VSJ – June 2002 – Sounding Board

Nigel Downs, MIAP has been in software development for nearly two decades and has worked on databases for the last five. He’d like to hear your thoughts on how to interest the small business in the delights of this technology. So would we!

For the past five years or so I have been working with two of the big database companies’ products. During that time I’ve noticed that there appears to be little or no solution for the small business that would like a database but which doesn’t have the technical knowledge to create one itself and is put off by the prices the big boys are liable to
charge. There is also the not insignificant issue of getting information into and out of the database.

A friend, Jon, who has a small web-site for his children’s clothes shop, highlighted this for me. The site lets people buy via mail order and allows him to save and/or export some basic details for each customer: address, phone number and so on. But when I mentioned the possibility of passing those details to a database – which could then be integrated with other information like products and their suppliers – Jon’s eyes lit up. He initially pictured better-focused mail-shots, with more uses once the system took shape.

So I went away to think about how I could create such a solution for him. For the scale of what we wanted to achieve – small enough to fit on a single PC although in practice probably located on a web-server with Jon’s web-site – the big companies were a non-starter. Never mind, I thought, what about MS-Access? The problem there was that unless you’re actually within Access it’s all but impossible to communicate with the outside world, not exactly helping the exchange of information with another non-MS system. Also, with a longer-term generic solution in mind, Access doesn’t run on UNIX and so would be incompatible with many web-servers.

Then I hit on MySQL. The software is free, which can only help the Jons of this world, and it runs on both UNIX and Windows. Also, it is scalable from a single PC up to a full network and comes with example system configuration files for a range of sizes between those two extremes. What’s more, it allows data to be passed into a database from outside (similar to Sybase’s BCP or Oracle’s SQL*Loader) and then to be handled by any number of internal procedures, depending on application requirements.

Subsequent discussions with others seem to confirm my impression that many people would like a database, with all it offers, but are very wary of the bigger companies. It has also been said more than once that a generic – and so cheaper – solution would probably be more appealing at first. That is a good point and even if it makes the initial version more difficult it can only be beneficial if it makes the long-term solution more flexible.

The mechanics of transferring data between the web-site and database are not yet fixed although I have explored enough ideas to convince me that it is certainly achievable. The current favourite is a batch update using good old COBOL – still up with the best when it comes to text and string handling, which is what the system would be doing. Another contender is Java but at this stage I feel it could be over-engineering just for the sake of having something relatively new and trendy. That said, I am not against it as and when necessary especially if someone demands a real-time data transfer from/to a web-site.

So it’s currently very much a chicken and egg situation. Due to other commitments Jon hasn’t so far progressed things as much as he would have liked and despite general interest and complimentary noises no one else has so far come up with an actual need for the kind of system that Jon and I envisage. But I’m very keen to move things along and would appreciate feedback: comments, possible uses and maybe more. If it sounds like a particularly good – or bad – idea or merely sparks some sort of opinion, I’d like to hear!

You can contact Nigel by e-mail at nigel.downs@orange.net or phone him on 07976 928046.
Something you’d like to get off your chest? Email me (Robin Jones) at eo@iap.org.uk.

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