Okay, then, ready to find out what is next?
Plan A Through HAt our Access User Group Access Web App Online meeting last night (May 18th, 2017), we had a round table discussion of alternatives to AWAs for online, cloud database applications. We're all members of the AUG AWA OL group because we have long been fans of the AWA approach. Unfortunately, our meetings this year have been devoted primarily to trying to figure out what to do next. Here are some ideas we came up with last night.
If you are currently "evaluating your options" as the press release often says when announcing the departure of a long-valued employee, here are some places to get started. We'll come back in future blogs with more detailed write ups of anything we learn as we try them out. So, in no particular order of importance, relevance, ease of use, and especially NOT any recommendation as of this point in time, here are some options. Consider this a "getting to know the players" statement for now. I hope to add to it over the next few weeks as new candidates appear.
I've included some comments on cost. AWAs were an incredibly cost-effective way to get a small cloud-based application up and running, so this has to be a part of the evaluation of any potential replacements.
ZOHO CreatorJulian Kirkness has already published a review of this contender, so I'll content myself with a couple of personal comments. Cost appears to be reasonable for this option. Apparently there's even a free option, although I am not sure how appropriate that would be for many uses. We're casting about for replacements for AWAs, which are -- or were -- incredibly cost-effective, so this might well be a selling point. Just don't let it be the only one you look at. Julian likes this tool and is exploring it further, so that's a good sign. We'll probably see more of this one in the coming weeks as developers like Julian get further along in their reviews of options.
Microsoft PowerAppsI have to admit that I've not yet been sold on this option, although I do look at it with increasing favor, partly because it's relatively more accessible to traditional Microsoft users. It's a no-code/low-code tool. While I hesitate to use the term, you can "program" many functions with the expression language it uses. Frankly, I have been impressed by the relatively rapid expansion of the PowerApps initiative. Every time I visit one of their sites, I see new capabilities and extensions. Unlike AWAs, PowerApps have the full weight of the Microsoft enterprise behind them. They're still a distant second, IMO, to the capabilities of the AWA, but there's a lot going on over there and I'm sure we'll be incorporating them into our MS toolkits at some point. Not as a transition from AWAs, unfortunately, but as an alternative for sure.
Pricing is, as are many things Microsoft, a bit obscure, but from what I can tell, you can still get involved with PowerApps for a minimal (i.e. "free") cost to begin with. That's attractive even if you try it and decide it's not for you.
Oh, one thing I do have to say about PowerApps is that the range of data sources they can consume is impressive: .csv files to SQL Azure tables. Oh, with the exception of accdbs.... There are good technical reasons for that, but when you tell an Access developer that the first three steps in adopting PowerApps are:
- Migrate your data to a different kind of storage, such as SQL Azure.
- Close your Access application.
- Open your PowerApps application.
To be fair, of course, if you do use SQL Azure or another cloud database, you can connect to that same data store from both an accdb and a PowerApp, so there's that hybrid application angle.
QuickbaseSelling point? It originated from Intuit, makers of Quicken and QuickBooks, so it should have some muscle behind it, although I understand they did spin it off.
To my way of thinking, the no-code/low-code approach only makes sense for fairly simple applications, such as an issue tracker. That was one of the "featured app templates" offered when I checked their website. They also mention using "QuickBase Sync [to] connect with popular cloud apps, such as Salesforce and Zendesk, as well as CSV files in just a few clicks. " Not mentioning relational databases suggests to me this one will work better with other types of data.
Cost is a factor in our search. It looks like the basic entry point is going to be $150 a month ($15 per user with a 10 user minimum.) I will, as promised, look at it more in-depth, but I can hardly recommend it until I'm sure it's got the horse-power to justify the cost of entry.
CaspioThey advertise themselves as an ultra-fast, no-code solution and have a section devoted specifically to migrating MS Access accdbs "to the cloud". Along with other claims on their website, that kind of hyperbole makes me wince. I wish I could be more positive, but it just makes me feel too much like I'm being sold something when it's made to sound so simple. I'll go back and give it a better look along the way, but for now,it won't be at the top of my list.
Pricing appears to be reasonable. They offer a free plan for unlimited users and three "DataPages". A DataPage appears to the equivalent of one "screen" of data, i.e. an input form or a report. For some kinds of applications, that might suffice. One could get started with that plan, find out if it's going to work for their needs, and then move to a paid plan with the appropriate level of resources.
Somewhere in their website, they mention ..." a backend database built on Microsoft SQL Server." That's potentially a good thing, but it's not clear whether you, the developer, will be able to get close to it. On the other hand, this looks like a truly relational database system, so it has to be given serious consideration on that basis alone.
Alpha AnywhereThese guys are good, from everything I hear. But they are not cheap. I looked at this tool once, when it was known as Alpha Five. I liked the fact that one code base can generate both a desktop and browser based version of an application. I didn't like the fact that it requires a proprietary server to run. I also was not thrilled by the coding language and approach involved. I suppose you'd get the hang of it sooner or later, but it's really quite different from our traditional MS Access/SQL Server experience. That means you're moving out of the mainstream, where you'll be taking on more of the risk of adequate support for yourself and your clients.
However, for an enterprise level application, this one ought to get serious consideration.
FileMakerAnother venerable tool that has its roots in the Apple ecosystem. However, it's not Apple-centric. You can create applications that work on Mac or Windows. I'm not sure yet if that requires two sets of code; that's one of the questions we need to address. I've been told that is not the case. I know too little about it to offer more yet. Stay tuned as we dig into our options.
FileMaker also requires you either license a proprietary server, or host on Amazon Web Services (AWS) starting at $888/year for up to 5 users and up.
Code On TimeUnfortunately, this one is relatively new to us, and I can't really offer much detail yet. From their website, it looks like another no-code/low-code approach. It does support a range of platforms, including SharePoint and Azure, as well as ASP.net and DotNetNuke. All of these, by the way, are application tier products, not necessarily database products. They do provide "support for major SQL databases" That means we need to dig further into their offerings to get a handle on that. Pricing includes a free option for starters. From there it looks like licensing would get pricey fairly quickly, though, the lowest level is priced at $349/user/year.
OutSystemsThis one was discovered during our Panel search, but I'm not going to pursue it for the time being. Pricing puts this one at the far end of what most Access developers or power users would consider to be a viable alternative to an AWA. We'll probably get back to it later, but for now, you might want to check it out on your own if you're so inclined.
So, that's the first crop of contenders our User Group came up with.
Over the next few weeks and months, we'll try to get "down and dirty" with as many of them as we can, and we'll provide our opinions as we learn.