Sunday, March 29, 2009

Credit where credit's due

Many IT professionals have an unfortunate tendency to look down their noses at MS Access databases, and to treat the product and the applications running on it as being beneath their notice. This is a shortsighted and unhelpful point of view, however, as rightly or wrongly many, many businesses are using Access to help them get work done.

As IT experts, that should always be our primary focus, too - how do we help people get work done? - so it's pointless to merely dismiss Access as being beneath our interest.

I'd go even further: Access is a valuable and worthy addition to your toolkit, provided you make the most of its strengths and are aware of its limitations. A tractor will not do 120 km/h on the motorway, but that doesn't mean it's a bad tractor.

Access is still pretty well unequalled as a truly rapid RAD environment. If you need to prototype something quickly to illustrate to a customer how a feature might work, Access is the way to go. Reporting (as long as you're focussed on paper-based traditional reports and documents) are supremely easy and flexible, and form building couldn't be simpler. Time-consuming standard tasks like record navigation, search and filtering are built-in, and VBA allows for complex control-of-flow and object manipulation behind the scenes.

As a pure data store, Access is at it's weakest in my opinion, but by linking an Access front-end to a SQL Server/SQL Server Express database, rich and powerful functionality connects to secure, fast and reliable data stores and you get the best of both worlds. Intensive calculations and operations can be carried out on the backend while the user enjoys the rich user interface features of the Access front-end.

Since the run-time engine has become available, there's not even the limitation that the customer needs MS Office Professional installed to use your application. Package your application with a copy of the Access runtime and they're good to go at no additional cost to them or you. What's easier and cheaper than free?

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