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 OpenOffice.org database application: A first look review

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raj_mmm9



Number of posts : 1850
Age : 55
Registration date : 2008-03-08

PostSubject: OpenOffice.org database application: A first look review   Sun 13 Apr - 19:18

Soon OpenOffice.org will introduce a database application to its office suite. For the last couple of years, OpenOffice.org has been developing its word processor, spreadsheet, and presentation manager programs to compete head-to-head with similar software products such as MS Office, Koffice, and Textmaker. The upcoming Version 2.0 rounds out the offering and adds the ability to create standalone databases, associated forms, reports, and queries much like MS Access. According to the documentation it's called OpenOffice.org Base.
This story will discuss the OpenOffice.org Base and how it can be used in your business. I'll touch on the similarities (plus differences) with the OpenOffice.org database program and Access. I'll continue with a little commentary on migration issues. We'll finish up by building a basic contact database, a form, a query, and a report using the wizards. If you are already an OpenOffice.org believer, you can just skip down to the "build a quick database application" section to see how it works.

If you've been thinking about trying OpenOffice.org, read on and I'll give you some ideas on how this new feature can help your business.

Why a database program in OpenOffice.org?

According to the specification document (in OpenOffice.org .sxw format) referenced on the OpenOffice.org 2.0 Office Suite Guide to New Features.

"One of the most annoying things is that people ask on the OpenOffice.org lists, 'Does OpenOffice.org also support databases?'. This has been the case since the first release. The problem is that the database part of OpenOffice.org was not that intuitive to find and the approach of data sources was hard to understand. Another point is that the current implementation is too development specific resulting in the normal user not recognizing the intention of the links in a data source. This has to be changed.

The second point, which is also very important, is that people often ask for the same functionality as found in a major competing product. In fact, most of the features that our competitors provide are already implemented in OpenOffice.org, but as one OpenOffice.org user wrote, these remain a 'hidden treasure'."

Apparently users have wanted a standalone database application for quite some time.

Less apparent, is the fact the OpenOffice.org has connectivity to databases already built in. Take a look at my "Plug OpenOffice.org into PostgreSQL" article from July 2004 for a rundown on connecting OpenOffice.org Writer to PostgreSQL tables. Much of the difficulty seems to have been that most users were not aware of the existing connectivity or how to effectively use it in their businesses. Let's face it, making the jump from database table to a pseudo application implemented in Writer, isn't really all that intuitive.

The new Base application is the first step in making connectivity between OpenOffice.org and databases easier.

There are several ways you might use the new application in your business. Windows users will recognize the opportunity to whip up a quick little database application for small jobs. I used to use an Access database with some forms on a Windows machine to verify a billing system. When we got to the point where the billing balanced and was stable, we phased out using the Access database. Quick, simple, cheap, and it did the job.

After OpenOffice.org 2.0 is released, I'll probably try designing small production databases in the new program. It will be comforting to know that I'll have the reliability of a Linux machine. Automatic backups to a central server is also fairly painless on a Linux box, so data loss issues can be virtually written off.

Another way to use the new program could be to quickly build a prototype system for ironing out business processes in preparation for a full fledged enterprise level client/server database project. How many times have you done that? Now you can start.

MS Access meets OpenOffice.org Base

OpenOffice.org Base has a similar look and feel to Microsoft Access. Both have graphical interfaces, wizards, and sample data to get you started.


Screen shot of the main database screen.
Both applications can run on like hardware, as well. Access requires a minimum 233 Mhz Pentium box (a Pentium 3 processor is recommended) and at least 128 MB of RAM. It also requires Windows 2000, XP or later versions of the Microsoft operating system.

I've run current versions of OpenOffice.org on old 133 Mhz desktops. Probably not something you'd do in a big company although it does give you a good idea of the compatibility. I'm happy to say that this pre-release version (1.9.5) runs fine. There's been noticeable disk drive activity when loading the program, opening a file, and moving between desktop screens. I suspect that some of that thrashing has to do with debugging information being logged, but I'm not sure. I'm confident, things will be cleaned up with the production version.

Other similarities include the database file format and the capability of accessing external data.

Both Access and OpenOffice.org Base use some form of XML to store their data. I did take the example rob10.odb and unzip it into its own directory. What I ended up with were various files, like content.xml, settings.xml, and mime types. A couple of directories were generated, like database, forms, and META-INF. XML slingers will undoubtedly know about these things.

Of course, one difference between Access and OpenOffice.org Base is the cost. According to the Microsoft Web site retail pricing for Access 2003 is $229 for new users and $109 for upgrades. Naturally, OpenOffice.org is available on the Web. You can download a version for Windows or Linux and just use it. Feel free to contribute to the OpenOffice.org project via cash or time.

Should you migrate?

It's great that OpenOffice.org has incorporated a new database application in their office suite. I'm sure many readers will be a little apprehensive about moving from Access to OpenOffice.org Base, especially since it's the first release.

According to the specification document, the only data that can be imported are forms and reports. Also, there is currently no way to export anything, such as a table to a file. The documents did mention that when import/export capability is added that it should be to an XML native format.
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