform needs and it can connect to a range of existing databases including Access and dBase. The Base interface is clean, and if you’re familiar with creating databases in Access, the environment will be familiar to you, so you should be up and running quickly. You can find these applications at openoffice.org and libreoffice.org respectively.
For the PC, if you are using Microsoft Office then Access (microsoft.com) is a sensible solution. Access has been around so long that there are plenty of people who can use it and design applications using it. As part of the Office suite, if you already use Word or Excel, for example, then much of the Access interface will be familiar to you. Access can handle everything from a single table of data to a fully relational database and it has a built in programming language so you can create a custom interface for working with your data. Access comes as a standalone application and it is included in Office 365 Home, Personal, Business and Business Premium editions. As such it is software you need to pay for, and unlike Word, Excel and PowerPoint, there is no simpler free online version. If you have legacy databases from Access 2013 or earlier, these can be upgraded very easily and generally without issue. There are plenty of starter templates in Access that you can use to quick start a project and its Wizards make it easy to create forms, reports and queries for working with your data.
Microsoft Office for Mac. However, if you are using an application like Parallels that allows you to run Windows on a Mac, it is then possible to run Microsoft Access on a Mac. While this isn’t likely to be a solution you would consider if you were designing a database from scratch, it does offer a way to transition an existing Access database from a PC to a Mac. The relatively small cost of installing a tool to run Windows – and, by extension, Access – on a Mac may make sense when factored against the much higher cost of redesigning an existing Access database using different software. Of course, when costing this solution, you may need to include the cost of a Windows license and perhaps also Access. The advantage of this solution is that, provided your Access database worked on Windows on a PC, there is no reason to expect it won’t continue to work when installed on Windows running on the Mac.
FileMaker Pro (filemaker.com) is a professional relational database application from Apple that runs on Windows and Mac OS, allowing some cross platform use. FileMaker has been around since the 1980s and is still under active development. Its age and popularity mean that there is a good range of tutorials and other support information available to get you started, and if you need assistance to develop a custom solution, it isn’t difficult to find experts in the field. If you need online access to your database, FileMaker has hosted options that allow database access via a web browser, iPad or iPhone as well as Windows and Mac computers. There are plenty of starter solutions that you can use to quick start your database and it can import data from a range of other sources including Excel tables. Aesthetically, the FileMaker database interface is appealing and the reporting tools include good looking charts and dashboards. You can try FileMaker free for 30 days, and thereafter, you can purchase a license starting from $329.
Airtable (airtable.com) is an online relational database application well suited to small database needs and offering shared access via a web browser. Airtable has a free option for up to 1200 records and thereafter staged pricing plans for larger databases and multiple users. You can start a database from scratch by using a template or by importing data from a spreadsheet such as Excel or Google sheets. Templates are available for a wide range of business applications, from HR to marketing and project management. Templates come with relevant sample information already entered so you can see how the design will work and you can test it out without wasting a lot of time entering data. Overall the design is slick and there is plenty of help available to get you up and running, so it’s a great place to start even if you’ve never created a relational database before. If you’re ok with having your data only available online, then Airtable is worth considering, and if you fit within the 1200 record limit, the free version is pretty hard to beat.