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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Zoho Creator

Zoho has been the online database I turned to when I wanted to share structured data among a sizable group of friends or colleagues.

Because it was free, I didn't have to worry about bumping up against user account limits. However, starting May 2, 2008, the free ride ended for applications shared with more than one other user; additional users are now $10 per month, making Zoho a pricier option for a large group. Update: Zoho now offers paid plans ranging from $5 to $15 per user per month, depending on features and data storage limits. Its free plan allows up to 3 users, 3 apps, 750 records and 300MB of storage.

Each application can be public or invitation-only, and access control allows you to set which users see what portions of the data. Plus, built-in drag-and-drop scripting makes it easy to add capabilities like notifying colleagues when the status of a record has changed.

If you need even more robust scripting, there's free-form coding with Zoho's own scripting language, Deluge. I found the documentation to be somewhat spotty on how to use Deluge, but the support team is generally willing to offer sample scripts for what I'm seeking to do, which I can then tweak as needed.

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Zoho Creator

Setting up an initial data structure isn't quite as easy as it is with Dabble DB, but it's still quick and painless. Each table of data within a database is considered a "form" in Zoho Creator. Need another table? Create another form. Each form can then have one or more views, allowing multiple display options for each table. The form does double duty: designing a table data structure and serving as a live data-entry page.

There are numerous drag-and-drop field options for forms, including images, file uploads, URLs, e-mail addresses and currency, as well as traditional HTML form fields such as single-line text, multiline text, drop-down lists and date/time.

When you paste in existing data from a comma-delineated text or an Excel file, Zoho creates the data structure for you and guesses the field types. After the fact, I could easily set a field in one table to look up data from another to join fields in different tables. Automating this from imports of existing data worked quite well when there was only one choice available (such as a product that belongs to only one category), and it was also simple to design manually.

Many-to-many relationships were pretty easy to set up manually, although it didn't quite work when I tried to automate that via data import of existing spreadsheets. For example, when iPhone belonged to both the mobile devices and personal technology categories, shown as "Mobile devices, personal technology" in my CSV file, "Mobile devices, personal technology" was created as a new category option in Zoho. The database didn't split on the comma, so the existing "Mobile devices" and "Personal technology" were each chosen.

It was easy to rearrange data-entry fields in the order I wanted on the form, but data-entry display was limited to one or two columns. I also didn't have much luck changing the size/width of various input fields, although the options appear to exist.

Data can be displayed in table, spreadsheet, summary and chart views, as well as a mobile version that works with a variety of browsers, including the iPhone. Database owners can choose whether to presort views and turn off user sorting, or allow users to sort by various columns. End users can search by clicking a search button, which then shows search boxes for all the various fields of data.

While display is fairly limited when embedding a Zoho app into an existing Web page, if you really want custom functionality and look and feel, Zoho Creator's application programming interface lets you program a front end in Perl, PHP or another language of your choice while the data is hosted at Zoho.

Although I wish there were more data display options when using a Zoho Creator database embedded in another Web site, I still find Zoho to be an immensely useful service for a variety of needs. However, the new pricing structure will be prompting me to move some of my group apps elsewhere.

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