Review: Online databases let you structure and share your data

Organize your information without having to deal with front-end coding

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Caspio is among the most enterprise-focused of the online database services I tested, and its pricing reflects that: At $8 per "data page" (a Web entry form or search page, for example), costs can add up for frequent users. Some of Caspio's more robust sample applications run five pages, which amounts to $40 per month. Update: As of December 2014, pricing starts at $79/month, including five data pages.

As a result, Caspio isn't the best option for creating quick, personal applications, since you can use up data pages each time you want a form for adding or updating a table of data. (If you just want to test Caspio Bridge, you can try a free personal account, which lets you use two data pages. Update: Caspio no longer offers free personal accounts, but there is a 14-day free trial available without having to enter credit-card info.)

In addition, more than the other entries in this space, Caspio requires its users to know something about database structure. There's no pretty drag-and-drop user interface for creating tables and fields -- it's all text-based. This is not a service for users who don't like to dive into data.

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If you're simply creating a basic, single-table database, Caspio is simple enough. For example, importing data into Caspio Bridge is straightforward when pulling in Access, XML or delimited text files. You can append data to an existing table as well as create a new one.

Adding and naming fields is also fairly easy, including the process of selecting an autonumbering field to generate a unique numerical primary key for each record.

The real Caspio value-add comes after your data tables are set up. A wizard-based system makes it relatively easy to interact with the data. Do you want to collect more information in a Web form? Let users search and view? This part is painless. You just answer a few questions and make a couple of selections, and Caspio immediately generates your forms.

For example, I wanted to create pages where I could search my data and show results. I used a wizard to select a data source table, choose a style (you can add your own), and name the page. I then picked the fields I wanted in my form, configured each for the search form and chose a results page layout and sort order (there's an option to add interactive sorting).

If I wanted each result on the search page to link to a page with more details about that listing, the wizard let me do that, too. In a few steps, I was able to turn existing data into a Web-based application I could embed within an existing Web site or use at Caspio's site.

I used Caspio to set up a query form for Computerworld's investigation of top H-1B visa users, and it was relatively easy to do, especially compared with coding my own with something like PHP and MySQL. However, creating a true relational database -- such as a product-review database with tables for products, product categories and articles -- turned out to be dicier.

You'd expect a text-based, enterprise-focused database host to have a fairly straightforward way to create such structures. Caspio does not, and that's not just because I missed it in the documentation -- in a live-chat support session for an earlier project, one of the support staffers said he'd need to see diagrams of my data structure before he could help me. Luckily, phone support was more helpful -- a staffer was able to successfully walk me through the process.

I especially had problems figuring out how to put together the "many-to-many" relationships. After I called tech support, I realized that there was no way I would have figured out that multistep process, which involved configuring the results page with a custom HTML block using field variables. And I was never able to create a data-entry form for internal use that allows selecting multiple options from another, existing table. (Tech support finally created one for me, which I could then copy.)

In addition, if you're used to a desktop database app, be warned that Caspio's response can be a bit sluggish as you wait for the servers to respond to your commands.

Caspio is a handy way to set up a simple single-table database. It's most useful for putting large amounts of data online for public viewing, especially if the data doesn't have too many complicated relations. But expect to invest more time -- and money -- if you're creating a complex, multi-table relational database.

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