Linux Myth: No Simple, Easy Database Software

In this installment of my Linux Myth series I take aim at the GNU/Linux database nay-sayers, and shoot them down.

There are probably thousands, if not millions, of custom, one-off databases created using proprietary software like the expensive Microsoft Access on Microsoft based systems. One “reason” given by some so-called “experts” as to why people cannot use GNU/Linux is the lack of a simple, easy to use, database package like Access. Oh really? Base is just this sort of software. I have recently been “playing” with the Base software on my GNU/Linux desktop PC and have found it very easy to get started with. In fact, I have created some test databases, deleted them and started over a few times to get familiar with the basics of Base. My experience just using trial and error has shown me that Base is simple and easy for a database novice like myself. I am so confident it is simple and easy I have made a video of my creation of a database to store information about my CD collection. See the bottom of this article to download the video.

Not only is Base easy to get started with and use, it is potentially very powerful. According to the Base product page, one can link Base to a back-end database like MySQL or PostgreSQL. I would think one could use the form creation to create a front-end application for using a MySQL or PostgreSQL database. There are even plugins to connect to and use a Microsoft Access database as well as JDBC and ODBC standard drivers to allow connection to virtually any database. While I have done none of this advanced database work myself I see the tools in Base. For more information see the Base Wiki.

Take that, you nay-sayers.

Download the video here: (This is an OGG Theora video that is 4:22 minutes and 19,305,875 bytes. This will work best if downloaded using right click + “save as” or your browser equivalent and run from a local hard drive. Trying to “stream” it with this URL is likely to fail. Need a player for Theora video? Get VLC. VLC is “free” software available for Microsoft, OS X, BeOS, GNU/Linux and other platforms.)

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Edit Fri May 22 12:00:45 CDT 2009: Add information about VLC for viewing Theora videos.


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Gene A.

Gene is a "Unix Guy", network technologist, system trouble-shooter and IT generalist with over 20 years experience in the SOHO and SMB markets. He is familiar with and conversant in eComStation (a.k.a. OS/2), DOS (PC, MS and Free), Unix, Linux and those GUI based systems from Microsoft. Gene is also a follower of Jesus (forgiven, not perfect), and this does inform his world view.

20 thoughts on “Linux Myth: No Simple, Easy Database Software”

  1. Ah, before someone else points this out. The Base <> Access connections only work on Microsoft systems for now. Other operating environments, like GNU/Linux, are being worked on but are not finished:

    Edit: I just noticed the last update for that page is 15 September 2007. It is likely there has been significant advancement since then. After all, this is a fast paced, open source project. 🙂 If anyone knows of updated information about connection to Microsoft Access databases please share that in a comment here.

  2. Gene, One of the most typical complaints about OpenOffice Base when making stand alone databases, is the lack of being able to create a ‘menu’ or title page or to be able to run an OOo db on it’s own, meaning without loading the OOo, as one is able to do with Access db’s.

    Beyond that, it is easily comparable and very easy to create tables, forms and queries as any other db product out there.

    Also, Base is exceptional at connecting to other db’s such as MySQL

  3. bigbearomaha, thank you for the comment. I think the ability to run Access databases stand-alone using a runtime is mainly there because Microsoft recognized that people wanted to develop software around Access and sell the result. It would be harder to sell these little applications to end users and get them to buy a full database package just to run an application developed with that database package.

    Since one does not have to buy Base this would be less of an issue. The ability to create menus, title pages and other features will likely come to Base in time. But it is easily usable right now for a casual user or a small business needing to make some custom databases.

  4. Adam (comment #5), thanks for the heads up about Glom. I have downloaded and installed it but so far it will not create a database file using a default example name or any name I type in any directory I select. This should “just work”, but it is not. If Glom is to be recommended for those needing a simple, easy database solution then this problem is a show-stopper. I am going to review Glom … if I can ever get it to work for me.

    Edit: just after I posted that I realized what I was doing wrong. Mark this one up to PEBKAC. 🙂

  5. Follow-up about Glom. Yeah, it is easy. I think this Linux Myth needs a “Part 2”. I’ll play with Glom a bit then make another article + video about it.

  6. Gene and bigbearomaha, The other reason OO Base doesn’t need the standalone feature is that there are a number of relatively simple database engines that are designed for embedding in small apps. The first one that comes to mind is SQLite, but there are others.

  7. Roger (comment #8), thanks for reading and for your comment. I know about the light database engines that can be used with a programming project. However, they are not really what this article is meant to point out. Basically I wanted to show that there are GUI based tools like OO.o Base for easily creating a one-off database if needed. I know of at least three local businesses that have created custom databases with Microsoft Access. They used Access because it is GUI oriented and reported to be “easy” for “plain folk” to use.

  8. I have been testing Openoffice (Windows) since the 1st version. The thing that kept me from using it is it slow start up. Sometimes it took over 1 minute to start (yes subsequent start is fast because it already cached in memory)

    Compared to MS OFFIZE, altho it is proprietary, it is much faster during start up.

    The second HUGE annoyance is the mail-merge tool. It is a joke. No matter how many times I taught my client to use it, they still prefer MS OFFIZE even though they have to pay over USD150 for the licence per machine.

    (I am linux fan and use linux daily)

  9. Rayman (comment #10), I appreciate you reading here. This article is specifically about Base, not all of the suite. That said, I am specifically targeting the use of these applications only on GNU/Linux and other FOSS systems. How they perform or do not perform on Microsoft systems is not something I care about, since I do not use Microsoft systems myself. 😉 I am aware that people adopt these applications on Microsoft systems because they are “free”. Since they are “free” one gets much more than that for which one pays. 🙂

  10. Dear Gene.

    I am also talking about Base actually. The Mail merge utility that most non-profit organisations used (I have a few non-profits as my ‘cheap’ client – clients I charged 10% of what the commercial cost).

    The Mail merge utility, I tried to merge from Writer to Base from openoffice 1,2 and now 3. I can use it myself because i consider myself an expert.

    But I am talking about non-profits that dont have budget to hire experts as permanent staff. Their ‘IT Dept’ is just a one person man whose expertise is only using Words and gmail.

    It was so troublesome (using OOO Base and Writer) that I end up using Xampp (a lamp stack on windows, the mysql component) merged with MS OFFIZE WORDZ.

    I even tried to merge with Windows version of Abiword. But as I said in the last post, these poor non-profit org end up buying a copy on MS OFFIZE.

    With the powerful mail merge tool of MS WORDZ, merged to Mysql, they are able to shoot donation pledge emails to tens of thousands of potential donors, and hence keeping their organisation running.

    I really apologies Gene. I am a linux fan (ubuntu since 4.10), and SME Server 7.x (check out – great for non-profits orgs) But in the my experience I cannot use my expertise in OOO for my clients. They rejected it.

  11. Gene, allow me one more comment.

    If using OOO Base component (plus Writer) in a very familiar environment like WINDOZE is not acceptable to most non-profits orgasnisations, imagine how are we going to persuade them to use OOO Base and Writer for mail merge, in Linux (e.g. Ubuntu)

    Gene… this is real world problems. You cannot ignore them. The reason Linux just barely manage to surpass 1% desktop market share recently (after almost 18 years existence, since 1991) is because they ‘ignore’ real world, poor organisations like the one I am dealing with.

    They don’t listen!! That is the problem. Because it is FREE, they dont have the ability to assign staff to LISTEN!

  12. Rayman (comments #14 and #15) welcome back. Since you are complaining about not being responsive to end-users I presume you have already gone to and posted some bug reports or made feature requests? If so, please share the URLs to the bug reports/feature requests so those following this can go comment on them. More comments mean the report is more likely to get a bump. If you have not gone to to post anything, then do not complain if they are not doing what you want.

    For the record, most open source projects do have a way for end-users to post bug reports and make feature requests. I have posted several in various projects over the years and someone always looks at the report eventually. If the report / request has merit then it will be acted upon.

    Edit: Since I have never used mail merge myself and the last time I worked on it for a client was sometime in the mid-1990’s on a 1995 era Microsoft system I decided I need to know more. After looking at Mail Merge in Everything You Need to Know I do not see where it would be a big problem once someone went to the trouble of setting up the data source. It seems a bit of hand-holding and training would get anyone to the point where they could use this if they have at least an average intellect. Maybe I’m just missing something.

  13. As much as I don’t care for Microsoft products (or “personal database” software, for that matter), I can’t honestly say I would recommend Base to anyone experienced with Access. Had to take a class on Access for college, and I have to admit it is just friendlier than Base.

    Now, kexi has always shown a lot of promise, and I could get into kexi, but koffice has never been stable on any Linux distro I’ve ever tried. A crashy database program is not something you want to deal with!

    What I wish the FOSS world could put together is something that looks and acts like Access/Paradox/Base, but can pump out a LAMP, Python, or Java web application with a MySQL/Postgresql backend. Such a program would probably obviate the need for Access, Crystal Reports, and a slew of other programs. Not to mention it would make replacing a lot of old VB6 / DOS vertical applications a whole lot easier.

  14. Base has many shortcomings, for the end user it’s frustrations sometimes outways it’s usefulness, especially if you are trying to transfer data between systems. Where’s the direct import of CSV files, nowhere, just try the frustrating hop between Calc and tell me that is a good user experience.

    Lets try exporting, nope, nothing there either, unless you want to bounce around through other applications again.

    As for the MySQL connections, yes it works, but to a degree. I’ve had funny data format issues with Base or the driver incorrectly identifying field types, and therefore giving incorrect query results. When using the MySQL Query application, and then cutting and pasting that into Base, with suitable adjusments, still didn’t give the same results as the query in the MySQL app.

    I use Open Office full time at work and at home, but I still think Base is one of the weaker components in the arsenal, and as much as I hate to say it, it doesn’t come close to Access, unless you wish to do simple datasets and are happy that your data is tied up in the system and you’ll never want to export it elsewhere.

    As for inexperienced end users I don’t think it adds that much value, databases are hard enough for end users already, having a product that can’t import and export easily is just an impediment to people trying it out.

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