What is Access?

As one can see, my blog concentrates on Microsoft Access. As a long time database developer who has worked on designing database applications on several platforms with several products (starting with dBase III, working through FoxPro on finally concentrating on Access) I have the knowledge and experience to give advice on Access development.

It occurred to me that I have never actually defined what Access is. As I start this I’m attending Microsoft’s annual MVP (Most Valuable Professional) Summit. This is chance for MVPs to gather, interact with their Product Groups and other MVPs. So we’ve been talking about Access a lot over the last few days. It occurred to me (though not for the first time) that Access is a much misunderstood product. So I decided to blog about what Access actually is.

Most people think of Access as a database. To do so shortchanges Access because it is much more. Sure a database is part of Access, but only a part. I like to describe Access as an Application Development platform. In that, Access is not much different from Visual Studio or other, comparable, development environments. Access comprises several components that all can be used to develop an application that people can use.

The first is a Forms Designer. Access has a Forms Designer that allows the developer to create powerful interactive forms that enter/edit data, view data, process data, do work flows and more. With the Forms Design Wizard, even a novice can create a nice looking form to enter or view data. With the use of process controls like command buttons, subforms, split forms and data controls like combo boxes, list boxes, option groups and text boxes, one can easily create powerful, interactive forms that can work with data or not.

The second component is a Report Writer. Access has one of the best Report Writers in the business. Many people use Access almost solely to create reports on data. The Report Writer is a banded tool that allows very powerful grouping, summarizing and analysis of data. As with the Forms Wizard, the Report Wizard, makes it easy for even the novice to create nice looking yet powerful reports that can be printed (both hardcopy and electronic) or even interacted with. Just the Report Writer alone is almost worth the price of admission.

The next component I want to discuss is the Query Designer. Generally used in conjunction with other components, the Query Designer provides a graphical interface to build SQL statements that can be saved and run directly or used in code modules. I will admit that the SQL generated through Query Design mode is not the best (too many parentheses, etc.) but it is workable. It also provides a way to learn SQL by seeing the code generated through the graphical interface. Queries are integral to getting data out of a relational database. At lot of activities in Access revolve around queries that pull the relational data together.

Another component to discuss is automation. Access contains two ways to provide automation for processing. First, let me state that automation is a more advanced feature of Access. People can build viable applications without using automation at all. But, with automation, the developer can provide end users with a full-fledged application that can does not need any knowledge of Access on the part of the user. But the macro language

Automation comes in two flavors; macros and VBA. The macro language was greatly improved in 2010. Prior to 2010, the macro language was rudimentary, not very powerful, and, in my humble opinion, not worth using. Since 2010, you have a language that is more powerful, more flexible and is usable in lots of situations. In addition, if you are designing a WEB App, your only choice for automation is macros. The other flavor is VBA. Visual Basic for Applications is a superset of the Visual Basic language. In addition to all the VB commands there are objects, methods, properties and classes specific to the application you are working in. With all that, VBA is a powerful language. There is very little that can’t be done in VBA. Many have extended Access greatly using custom VBA functions and procedures.

Finally, Access comes with a database component. This component has gone through lots of changes over the various versions. Previously called the Jet Engine it is now referred to as ACE (originally Access Connectivity Engine, now Access Database Engine). ACE is the native database store for Access. ACE is the weakest link in the family of components that comes with Access. But one of the strengths of Access is that it can connect to a variety of data stores. An Access application can connect to a variety of data stores. Anything from the freely distributable SQL Express, through text files, Excel or anything with an ODBC connection like SQL Server, Oracle, DB2 and more. And you can combine these connections to pull data from a variety of sources.

So Access was designed to work with relational databases. It was also designed to work in a multi-user environment. This makes Access very scalable in a variety of uses.

Because Access is a platform for developing applications it can be used on a variety of levels. The single end user can use it to develop simple applications for their personal use. The “knowledge worker” can “develop” multi-user applications to share data among a small workgroup. The experienced developer can create applications that can be used on a variety of levels in small to medium size businesses.

It has to be remembered that Access is not simply a database. If one looks on Access as a database one is missing the full breadth of features and capabilities that Access brings to the table. As an experienced Access Developer I am proud of the applications I’ve developed and how they have helped people with their jobs and hobbies.

I’ll close with a bit of a shameless plug. I’ve spent a significant portion of my life in helping people use Access to its fullest extent. I’ve done this as a volunteer on several Web forums like answers.microsoft.com, utteraccess.com, and more. I’ve done it through this blog. I’ve done it as teacher in a variety of venues (most recently for the Continuing Ed department of Hofstra University). I’ve also done this as a paid consultant for a variety of clients. So if I can help you make the most of Access, feel free to contact me through the various venues mentioned.

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