Database Software Options

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It's time to purchase a database solution for your home or business, but how do you decide?

First, determine what features you need so you can choose a product that meets your requirements and doesn't cause too much pain to your pocketbook.

Desktop Databases

You're probably familiar with at least one desktop database product. The market is dominated by brand names like Microsoft Access,  FileMaker Pro, and OpenOffice Base.

These products are relatively inexpensive and are great for single-user or non-interactive web applications. Let's take a closer look at them:

  • Microsoft Access: Access is part of the Microsoft Office suite and so may already be accessible to you. If you do have Office, Access will have a familiar interface to you, so could be easier to learn than more robust solutions. All basic database features are supported, including complex data queries, multiple users, data entry forms, and reporting. Web-based functionality was added with the 2010 release, allowing users to access a database without having Access installed on their system. Unfortunately, Access supports a maximum database size of 2 gigabytes, limiting it to small businesses and individuals. Access is available on both Windows and Mac.
  • FileMaker Pro: Originally available only on the Mac, FileMaker Pro has come on strong in recent years and is a credible alternative to Access. It's fast and low-cost and provides a suite of tools for supporting mobile solutions. FileMaker Pro is part of the FileMaker Platform which includes FileMaker Go for mobile platforms and FileMaker Cloud and FileMaker Server for hosting apps in the cloud. 
  • OpenOffice Base: This free database offered by Apache provides lots of basic database functions, but being free does limit its feature set. Its primary use is probably the home user, and it includes a series of wizards to help configuration. It does, however, provide a set of drives to connect to other multiuser database engines including MySQL and PostgreSQL.

    Server Databases

    If you're planning a heavy-duty database application like an e-commerce site or a multiuser database, you're going to need to call on one of the big guns.

    Server databases like MySQL, Microsoft SQL Server, IBM DB2 and Oracle provide real firepower but carry a correspondingly heavy price tag.

    • Oracle: Oracle is the king of databases and was the first relational database management system (RDBMS) developed. Its feature set is broad and deep, but so is its learning curve. If you are maintaining a lot of data across multiple locations and you have some technical help and deep pockets, this might be the best choice.
    • Microsoft SQL Server: SQL Server is a great choice if your organization is already using Microsoft applications. It's easy to use and integrates tightly with other Microsoft products.
    • MySQL: MySQL was owned by Sun Microsystems but became part of Oracle when Oracle purchased Sun in 2009. It's popular for web-based applications.
    • IBM DB2: IBM's enterprise database DB2 is Oracle's direct competitor and wins the battle over price, too.

    These four are not the only players in the server database game, but they are traditionally the largest.  Others to consider are Teradata, PostgreSQL and SAP Sybase.

    Some enterprise databases offer "express" editions that are free or low-cost, so check those out as an opportunity to take the features for a spin.

    Web-Enabled Databases

    Nowadays, almost every database application calls for some kind of web interaction. Many people assume that if you need to accept or provide information on the Internet, you need to use a server database. That's not necessarily true — a desktop database could (inexpensively!) meet your needs. For example, Microsoft Access added support for web applications with its 2010 release. If you need this capability, be sure to read all the fine print of any database you are considering purchasing.