How to choose business database software

By Anthony Caruana

How do you choose off-the-shelf business database software, and when is it worth creating your own system?

There are times in a business when an off-the-shelf program or cloud service doesn't quite meet your business needs. You may have some specific data to store and you want to see it in a particular way. That's when choosing a database solution so you can create your own system is worth considering.

Most of us are familiar with word processing, spreadsheets and presentation software, but database applications aren't used in the same way. In the old days, the applications were complex to use and required some knowledge of programming. While that's still true for people developing systems, there are several options out there for businesses with simpler needs.

So how do you choose between the options?

Do you even need a database?

For many people, when they say they need a database what they really mean is they need an easy way to capture a large list of items and to extract specific information from that list. For those sorts of uses, a spreadsheet could do the job nicely.

Recently, we needed to create an asset register of all the computers, tablets and other devices in a school. Although there are many commercial programs for capturing this data, we didn't have the time to set up such a program and most were too complex for our needs. Instead, we created a simple spreadsheet in Microsoft Excel with columns for each of the pieces of information we wanted to capture (make, model, purchase data, location, user, etc.).

This approach was helpful as it gave us lots of flexibility - if we needed to capture a new piece of information (for example, we decided to capture the projected replacement date for the equipment) all we needed to do was add another column. For analysis and extracting data from the master list, Excel's in-built filtering tools and Pivot Tables made that easy.

But you really need a database?

If a spreadsheet isn't going to work for you then you may need to look at a database application.

If you're new to creating and using a database, don't worry too much. Although these tools started as being complicated and hard to use, most come with several preconfigured databases that are ready to use but can be modified relatively easily.

The main contenders when it comes to choosing a database application for the office are Microsoft Access and FileMaker Pro. Both are mature products that have been on the market for close to 20 years and are designed to make it easy to get started with databases as well as develop complex systems.

Microsoft Access is only available to Windows users while FileMaker Pro comes in both Windows and Mac versions. FileMaker Pro 12 retails for $299. There are also server versions so you can create shared databases and there are free iPad and iPhone versions so you can access and update your data on those devices. Microsoft Access is included in some versions of Microsoft Office so you may already have it depending on what version of Office you purchased with your computers.

Sharing data

If you need to share the data you store in your database, you might want to consider something like MySQL and have it hosted outside your own servers or computers. Many website hosts offer MySQL as a free service.

MySQL is an open-source database so it won't cost you anything, although you will need to engage someone with the expertise to create your database and an application that can access the data it holds. This is a more complex solution but it does offer you much greater flexibility.

How to choose the right database solution?

There are a few simple questions you need to ask yourself to help choose the best database solution for your business:

  1. Do I need a database or will a list in a spreadsheet suffice?

  2. If I need a database, can I tinker with one of the templates in a commercial system (in which case, Access or FileMaker are worth considering)?

  3. How many people need to access the data?

  4. Will the data only need to be accessed inside your network or remotely as well?

  5. What budget do you have if you need to get an external expert?

Armed with this information, you can make an informed choice about the best database system for your business.


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