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September 11, 2003

The pain of marrying databases and the web - QuickBase helps

Over the years one of my great frustrations has been the inability to marry databases with web sites in any kind of straight-forward way. There are lots of applications that naturally work best as simple databases. But woe unto you if you want to share that data on a web site.

When I was back at CNN, I wanted to build a simple database of changes that I could periodically publish out to an internal web site. What I was looking for was something similar what you can do using Microsoft Office: you can take a spreadsheet, a Word document, or a Powerpoint and save any of these in HTML form.

The closest thing to that I wanted was Filemaker. Filemaker would let you manipulate your data using Filemaker's very nice native Windows or Mac application. You could then publish a dynamic version of your database that would actually let others query your data and view it in various ways. Nifty, but since Filemaker acted as the webserverr, you had to serve the web site off your personal Mac or PC. Not very practical.

(The thing that bugged me the most about Filemaker: I wanted to be able to put URLs in my text fields and have those URLs show up as hyperlinks when those fields were displayed by Filemaker's web application. Simple and obvious, but I could never find a way to do with Filemaker back in '00. I could make a particular field clickable, but not a random URL embedded in a text field.)

I know about LAMP, which says you can build anything you want with Linux, Apache, MySQL, and Perl. But I want to be able to manipulate my data using something more user-friendly than raw SQL queries and command-line interfaces.

In the end, I was never able to find a way to do what I wanted.

Fast forward a few years. I'm now at Earthlink, and once again, I want to publish a database of changes for our SA team. This time I have a couple of choices - I can use Remedy, which is the company choice, but is difficult to modify. (I've played with Remedy before; it's flexible, but difficult to get to do what you want without having someone around who does Remedy for a living.) ELNK also has an internally supported simple web-based ticketing system that I could use, but it doesn't really quite do what I want. I'm back to my lament: if we can get chocolate and peanut butter together, why is it so hard to get databases and web pages to talk to each other?

Enter QuickBase. QuickBase is an Intuit-hosted web database service. Intuit won't sell you the code to run this - at least they don't want to - but they'll host your database for you, and give you a remarkably simple interface to both manipulate your data and share it with others.

It's not fancy. It's not relational. But if you want to share data that really should be a simple database, it's surprisingly easy to get it to do what you want. I was able to modify QuickBase's sample "bugs/features" database into a change control database in just a few hours. And if you include a URL in one of your fields, it's displayed as a hyperlink! Hallelujah!

The only real downside is that it's relatively expensive unless someone else is paying for it. Intuit has pricing plans for small businesses that range between $15 and $50 per month, and that allow for up to 5 users on up to 15 or so databases. For ELNK, I think I'd need the "Corporate Workgroup" plan, which runs $250/month for up to 10 users and 18 databases.

I'd sure like to see a freeware solution to this problem, or at least a reasonably-priced piece of commercial software. But given the the fact that I've never seen anything else that even comes close to what QuickBase can do, I'm glad to see any solution that I might be able to use to solve my problems at work.

1 Comment

For easy access to my MySQL DBs running on my Solaris and RedHat boxes, I install the MySQL ODBC driver on my Windows desktop and use MS Access to access the DBs through ODBC. Quick, simple and cheap.