Businesses Need a Microsoft Access Replacement. Here's the Best Alternative
Originally launched in November 1992, Microsoft Access is a database management system (also referred to as a DBMS for short) that has been used by software developers, data architects and other users around the world. If you've purchased the "Professional" tier of Microsoft 365, you're undoubtedly familiar with it. It can be purchased separately as well.
Microsoft Access is also, to put it mildly, "past its prime."
The issue that a lot of businesses run into is that Microsoft Access was only ever intended to be used as a single-user database tool. This has led to organizations stretching the capabilities of Access beyond its intended use - something that causes them to run into issues sooner rather than later.
If you're still a Microsoft Access user, the chances are high that you'll need to find a replacement sooner rather than later - something that is a little more modern, a bit more sophisticated and that better suits your business needs.
Luckily, those alternatives are out there - they just require you to keep a few key things in mind.
What is a Microsoft Access Database?
As stated, Microsoft Access is a database management system that was developed by Microsoft (hence the name) that was first released almost 30 years ago. Think about how much personal computing has changed in three decades - and then compare that to how small of an evolution that Access has gone through during the same period of time.
At its core, Access serves as a repository for storing data and creating database relationships between different types of information. It also has a development environment built right into it - one that allows users to create data entry screens, to execute queries using standard SQL (Structured Query Language), to generate reports and more. Users can also add programming logic with a computer programming language called VBA, otherwise known as Visual Basic for Applications.
Microsoft Access really gained prominence when it began to be included in the Microsoft Access productivity suite. Indeed, this was something of a genius move by Microsoft during the 1990s. If you had to purchase Microsoft Office to get something you really wanted like Word, you may as well also use the other included tools like Access that came with it. After all, you couldn't have one without the other.
All told, Access does have benefits for small departments in particular that need to store and share data. Many of the applications that can be built on top of Access can be quite useful. During the 1990s, non-programmers were able to put together simple applications after doing a bit of reading on how to work with the interface - so it definitely proved its worth to that end.
The Problems with Microsoft Access
The issue with Microsoft Access, however, is that you have a lot of applications that have been written by non-programmers that are in production - meaning they don't work nearly as well as they should. At the same time, they're also dealing with some inherent limitations of Access - one of which is that even though it can be used as a database behind a web application, it's not recommended and can lead to severe performance issues and degradation.
Proper database design is something that all programmers spend a lot of time learning in college - all to avoid major issues moving forward. There are common rules about database design that non-programmers simply don't understand. This leads to issues in terms of not only duplication of data, but also the fact that you may not be able to generate some reports because of design flaws baked into the DNA of the database as a whole.
In terms of duplication of data, this makes it difficult for the database if the same piece of information needs to be updated in more than one place. If data is duplicated, you have no choice but to update it everywhere - if you don't, you run into an issue where there is a copy floating around out there that is out of sync or that the database can't get to.
If the relationships between the database tables are not properly defined, the generation of certain reports isn't just difficult - in some cases, it's literally impossible.
Both of these issues also lead to catastrophic maintenance problems moving forward. As a business grows and its organizational needs evolve over time, any piece of software you're using needs to be able to grow with it. If it can't, it's not really a "solution" any longer. If there are design flaws in the database, it becomes difficult to maintain and expand - leading to a situation where employees have to work harder than they should.
Another issue is that Microsoft Access is a desktop application, meaning that everyone has to have a copy of it to use it. If data is being shared across a Local Area Network, every user who accesses it must have the program installed on their machine. Because Access is a file-based system, all data is stored in a single file. It should not be used as a database repository for a web application.
The bottom line is that when one user is accessing the database, all other users are essentially locked out - in other words, it's the opposite of "collaboration."
Of course, there are other issues with Microsoft Access too:
- When an Access database gets too large, the program starts to run slowly.
- The maximum size that an Access database can be is just under two gigabytes.
- Access databases are prone to becoming corrupted, which will cause the application to crash. This makes frequent backups necessary.
- Access database security is not as strong as alternatives, particularly more robust databases like SQL Server.
The Best Replacement for Microsoft Access
Over the years, the industry has moved away from desktop applications to web applications. This is very much a good thing, as they don't require installation on a user's computer.
Instead, web applications can be accessed anytime, anywhere and on any device so long as it has an Internet connection.
Therefore, the best replacement for Microsoft Access is a web-based application that itself is built on another Microsoft technology called ASP.NET and SQL Server. SQL Server is a true industrial-strength database that was built to work in a web environment - one that allows multiple people to access it at the same time.
ASP.NET is the programming language and platform that lets developers create more robust user interfaces and applications, all so that people can interact with that SQL Server database in the easiest way possible.
Migrate MS Access Data to Web Applications
Unfortunately, there is really no direct migration path to replace Microsoft Access with a web application. There are, however, options out there to explore.
The best is to document the existing functionality of the Microsoft Access application so that it can then be recreated in a new ASP.NET application. Likewise, there is a way to directly convert an Access database to an SQL Server database so that some time in the process can be saved. This should only be used, however, if you're beyond certain that the original database architecture from Microsoft Access is correct.
If it isn't, some level of architectural redesign should happen. Yes, it will be a bit of additional effort - but it will also offer opportunities for optimization and productivity improvements in the future so it's certainly worth it.
How to Choose a Microsoft Access Migration Company
Due to the fact that there is no direct migration path from Microsoft Access to ASP.NET/SQL Server, it's always recommended to hire a company with a strong background in business analysis to help you during this process. Not only will they be able to document the functionality of the existing Access application, but they'll also be able to design a new system in ASP.NET that leaves you in a better position than you were in when this process originally began.
One of the unfortunate things about smaller firms in particular is that they usually lack this in-depth business analysis experience. Because of that, companies need to select partners with experience in the process of how to migrate Microsoft Access databases to ASP.NET and SQL Server. This guarantees a smooth transition and helps leave you with the viable Microsoft Access database replacement you need when you need it the most.
When searching for such a partner, however, understand that no two web application development companies are created equally. To find out what qualities you should be on the lookout for, click here to read our article on the subject titled "The Top 9 Characteristics of Great Web Application Development Companies."
To find out more information about our ASP.NET software development outsourcing capabilities, or if you’d like to discuss how to replace your Microsoft Access database application with a web based application, speak with Keene Systems' CEO, Lance Keene click here to book a call with him. You can also download our eBook - Why ASP.NET Development Services Fuels Business Growth - to learn more about this essential topic.