Friday, March 20, 2009

The price is right

You don’t get to be a world-dominating software juggernaut like Microsoft by just giving stuff away for free, so it’s little wonder that most of their most popular products are relatively expensive. Good value for money in most cases, but not cheap.

It’s fair to say, though, that there’s an astonishing amount of top-notch full-functioning software from Microsoft that’s available absolutely free. Microsoft themselves don’t always make a big song-and-dance about the fact, which is perfectly understandable – they’d rather you paid for full or professional versions of their products, but there are a number of tools and applications I’d like to draw your attention to. They’re all free, with no onerous licence restrictions and completely redistributable.

  • My absolute favourite is SQL Server Express. This is nothing less than a very-slightly-limited version of MS SQL Server Standard edition, as used by businesses the world over. It’s 100% compatible with all the paid editions and supports databases (in the SQL 2008 iteration) of up to 4GB in size. It comes with a management interface application and makes it possible to do almost everything (as a developer) that you can do in the Standard edition. If your database or the performance demands upon it grow to such an extent that the (paid) Standard edition does become necessary, then upgrading the database is as painless as restoring a backup. It’s a winner.

  • Second on the list is Visual Web Developer. This is a full-featured development environment for designing ASP.NET web sites and applications, and offers an identical experience to the (paid and relatively expensive) Visual Studio, as far as web development is concerned. It’s powerful and supports technologies like AJAX and full CSS. And it’s completely free.

  • The last hidden gem I’d like to mention is the Access 2007 Access Runtime. This is a real boon to those of us who still have to ship Access applications. You want to work in Access 2007 yourself, but your customers may not yet have upgraded from their old Access version, or they may not have Access installed at all. The Runtime engine is the answer; you install it license-free on your client’s workstation PCs and they can start your Access 2007 solution without any other Office or Access installation needing to be present. As a side benefit, because they can’t change the application or create new databases with it, your app is partially protected by default (though you’d be crazy to rely solely on the fact).

    Another nice extra is the fact that you get a professional packager for your solutions, so you can provide your client with a proper SETUP.EXE with your own text, logos, etc and make his or her setup experience trouble-free. See, I’m giving away all my secrets here.

A lot of people think Microsoft-based solutions are automatically expensive, but a little research and investigation will bring you a long way without spending any money at all, and tools and platforms like these are always my default choice when I’m beginning new projects.

A penny saved is a penny earned, right?

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