Feral Cats: Managing Access databases in your organization

This post was written by Steve Greenberg, a Program Manager Lead on the Access team.

Every few months, the Microsoft Access engineering team receives a high priority e-mail from someone in our worldwide sales org. It’s always the same root issue: an IT department is frustrated with the proliferation of Access databases and the manageability headaches that ensue.  Recently, we talked with the CTO of a British company who compared databases to feral cats wreaking havoc on his organization’s work.

We find that this focus on manageability is nearly universal among customers we talk to, both large and small. Organizations want to empower users in business units to do self-serve development of apps that improve efficiency and reduce costs. But empowerment creates headaches. Data must be secured so that only the right people can access it. It must be backed up so that hardware failure is minimally disruptive. And there must only be one copy of the data, so that all parts of the organization make consistent decisions.

This release, we have a number of exciting things to announce about managing databases with Access. First, let’s talk about some new tools for managing desktop databases:

  • Microsoft Office 2013 Discovery and Risk Assessment allows you to scan an organization’s network shares and SharePoint document libraries to find Access databases. You can scan on demand or on a routine basis, and incorporate the discovery results into a master inventory. Once files are inventoried, they can be evaluated for complexity, financial impact, risk, and errors. Check it out here.
  • Microsoft Office 2013 Audit and Control Management Server contains a set of database management tools that allow you to audit databases and understand the changes being made to them. Check out the tools here.

These tools help manage desktop databases. But most people agree that the right place to store data is on a server. Data that’s centrally stored on a server is inherently more reliable and secure than data floating around as files on file shares and desktops. As you evaluate your data tracking options going forward, you should consider Access 2013 Web Apps. Manageability is one of the most significant reasons we chose to build Access 2013 Web Apps on Office 365 and SQL Azure. Here are some of the benefits:

Reliability: Office 365 and SQL Azure are both enterprise-class cloud services backed by robust Service Level Agreements. To learn more, check out the Office 365 Trust Center. Also, here’s a recent blog post about fault-tolerance in SQL Azure Databases.

Security: You can use SharePoint permissions to control who can create new apps, modify the tables, queries, views and macros of existing ones, edit data and read data.

Monitoring: IT organizations often want visibility into the usage of applications in their organization. To meet this need, SharePoint collects data about each Access Services app. To access this information, visit the Site Contents page. Hover over the app, and click the “…” icon. Then click Details.

The app details menu

Here’s an example of what you’ll see. The App Details page lists properties of the app, allows you to see any errors encountered by users of the app, and gives usage statistics to help you understand how often the app is being used.

SharePoint tracks many statistics about an app.

For the administrator who loves dashboards, SharePoint allows you to configure monitoring so that you can visit one web page and see the usage of selected applications in your organization.

As a team, we’ve always cared deeply about manageability and believed fundamentally that data is more manageable when it’s on a server than when it’s on a desktop. A SQL Server in a datacenter is the best place for data to live. But for years, the cost and technical barriers to creating such a server meant that it was only available for mission-critical projects. With SQL Azure Databases, we finally have the technology available to allow end users to easily and affordably create real SQL databases in a datacenter. Check them out using the Office 365 preview. In order to try out Access 2013 Web Apps, be sure to choose one of the plans for business: Small Business Premium or Enterprise.