FileMaker good for small workgroups

There are times when you want to have a desktop or small workgroup-level database on hand. Perhaps you need to quickly construct a report from a small amount of data or test an interagency data transfer procedure. In these instances, it does not make sense to contact your enterprise database administrator. Instead, take a look at FileMaker Inc.'s FileMaker Pro 5.0.

FileMaker Pro 5.0 is adept at fulfilling common database tasks you might need in a desktop or small workgroup database, such as importing external data and searching, adding or changing records. Be forewarned, however, that FileMaker Pro does little to support functionality beyond the small workgroup.

The folks at FileMaker are working on expanding FileMaker Pro's usability somewhat. In this release, FileMaker Pro can support 25 users in a client/server setting or up to 10 World Wide Web-based users accessing data via their browsers. In the coming months, FileMaker Pro is expected to gain some product siblings: FileMaker Developer, FileMaker Unlimited and FileMaker Web.

FileMaker Developer promises to support the creation and deployment of database applications in either client/server or Web environments. FileMaker Unlimited (for client/server settings) and FileMaker Web are expected to be server-based versions of the database that will support up to 250 users as they access deployed FileMaker applications as well as data. Even with these expected enhancements, of course, FileMaker Pro still will be limited to departmental server settings.

The entire FileMaker product line could go farther up the technology chain at many agencies if the company would focus on integration, development language and tool interoperability, and platform support. FileMaker Pro needs greater hooks with enterprise relational databases, unstructured data (such as Web content) and enterprise applications and systems (such as SAP and complex instruction-set computing).

FileMaker Pro does offer a scripting facility—ScriptMaker. However, the database needs to offer interoperability with development languages, such as Java and Perl, and database tools, such as those used for data transformation. Moreover, FileMaker Pro is limited to users in Microsoft Corp. Windows and Apple Computing Inc.'s Macintosh settings. Rival databases, such as PostgreSQL and mySQL offer support for a bevy of development languages and a wide array of platforms, including Windows, Macintosh, Linux and any number of Unix flavors.

We did find FileMaker Pro easy to install. And FileMaker's new user interface rivals those found in Corel's Paradox and Microsoft's Access head on. The new interface, similar to that found in Microsoft Office, enables users to quickly access common database functions via well-designed menus and toolboxes. However, those already experienced with FileMaker Pro will find that many features, such as queries, need to be accessed outside the FileMaker Pro menus. Thus, the new user interface design may have limited payback for the already-knowledgeable FileMaker user.

During our tests, FileMaker Pro performed at acceptable speeds. Although we did not perform a formal benchmark, FileMaker Pro matched rival Corel Corp.'s Paradox and was slightly slower than Microsoft's Access 2000. FileMaker Pro's expected expansion of FileMaker Unlimited and FileMaker Web also may help boost speeds, especially for larger workgroups. However, for desktop usage, FileMaker Pro does the trick performance-wise.

FileMaker Pro offers some niceties, such as its Layout/Report Assistant. This tool helps you create layouts for on-screen data presentation as well as layouts for printing reports, labels or even envelopes. You can select from a variety of layout styles or create your own.

If you need data connectivity, FileMaker Pro supports open database connectivity (ODBC) drivers. However, the drivers require that FileMaker Pro and the target table both be opened before making any connection. This is unlike ODBC support in other database products, and it increases the effort users will need to put forth to get data from other sources.

You don't have to be an SQL expert to use FileMaker Pro. A point-and-click Expression Builder helps you construct SQL statements and import data. You cannot use FileMaker Pro to directly access other databases. Instead, you have to use one-way connectivity and import the external data. This can be excruciating when you are importing larger files.

FileMaker Pro is a fine choice if you need an easy-to-use database to quickly handle simple desktop data tasks or exchange data with others in a small workgroup setting. However, lack of direct data integration, limited development language and tool interoperability combined with narrow platform support leave FileMaker Pro somewhat lacking in larger settings.

-- Biggs is the InfoWorld test center technical director and enterprise computing acting section editor. She evaluates enterprise technologies, has more than 15 years of IT experience and writes the enterprise toolbox column.

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FileMaker Pro 5.0

FileMaker Inc.

(800) 325-2747

www.filemaker.com

Price and Availability

Available on the open market for $249 per user license; $149 to upgrade from competing products. FileMaker Pro 5.0 can be purchased at a wide variety of retail computer stores or online at FileMaker's World Wide Web site.

Remarks

FileMaker Pro is a strong contender among its rivals in the end-user and small workgroup database space. Unfortunately, the lack of direct connectivity to enterprise databases, the lack of interoperability with other data-related tools and limited platform support lessens FileMaker Pro's effectiveness in large agency settings.

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