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Collaborating on Databases : Exploring Web-Based Databases

8/10/2011 6:47:18 PM
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Understanding Database Management

Before we start looking at web-based database management applications, it helps to know a little about how databases themselves work. Although it’s convenient to think of a database as simply a collection of data, there’s more to it than just that.

How Databases Work

A database does many of the same things that a spreadsheet does, but in a different and often more efficient manner. In fact, many small businesses use spreadsheets for database-like functions.

Think of it this way. If a spreadsheet is a giant list, a database is a giant filing cabinet. Each “filing cabinet” is actually a separate database file, and contains individual index cards (called records) filled with specific information (arranged in fields).

You can use a database application to create and store anything that includes a large amount of data. For example, you can create a database that contains all your favorite recipes or the contents of your CD or video collection.

For businesses, databases tend to house large amounts of granular data—information about customers, employees, and sales. A database management program not only stores this data but also automates data entry, retrieval, and analysis. Many businesses build custom applications around their databases, so that the database itself becomes somewhat transparent. Users see only the front end that pulls information from the database.

How Online Databases Work

A local database is one in which all the data is stored on an individual computer. A networked database is one in which the data is stored on a computer or server connected to a network, and accessible by all computers connected to that network. Finally, an online or web-based database stores data on a cloud of servers somewhere on the Internet, which is accessible by any authorized user with an Internet connection.

The primary advantage of a web-based database is that data can easily be shared with a large number of other users, no matter where they may be located. When your employee database is in the cloud, for example, the human resources department in your Alaska branch can access employee information as easily as can the HR staff in Chicago—as can HR managers traveling across the country to various college job fairs.

And, because the data itself is stored in the cloud, when someone at one location updates a record, everyone accessing the database sees the new data. Synchronization is not an issue.

With these advantages in mind, most online databases are oriented toward quick information sharing among members of workgroups who’ve assembled to attack a project for a month or two. When accessing data in this manner, ease of use is paramount, which most of these cloud applications address with simple and intuitive interfaces.

Exploring Web-Based Databases

In the desktop computing world, the leading database program today is Microsoft Access. (This wasn’t always the case; dBase used to rule the database roost, but things change over time.) In larger enterprises, you’re likely to encounter more sophisticated software from Microsoft, Oracle, and other companies.

Interestingly, none of the major database software developers currently provide web-based database applications. Instead, you have to turn to a handful of start-up companies (and one big established name) for your online database needs.

Blist

One of the newest entrants in the web-based database market is Blist (www.blist.com). Blist is a relatively easy-to-use database designed for nontechnical businesspeople; in fact, the company bills it as something of a cross between a spreadsheet and database program.

Not surprisingly, the default Blist interface uses a spreadsheet metaphor, as you can see in Figure 1, complete with rows and columns. That said, you can switch to a forms-based interface, shown in Figure 2, which is perhaps better for entering raw data one record at a time.

Figure 1. Blist’s default spreadsheet-like interface.

Figure 2. Another way to enter data, with Blist’s form view.

Despite its ease of use, Blist provides some robust database management and reporting capabilities. You can make your data completely public or share it with designated users. Databases can be read-only, or users can have the option of adding new records or deleting old ones.

Cebase

Cebase (www.cebase.com) lets you create new database applications with a few clicks of your mouse; all you have to do is fill in a few forms and make a few choices from some pull-down lists. Data entry is via web forms, and then your data is displayed in a spreadsheet-like layout, as shown in Figure 3. You can then sort, filter, and group your data as you like.

Figure 3. Viewing data in a Cebase database.

Sharing is accomplished by clicking the Share link at the top of any data page. You invite users to share your database via email, and then adjust their permissions after they’ve accepted your invitation.

Dabble DB

Similar to Cebase is Dabble DB (www.dabbledb.com). Like Cebase, Dabble DB makes it easy to create new databases and add new records. Your data can be displayed in a number of different views, including the spreadsheet-like table view shown in Figure 4. You can then sort, group, and filter your data; create various types of reports; and use your data to generate graphs, calendars, and maps.

Figure 4. Viewing data in a Dabble DB database.

Dabble DB offers three ways to share your data. The Pages option enables you to collect data from other users without granting access to the underlying database. The Users option lets other users access the raw data in the database. And the Schema option uses the Dabble DB JavaScript API to let others interact with your data on other websites.

Lazybase

Lazybase (www.lazybase.com) is a simple online database, better suited for individuals than for large businesses. Creating a new database is as easy as filling in a few forms, as shown in Figure 5. Adding new records is just as easy. Your data is then presented on a clean, easy-to-grasp web page. Although there aren’t a lot of fancy reports and such, Lazybase does offer simple data entry and display—easy enough for most home users to grasp.

Figure 5. Creating a new Lazybase database.

One of the nice features about Lazybase is that the simple databases you create can be shared with anyone you like. You can also import them into any website. In addition, Lazybase offers RSS feed subscription, and the ability to create custom bookmarklets so that you can instantly save data from any web page to your database.

MyWebDB

The application called myWebDB (hu.oneteamtech.com/mywebdb.html) is billed as a do-it-yourself Web 2.0 database application.

The myWebDB application then designs an application to match your data needs. The applications generated by myWebDB feature good-looking interfaces, complete with navigation menus, editable data grids, and intuitive data entry screens, like the one shown in Figure 6.

Figure 6. Entering data into a myWebDB web form.

QuickBase

QuickBase (quickbase.intuit.com) is one of the oldest and most feature-rich online databases available today. Because it comes from Intuit, the company behind Quicken and Quickbooks, it’s also one of the most stable and reliable web-based applications you can find.

It’s so sophisticated, in fact, that Intuit doesn’t even bill it as a database management program. Instead, Intuit says that QuickBase is a “website that lets you quickly and easily select, customize and share online workgroup applications that actually work the way your teams do.” And just what is a “workgroup application?” Again, from Intuit: “An online workgroup application is a web-based solution that helps a team organize, track and share information—which in turn improves team productivity.” Kind of a fancy way of saying that QuickBase lets you design your own web-based database applications.

You can get started with QuickBase by using one of the application’s ready-made applications, and then customize that application to suit your own specific needs. If there’s no appropriate existing application, you can create a new one from scratch.

Each application has its own form-based entry and table-based views. You can then generate the necessary reports or share your data with other users. You even get customizable dashboards for each application, like the one in Figure 7, the better to view key data at a glance.

Figure 7. A QuickBase application management dashboard.

As you can probably tell, QuickBase’s functionality is head and shoulders above most web-based database applications. Of course, you pay for this sophistication; unlike other cloud applications, QuickBase is not free. Pricing is on a per-user basis, starting at $249 per month for 10 users and going up from there. But if your needs are such that simple databases won’t do, QuickBase is well worth the expense.

TeamDesk

TeamDesk (www.teamdesk.net) is, like QuickBase, a powerful web-based database management application that facilitates advanced application development. You can work from predefined applications for many business functions or create your own custom apps.

The TeamDesk Application Library includes applications for project management, marketing, sales, customer support, human resources, billing, and other business functions. For example, Figure 8 shows a sales contracts tracking application, with data displayed in tabular format.

Figure 8. One of the predefined business applications available in the TeamDesk Application Library.

Trackvia

Trackvia (www.trackvia.com) is similar to TeamDesk, in that it lets you create your databases from dozens of sample applications or completely from scratch. You can choose to view several predefined reports for each database application or generate a custom report. To create a custom report, you use the web page shown in Figure 9. Just select the columns you want to include and how you want your results sorted.

Figure 9. Generating a custom report with Trackvia.

Trackvia enables you to generate forms you can display on your own website and thus let your site’s users enter data on their own. You can also share your databases with designated users; you assign different levels of permission, from Add (enter new records only) to View to Edit (change existing data) to Delete.

Zoho Creator

Zoho offers two different database products: Zoho Creator and Zoho DB & Reports. Of the two, Zoho Creator is the easiest to use and best suited for casual users.

Zoho Creator (creator.zoho.com) is a versatile data repository, complete with data-entry forms and spreadsheet-like list views. While easy to use, Zoho Creator is robust enough to let you create your own simple database applications.

It’s easy enough to create a new database; you can start from scratch or use a predesigned template. You enter new data into a web form, like the one shown in Figure 10. You can then display your data in a number of different views, including summary, table, and spreadsheet views. You can even create web forms for data entry and embed them in your website or blog.

Figure 10. Entering data into a Zoho Creator form.

Zoho DB & Reports

If your database needs are more robust, turn to Zoho DB & Reports (db.zoho.com). Zoho DB offers more in-depth reporting than is available with Zoho Creator, including charts, pivot tables, and other report types. (Figure 11 shows a sample chart generated with Zoho DB.) In addition, Zoho DB supports web-based APIs that enable it to serve as a back end for your own hosted applications; it also supports SQL for more robust data queries.

Figure 11. A sophisticated chart generated by Zoho DB & Reports.

Like Zoho Creator, Zoho DB can be accessed from any Internet-connected computer. You can also share your data and reports for collaborative development and analysis and embed your reports into your own website.

In short, if your needs are simple, use Zoho Creator. If your needs are more complex, or if you’re accustomed to working with Access, SQL Server, and similar relational database management programs, go with Zoho DB & Reports.

Evaluating Online Databases

When you’re trying to decide which online database to use, it seems as if there’s QuickBase and then there’s everything else. That’s because QuickBase has been around longer than most of the competition, is offered by an established software company (Intuit), and is targeted at large companies. Not all of QuickBase’s competitors have the same lineage, level of technical support, and goals.

I certainly recommend that you consider QuickBase, especially if you’re working for a large company or organization and have correspondingly sophisticated database needs. QuickBase should also be on your short list if you want to develop specialized applications that use the data from a large database.

I’m particularly partial to Zoho’s two offerings, Creator (for smaller needs) and DB & Reports (for larger databases and more sophisticated applications). I also like Bliss, especially for the nontechnical users among us, although several of the other web-based applications can provide similar functionality.

Bottom line, there are a lot of differences between the web-based database applications available today. The most basic applications are easy to use but limited in functionality; the more sophisticated applications have a steeper learning curve but offer more sophisticated reporting with more advanced automation. Choose your application wisely—you don’t want to end up with an underpowered app or one that’s too difficult for your organization to use.

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