A guide to buying database software

Databases don't have to be complicated. Our starter guide to these feature-rich data applications will help you understand the basics, and assist you in the process of selecting the one that best suits your company's needs.

A database is an excellent tool for managing and storing data when spreadsheets like Excel aren't enough. With databases like FileMaker Pro 13 and Microsoft Access 2013, you can create interactive forms, run reports against data, and publish web applications. Databases pick up where spreadsheets leave off by enabling highly efficient and powerful ways of organising and representing data in charts, reports, queries, and more.

Database design and management can be complex, but there are several database applications that facilitate easy setup and administration. Although these products differ in terms of feature set and user interfaces, there are five key components that comprise a relational database regardless of which platform you select: Tables, rows, columns, records and keys.

Databases defined

Think of a database as a modular system: A database contains tables, tables contain rows, and columns and rows correspond to single records. Keys, particularly primary keys, act as unique identifiers in relational databases and the means by which such databases "relate" one table to another.

Confused? Imagine, then, that you have a database with two tables. Table 1 contains employee names and employee national insurance numbers. The column containing national insurance numbers is set as a primary key. Table 2 contains employee national insurance numbers and employee home addresses. You can establish a relationship between Table 1 and Table 2 based on the primary key of national insurance numbers. This allows you to make queries or run reports that will pull up all of the information in both tables at the same time. This is, of course, a very simple example, but it gives a general idea of how tables, relationships, and keys work. Imagine a vast database with many different types of information, and several keys, and you can see that a database can be a very powerful tool indeed.

Database products for all user levels

Database design can be complicated for non-developers, so for the less software savvy, our pick of the various database applications out there is FileMaker Pro. It's an ideal way for those not well-versed in database design to create a database or ad-hoc report. With FileMaker Pro, small businesses can create powerful relational databases; easy-to-use does not translate into poor database development.

If you're familiar with database solutions, Microsoft Access may be more your speed. It has a steeper learning curve than FileMaker Pro, but the underlying, real programming language (VBA) means that developers can create highly customised solutions using the databases as back-ends.

Users accustomed to the familiar Microsoft Office interface will find a lot to like in Access 2013. Redmond's offering simplifies database creation with the use of templates and other neat little tricks. Should you want to publish a database to the web, you'll need a SharePoint server, or a Microsoft-hosted SharePoint site.

There are alternatives, of course, such as the Intuit’s cloud-based QuickBase. Intuit has a history of creating good consumer-level software, so the interface is clear and easy to navigate. As with any cloud service though, QuickBase users are subject to any mishaps that the provider may be subject to including outages, security breaches, and there's the issue of relinquishing control of your data to the provider.

Operating system compatibility

Besides skill level, there is another consideration to ponder when selecting which database choice is right for you or your business: Operating system compatibility. Users working in predominately Windows-based networks may find Access 2013 the best choice for an easy tool to create compatible complex applications. If you're working primarily with Macs, FileMaker Pro 13 (which also supports Windows) may prove a better fit.

Database usage

There's also database usage to take into account. If you have a number of users – more than 20 – who will be accessing the database throughout a workday, Access 2013 can scale and handle a large number of database transactions. FileMaker Pro 13 is tailored more for the SMB, though FileMaker offers other editions for larger organisations, like FileMaker Server 13.

Database design and management need not be painful and arduous. Anyone can get a database up and running with a little willingness to get acquainted with the basic concepts.