Thumbs-up to FileMaker upgrade

A wonderfully easy-to-use desktop database product that runs on Windows and the Mac, FileMaker Pro is ideal for small and medium-sized businesses, as well as departments of large and enterprise-sized businesses. FileMaker is simple enough for the office technologist to set up, and for almost anyone in the office to use.

FileMaker was born for the semi-technical office worker -- the same person who creates the spreadsheet macros and word-processing templates in addition to his or her "real" job -- to administer. There is a thriving community of FileMaker consultants who can create polished FileMaker applications, but for the most part, your friendly office techie can start with a template, add a few fields, adjust the layouts, write a few script steps, and come up with a perfectly acceptable database application for internal operations.

[ Take a slideshow tour of FileMaker Pro 10. See Test Center reviews of Coghead and Caspio Bridge, two Web-based database builders for noncoders. ]

If you can start with an existing, well-structured database template, keep all data in the local database, and make only minor changes, you really won't need the help of a DBA or programmer. On the other hand, if your department must consolidate information from a centralized SQL database with what you maintain locally, then you'll require the cooperation of the DBA -- at the very least to gain access to the database and most likely to review your SQL queries as well.

If you need to track data that has a different "shape" from any of the templates, enlist someone who groks the meaning of third normal form -- most likely a DBA or programmer -- to design the database initially. After that, your office technologist should be able to design the forms and reports.

Venerable old Pro

My experience with FileMaker goes back to 1985. At the time, I'd brought the first Macintosh and LaserWriter into the consulting company where I worked, primarily for desktop publishing of software manuals via PageMaker, and I wanted to use the LaserWriter to print mailing labels for shipments. At the time, FileMaker was limited to single tables; it was good enough for a simple mailing-label database but could not relate customer records to order records. I think I moved the process to a PC database fairly quickly, even though the PC had only a daisy-wheel printer.

A few years ago, a client asked me to generate a Web site from his FileMaker Pro 5 database on Windows. I couldn't see how to do that using FileMaker's report generator, so I wrote a Python script to read the FileMaker database via ODBC (Open Database Connectivity) and turn each record into a Web page. That worked pretty well, so the client requested I do something similar for another database. Unfortunately, many of the records in the second database were truncated in the process, which turned out to be the result of a bug in the ODBC driver.

As a work-around, we dumped the FileMaker database into CSV files and loaded it into Access; the Python program then generated the site from the Access database. The client loved FileMaker for editing and maintaining the data and refused to switch to Access, so the multistep process for regenerating the site had to remain and was carried forward at least to FileMaker Pro 7. (FileMaker Pro 10 has a newer ODBC driver, but I haven't yet tested it against the old databases.)

FileMaker Pro 5 and 7 looked to me very much like the Mac FileMaker I'd used in 1985, albeit with greatly improved capabilities. FileMaker Pro 10, on the other hand, looks more like Safari. When I first saw the new interface last December, I admired its appearance and the way it put functionality where the user and developer could see it, but I worried that die-hard FileMaker developers would find their fingers going to the old places. According to several of these folks that I queried recently on Twitter, that hasn't been the case; they have adapted easily to the new interface.

Which SKU do you need?

FileMaker Pro handles most of the basic tasks you'd want from a desktop database program, and most users will be perfectly happy with that edition. FileMaker Pro Advanced adds several developer-oriented capabilities that DBAs, developers, and the office technologist will like: custom menus, a script debugger, a database design report, and multiple-table import. In addition, FileMaker Pro Advanced can create single-user stand-alone runtime databases and kiosk-mode applications.

FileMaker Pro and Advanced allow up to nine simultaneous clients to share a database over a network, and up to five simultaneous Web clients to share an Instant Web Publishing site. Instant Web Publishing attempts to make the database look about the same on the Web as it does locally; it's easy, and it works fairly well, but it's not very flexible.

FileMaker Server allows for 250 simultaneous client connections; FileMaker Server Advanced allows for 999. Both Server versions can publish databases to the Web using PHP or XSL, and they provide a PHP Site Assistant to make this relatively simple. FileMaker Server Advanced also has Instant Web Publishing for 100 simultaneous Web clients and can act as a SQL database through ODBC and JDBC.

Should you upgrade?

William Porter reviewed FileMaker 10 for our sister publication Macworld from the point of view of a Mac user. William did a good job of discussing the differences between FileMaker 9 and 10, and he concluded that "saved finds, dynamic summary reports, and script triggers make FileMaker Pro 10 a very desirable upgrade for current users." I concur; those three improvements are all huge wins. William worried about experienced users learning the new interface; as mentioned before, this has not been an issue.

I'd point to the ability to send SMTP mail without a separate e-mail client as a desirable new feature, although this might be more a case of fixing something that was broken. (FileMaker used to send messages into your mail client's inbox to be mailed, which isn't exactly an efficient design.) The same logic applies to the improved support for external SQL sources; if FileMaker 10 didn't support the current versions of Oracle, SQL Server, and MySQL, we'd think it was unsuitable for use in an enterprise. Fortunately, it can query and display data from all of these sources.

Should you upgrade from FileMaker 9? The short answer: yes!

Able alternatives

FileMaker has little competition on the Mac, and essentially no competitors that work on both Mac OS X and Windows. It does, however, have two competitors on Windows: Microsoft Access and Alpha Five.

Nearly everybody already has Microsoft Access, usually as part of Microsoft Office. It's harder to develop for Access than for FileMaker, and it currently has no Web capabilities unless a programmer ties it to a Web site, typically with ASP.Net. On the other hand, Access looks like the rest of Office, and it has powerful programming capabilities and a wizard that lets you upsize to SQL Server very easily. (It's quite complicated to upsize from FileMaker to a SQL database.) If your shop already uses Access and is happy with the results, then FileMaker would become appealing only if you needed to support Macs or take your database to the Web without programming.

Alpha Five is a desktop database with strong RAD (Rapid Application Development) tools, Web and AJAX support, enterprise-level SQL support, and lower pricing than FileMaker. The Alpha Five programming capabilities are heartier than those in Access and much more powerful than those in FileMaker, yet many Alpha Five applications can be built using its menus and dialogs without ever writing a line of code.

Decision tree

If your shop needs a desktop database just for Macs or for both Mac OS X and Windows, then look no further than FileMaker Pro 10. If you already use FileMaker 9, definitely upgrade to FileMaker 10.

Anyone in your shop who wants to do serious FileMaker development will prefer FileMaker Pro 10 Advanced to FileMaker Pro 10. Ordinary database users need only FileMaker Pro 10.

If you're sharing FileMaker databases widely, consider one of the Server SKUs. However, note the prices -- they aren't cheap.

Finally, if your shop uses Windows and not Macs, then compare FileMaker with Access and Alpha Five. Either of these Windows-only options may better meet your current and projected needs, and they do so at lower cost.

This story, "Thumbs-up to FileMaker upgrade" was originally published by InfoWorld.

Copyright © 2009 IDG Communications, Inc.

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