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Using MS Access

What is Microsoft Access and when should you use it?

A look into Microsoft's desktop database software.

November 15, 2013

What is Microsoft Access?

Microsoft Access is Microsoft’s desktop database and information management software. It helps users and businesses store information for reference, reporting and analysis.                                     

Technically Speaking…

Access is just one in an array of ways to manage and manipulate data. A database is collection of information organized so that it’s easy to view, search, retrieve and collect necessary details, and Access is a platform which helps you do just that in the easiest, most timely and effortless manner possible.

It empowers businesses to build desktop applications for storing and sharing information within an office or company using relational database (or RMDB) methodologies. This creates sets of relations between tables of data, organizing and connecting your information for you.

Access combines a straightforward graphical user interface with development tools and Microsoft’s JET (Joint Engine Technology) powerful and systematic database software.

But what does Microsoft Access do?

Access is the ultimate upgrade from a basic spreadsheet. While Excel allows companies to create a spreadsheet or manipulate information with a ridiculous amount of mathematical functions, Excel isn’t relational.  You can’t put different sets of data in their own “buckets” and then work out of those.

Access brings together sets of information based on relationships and allows users to segment the buckets. For example, everything in Access is an “entity,” or piece of real world information. These entities are linked in Access by “relationships.” So, employees Tim, Nora, and Greg would all be considered entities, while their roles as members of the marketing department link them with a common relationship.

Relationships within Access come in different degrees, designated as one-to-one, one-to-many, or many-to-many, depending on the direction you’re working from. Entities, relationships, and the degrees to which they operate depend on the business and what rules best work for your company and your specific application.

By upgrading to a desktop based database application, you gain the ability to reference, report and analyze data with a few easy clicks. Access’ JET technology also allows for concurrent editing, unlike when Excel or Word documents are shared and saved on a network.  The software is easy to understand. Create column names, enter your data, create formulas, and you're on your way. 

But there is a downside. Without proper database design and planning, you might build a database that works in the short term; but as the database grows, bad planning can come back to bite you. Planning your database design, the relationships between the entities and the data types is critical to long-term success.

Access, according to Microsoft’s website.

Access begins the application building process with a series of questions for its users:

  • What is the purpose of this database and who will use it?
  • What tables (data) will this database contain?
  • What queries and reports do the users of this database need?
  • What forms do you need to create?

It then provides a series of features that allow you to customize the application for businesses needs, based off of your answers to the questions above. Fairly easy to learn, those without IT knowledge can essentially drag and drop desired features into their programs using forms, familiar buttons and graphics. 

Key Features

  • Templates
    • Access offers users great front-end control.
      • The program comes with an array of professionally designed templates to get you started.
      • Customize for your business needs.
    • Easy to answer questions help you determine the type of application you’re looking to build and what information should be connected.
  • Related Item Control
    • Software allows users to connect relevant pieces of information and areas within the database without changing screens.  This makes tracking information in your database and joining the related information together for analysis and processing simple and easy.
      • When you update an address in one place, it appears correctly in every location in which that address is stored. (Mailing list, invoices, etc. )
  • Auto complete guidelines
    • Access’s auto complete feature makes things faster and easier, leaving less room for data entry errors.

For those without a database application in place, Access is a great tool to get started. It can be set up fairly quickly and simply. With only a small initial investment in the Microsoft software it opens up an array of great options. However, because it is a desktop based platform, there are some disadvantages.

Access has its limits.

In our business, one of the most common things we see is that when companies need somewhere to store data, they create an Excel spreadsheet. A pretty straight forward solution, yet these spreadsheets are quickly outgrown and traded in for a desktop database, such as Access or FilemakerPro. At first, for a small enough number of users it can be a great fix. We always hear “when we need something more advanced, we can update later.

Well, that’s fairly true. But more often than not, their Access app grows and grows, without any of the appropriate planning in place to build it. All of a sudden, this once successful small system has become the lifeblood of the organization and the nightmare of IT folks.

That’s the problem with Access. It allows departments with just enough knowledge to create databases and get into trouble. Building an application without forethought often leads to disconnects and gaps in informational relationships.  Then when things go awry, IT departments are left to fill in the missing pieces.

Most other database systems today are built for the web.

Web applications allow users access anytime, anywhere, regardless of device or operating system. As a Microsoft product, Access is not compatible with apple devices and must be installed on each workstation, offering no mobile access.

Access works best for a limited number of users. Because it’s installed onto a desktop any software updates must be made and installed on each individual system. When members don’t update, systems go haywire, and create yet another IT department nightmare. With Web-based software, one upgrade is then recognized by whoever accesses the application through a browser.

The more users you have, the more likely it is that someone will forget to update.

For that same reason, web databases are often safer than desktop versions. On the web, control is limited and you only serve the part of the application that user needs.  Only those who program and manage the server have access to how it works.

With Access, when users download database and the information onto their personal workstations, it becomes exposed to a much greater risk.

So what does this actually mean for a company?

Access is a fast, simple way of assembling and managing a database. The front end controls are and functions provide an array of features and you can quickly put together a working prototype. It’s great software that helps businesses build databases small scale. For larger projects, we’d say, call us.




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