Expertise

Publishing a Database on the Web

Planning a Web / Database Project

Since the Internet took off, companies have been finding new uses for the web browser: many internal systems are now delivered through internal websites (or Intranets). The reasons for this takeup are pretty simple: First, users find web applications much easier to use. Second, web technology doesn't require any software to be installed on users' computers, cutting rollout and PC upgrade costs.

These benefits mean that many companies are looking at their database systems and considering how they can web-enable them to extend their reach or improve usability. However, before starting such a project, there are two key questions to ask:

  • Is the data to be available internally (i.e on an Intranet) or externally (i.e on the Internet)?
  • Does the company just want to show selected information, or convert the whole system to web-based operation?

The answers to these questions dictate, broadly speaking, how large and complex the project will be.

Publishing a Database on a Web Site

In principle, displaying data on a web page isn't difficult - most current web servers can read data from an Access database easily enough. However, there is one big problem: the database needs to be accessible to the web server - which normally means both must be on the same network. This is no problem if the web site is an internal (Intranet) site - but it's much harder to do if the web site is hosted with an external Internet Service Provider - as is the case with most small to medium sized companies.

There are a number of solutions to this problem:

  • Host the website with a company that also offers database hosting. This solves the basic problem, but the database can't easily be used inside the company, which probably isn't acceptable.
  • Get a dedicated connection to the internet. This has recently become a lot more affordable with the arrival of ADSL, but it's still quite technically complex. And ADSL won't support large amounts of traffic.
  • Find some way of synchronising the database in the office with a second copy at the web server. This is technically challenging, but is the best low-cost solution to the problem.

Publishing Selected Information

For many companies, it would be useful just to be able to present a summary or subset of the database information on an internal web page. This is quite easy to achieve: the company installs a web server such as MS Internet Information Server (built-in to Windows 2000) or Apache, and writes scripts that read the data and display it as web pages. Note: the Access database engine isn't suitable for applications where high reliability or performance is required. In these cases, it's advisable to consider moving to a database server. See Choosing a Database Server.

Data-Only Upsizing

At present, there is no automatic method of converting an Access application to web-based operation - the system effectively needs to be re-implemented using a web server. However, in practice it can be a lot simpler and less expensive than this suggests. First, the programmers creating the new system have a solid specification to work from, in the form of the original system. Second, some parts of this process are reusable, so programmers undertaking this type of project on a repeated basis can accelerate the process. Also, Microsoft have recently introduced a new web server technology, called ASP.NET. This system makes the creation of database-driven websites many times easier than previous technologies.