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MS Access is a database technology used primarily by Microsoft servers - hence the 'MS' part. Access databases aren't as common as they once were, but many old sites still rely on them, so you'll need a web host that can host the database for you.

What is MS Access?

MS Access, or Microsoft Access, is a database application used on Windows computers. It is sold along with Word and Powerpoint as part of the Office suite. The actual database content is saved as a file with the .mdb extension.

There are two main user groups for MS Access:

  • There's the regular desktop user who needs to create simple databases for a relatively small audience, such as colleagues in a small office. In this scenario, the database will probably be saved locally, or on a network, so that users can dip in and out. MS Access can handle a small number of concurrent users in this kind of set-up.
  • Secondly, there are developers who need a database to hold content for an application or website. The latter will probably use ASP, ASP.NET or PHP to hook into the Access database. But there are some limitations, which we will look at later.

The key take away is this: MS Access is primarily designed for desktop use and light traffic. If you're planning to develop a website with MS Access at its core, you need to consider the alternatives in order to future-proof your website. However, for some users, Access still has its place.

MS Access Today

The Microsoft Access application was originally released in November 1992, and it is still used to hold content for limited web use. It's also used for some functionality on Microsoft's SharePoint platform.

For most purposes, Access has been overtaken by MS SQL, Oracle and MySQL. That's largely because MS Access does not provide the features or resources that its competitors offer. However, there is something to be said for accessibility, and Access is very simple for a beginner. It also has a nice graphical user interface which helps newbies get to grips with the way databases work, and the database can be shared very simply.

MS SQL vs MS Access

The majority of common scripts - such as WordPress, Joomla! and Drupal - require a database that follows the conventions of structured query language (SQL). If you plan to build a website on one of these platforms, the decision has been made for you: Access won't support these applications.

Yes, MS Access is a simple, cheap way to get a database online fast, with integrated wizards to do a lot of the leg work for you. Installation couldn't be easier, and creating databases is a breeze. But it's built around the Jet/ACE database engine, which is not considered industry standard.

So why use MS Access at all? For small businesses and hobbyists, MS SQL can be expensive and complicated to get set up, and there's no user interface to make things easier. It's really a developer tool. There is a trimmed down version, SQL Express, but it's still more difficult to set up than Access. MS SQL is designed for more demanding applications and higher traffic than MS Access, and is the better option for web deployment if you anticipate more than a handful of visitors, but MS Access copes fine in some scenarios.

Maintenance and Conversion

When you want to maintain an MS Access database, you essentially need to take it offline, locking out all access as you work. That's inconvenient in a web-based context, and often impractical, since Access databases are quite prone to corruption anyway. As a database grows larger, it's likely that you'll have more people needing access, so the corruption and maintenance issue becomes more of a concern.

It is possible to convert MS Access to MS SQL, and this is a sensible option if you want to grow or modernise your application, or make it more available. Some columns need to be formatted differently, so you'll need to convert the database and check the quality of the conversion carefully prior to deploying it. You may also need developer support.

Requirements

MS Access is recommended for small websites with relatively low traffic. Not all web hosts support it, so check the specs of your chosen package. You will need a Windows server.

Regardless of host, it's recommended that all MS Access databases are placed outside of the web root, away from the section of your server that can be browsed over the web. This is a security issue, since a database located within web-accessible folders could be downloaded and viewed by anyone.

Is MS Access Dead?

Not yet, although many IT professionals don't like Access and would rather not deal with it. If you have a legacy application that needs hosting, make sure your web host supports MS Access and plans to support it in the medium term too.

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