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OpenOffice Packs a Powerful New Database Punch

Posted by iMark - 2005-10-23

OpenOffice.org's latest update includes a database that matches Microsoft's popular and competing Access database, experts say.
"It's definitely a big deal," said Stephen O'Grady, an analyst at the IT analysis firm RedMonk. "Now with the [OpenOffice.org Base], although I have not evaluated it to the extent that I can call it 100 percent at functional parity with Access, the interface is just as usable as Access. It's quite nice."

The first office application suite to feature native support for the OASIS-approved OpenDocument file format was released Thursday morning, one week following the project's fifth anniversary of its founding and after a delay caused by "show-stopping" software bugs.

Specifically, the database power within RC3 is OpenOffice.org Base, the first version of a stand-alone database to debut in the open-source office suite.

OpenOffice.org has been focused on developing other components of its suite to compete with proprietary offerings from Microsoft Corp. et al., such as its word processor, spreadsheet and presentation manager programs.

The stand-alone database rounds out the offering by bringing long-missing, important database power to users. Users will be able to create stand-alone databases, associated forms, reports and queries, much as with Microsoft's extremely popular and widely used Access database.

According to documentation on Version 2.0's new features found on OpenOffice.org's site, users have long been pestering the community for database support.

"One of the most annoying things is that people ask on the OpenOffice.org lists, 'Does OpenOffice.org also support databases?'" according to the site. "This has been the case since the first release."

The problem wasn't that OpenOffice.org lacked a database. In fact, OpenOffice.org 1.1 supported dBASE (.dbf) databases without no additional software required. For more advanced requirements, OpenOffice.org 1.1 supported the MySQL database natively, or any database, for that matter, through ODBC and JDBC drivers.

"We've always had a database element and were always surprised people didn't know it," said Louis Suarez-Potts, an OpenOffice.org community manager.

The community saw that there was a need for a more prominent module, as well as a need to hook up with a specific database that could meet most people's needs, Suarez-Potts said.

"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," according to the OpenOffice.org's new features documentation.

"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."

RedMonk's O'Grady concurred. "The database capabilities they had before were not the equivalent of a Microsoft Office," he said. The lack, he said, was mostly "from an interface and front-end perspective."

The new database capability is important, O'Grady said, as there are many customers who have made substantial investments in the form of Access databases.

"I was talking to an open-source database provider who was working with a customer who had 2,100 Access databases to run their business, which was in financial services, mortgages, that area," he said.

"Put it this way: It's the kind of thing where that's one case, but there are lots of cases out there where there are small businesses I've dealt with or worked at where they have a simple thing, like their customer contact list, in Access, with front-end forms and so on."

Both large and small businesses have investments in Access as a database. From that standpoint, the capabilities in previous versions of OpenOffice.org just didn't cut it, O'Grady said. "They couldn't help businesses make the transition," he said.

In the new stand-alone database, users can create and edit forms, reports, queries, tables, views and relations. The forms, reports and queries are stored in a single file format, allowing users to handle their databases in the same way they would handle other popular databases.

Users can employ either their own database or Base's own, built-in HSQL database engine. Base offers a choice of using Wizards, Design Views or SQL Views for beginners, intermediate and advanced users.

The full version of the HSQL database engine included in Base stores data in XML files. It can also access dBASE files natively for simple database work.

For more advanced requirements, Base supports Adabas D, ADO, Microsoft Access and MySQL databases database natively. It supports any database through industry-standard ODBC and JDBC drivers. It also supports any LDAP-compliant address book, as well as common formats such as Microsoft Outlook, Microsoft Windows and Mozilla.

How robust is Base? It depends on what you're used to using, O'Grady said. HSQL databases are not high-end databases, and are more appropriate for storing moderate amounts of information. The capability of connecting to other databases through ODBC/JDBC opens up new possibilities that will be interesting to watch unfold, O'Grady said.

"MySQL may not be Oracle or DB2 in terms of ability to scale, but it's used in some high-volume production settings," he said.

"The cool thing is it makes people entirely able to migrate to a free system without losing any data," Suarez-Potts said. "They'll be able to sustain the endeavor a little more. And if they don't like the database, OpenOffice.org hooks in very easily with a whole bunch of other databases."

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