Databasics 101

Most small business operators have dabbled with databases, but relatively few use them to their full advantage. So here’s a crash course call it Databasics 101 on why you need them, how they work and what they can do for you.

Businesses live and die on the information they collect and how they put it to use. For example, at my company, we send a reminder for unpaid ads on the day following their entry. This provides a timely reminder with an easy link to our payment page.

The key tool for storing, organizing and making sense of this information is a database. Many programs use a built-in database, such as an email reader, a calendar or a contact manager. These programs are already heavily used by individuals and businesses to manage their activities. However, these programs only perform specific functions.

If you want to send email to all of your clients who registered with you during a particular week last year, you are facing a long manual process with standard personal information management (PIM) tools. A database can provide such a list of addresses with ease. It also can track the performance of individual ads, determine your best customers, provide page-view history for affiliates and automate your billing process.

There are a number of excellent databases that run on desktop computers. Some examples include Access, dBase, FileMaker and 4th Dimension. There are also dozens of programming, scripting and report-generation tools for these databases.

On servers, popular databases include Oracle, DB2, SQL Server, Sybase, Informix, and the freeware MySQL and Postgres. Some of the advantages to having a server-hosted database include the ability to connect from different computers in your office, the option of using a wide variety of programming languages and the benefits of using an industry-standard structured query language (SQL). If you run a Web server for your business, it is relatively easy to connect the Web server to a database.

In my company, for example, we use server databases for both office and Web environments. In the office, we can do on-the-fly queries to find out information about a customer and to determine how much customers spent on each of our features. These queries can be run by anyone in the office, because we access the same common database.

You’re a Sales Machine

Pairing a database with a Web server allows your site to become a customer-driven sales machine. Of course, it will take a little programming to put your business practices online, but the key component is a robust database. With this combination, there are Web sites that support thousands of affiliates, providing customization for each one. The key parameters for each affiliate are stored in a database.

Databases store their data in files optimized for rapid access. You can’t view these files directly, but databases provide facilities for writing and reading information. It’s important that your database provide facilities for backing up this critical information, and that you back it up frequently.

Just about every database has graphical tools for creating, browsing and modifying database content, generally called tables. Desktop databases come bundled with these tools, but for server databases they are often separate products. These tools can help with the creation and casual browsing of database tables.

To take full advantage of a database, you need to look at its scripting or programming interface – a process that may sound harder than it really is. Server and some desktop databases provide a common language called SQL for manipulating their contents. For example, the SQL statement “select email from customer where area code = 310” would select all email addresses from your customer table whose area code is 310. This same statement could be used on any database that supports SQL.

Databases that provide an application programming interface, or API, open their power to third-party or even customer-written applications. One industry-standard API is called open database connectivity (ODBC). ODBC compliance allows third-party applications and programming languages to connect to and manipulate a database.

My company, for example, uses an ODBC interface to connect Java applications to a database. To find all unpaid ads from the prior day, a Java program connects to the database through the ODBC interface. It then issues an SQL request through that connection. The request is something like “select * from classified where starttime > yesterday and starttime < today and paid = 0.” (This is an SQL simplification, but it serves our purpose.) The “*” indicates we are selecting all data from the classified table that meets the criteria.

The classified table contains the classified ad contents as well as information about the ad owner, such as the email address. It’s then a simple matter for the Java program to send an email message reminding the ad owner that the ad still has an amount due. The message can be personalized, and it can include the ad contents of the ad.

This is just one example of how to use a database, but it shows the potential power of one of the most common tools available to small businesses. Doing this operation manually would be a very time-consuming process and would require personal attention every single day. Using a database allows you to automate the entire process, freeing you to focus on growing your business, not just maintaining it.

If the technology is a bit beyond your personal capabilities, don’t despair. Remember, there was a time not long ago when most people were intimidated by the idea of owning their own computer. There are plenty of people around who can help you, and finding them will be well worth your effort.

The best place to start your search for help is from friends who understand the technology. They probably won’t want to do the work for you, and you shouldn’t expect them to. But they can help you screen the person who will do the work.

Professional help doesn’t have to break your budget. In most cases, you should be able to find a contractor for about the same price as a plumber, and often for less. But if you have a complex project in mind, you may want to seek bids from several computer consultants. n

EDWARD ARENBERG, vice president and CTO of EPage, created one of the first fully dynamic Web sites. He manages and develops for EP.com, EPage.com, and AdConnect.com.