You know it’s time for your business to upgrade to a database when:
- Spreadsheets aren’t enough to organize the growing amounts of electronic data anymore, it’s hurting business and clients are screaming for change.
- The advantages of replacing stand-alone programs outweigh the time and expense of switching to something new.
- In this age of hackers, viruses and identity theft, it’s not safe for people to keep valuable information on desktop or laptop computers.
No matter what the reason, even the smallest business can benefit from upgrading to a database to centrally collect and manage vital company information, according to analyst and industry experts. First introduced in the 1970s, relational databases consolidate and store information in tables that can be shuffled and reshuffled myriad ways, helping companies better track diverse data such as sales transactions, inventory and customer profiles.
Plethora of products
Today, small businesses have a wealth of database types and vendors to choose from, including:
- Low-cost solutions like Microsoft Access, part of the Office product suite, or Filemaker Pro from Filemaker.
- Open source products like MySQL or the Base database fromOpenOffice.org.
- Software-as-a-service offerings such as InternetOffice.biz.
- Entry-level enterprise database software from industry leaders such as Oracle, Sybase and Microsoft
But don’t put the cart before the horse. The first step in a database upgrade isn’t picking the software. It’s deciding what you’re going to use it for, who’ll be using it, and how far it has to scale as your company grows, says Noel Yuhanna, a database analyst at Forrester Research in Cambridge, Mass. Once you’ve created the database and know what needs to be moved, automated tools can easily transfer data from existing spreadsheets and other files to the new system, Yuhanna says.
With identify theft and other computer-related crimes on the rise, security is another reason companies switch to centralized databases, Yuhanna says. “If someone were to remove files from your desktop or laptop, you might not know about it. Anybody can change a figure and you wouldn’t know it. In a database, you can track that.”
Who’s in charge
Deciding what you need a database to do might be a group effort, but the job of putting a plan into action typically falls to a select few. At small companies, that might be the most tech savvy person on staff, or a consultant who’s hired for a month or two to get things running and train the staff. Mid-sized companies might need one or two IT people to maintain associated hardware and software, according to Greg Nelson a former software company owner and currently chairman of the Naples, Fla., chapter of SCORE, the small-business advisory group.
Costs will vary accordingly, Nelson says. For a small company using Microsoft Access to create a database for 10 people, the costs would be nominal. But a database with 500 users and roll-back capabilities that minimize lost data in the event of a power failure could be $25,000 in software alone, he says.
However, any forward-looking company shouldn’t think twice about putting a properly constructed database in place, Nelson says. “Having the right information available at the right time,” he says, “can certainly make the difference between success and failure.”