Alternatives To Microsoft Access Databases

Screenshot of digital spreadsheet

As you may have heard (and much to your dismay if you depend on Access), Microsoft is no longer actively developing new Access features. They still maintain it for basic bug fixes and will continue to do so on the newest version until at least 2025 (as of writing, 09/09/2021). While other Microsoft services (Word/Excel/Outlook/etc.) have been moved to the cloud via Microsoft Online, there are no plans for moving Access.

Microsoft’s Access has dominated “custom” and “semi-custom” solutions for managing data, and prototyping databases since it was unveiled in 1992. It’s not one of the main programs included with Microsoft Office, but it’s an affordable add-on for the do-it-yourself nonprofit. While it has been the de facto custom database for many Microsoft customers for almost 3 decades, it has not aged well in the era of “the cloud.” Cue Lena Horne’s iconic rendition of Stormy Weather…

Since Access was first unveiled in 1992, many other database players have entered the market. There are a ton of alternative options for databases, data management systems, and spreadsheets. A lot has also changed in terms of data security and the protection of personal data since 1992, as you can imagine.

As Access has aged, the issue of security has become a growing concern. Securely maintaining an Access database has become more cumbersome, and IT departments are overwhelmed with other projects. One of the biggest challenges (especially these days) is that it is difficult to allow staff to connect remotely to Access databases. Well-designed cloud solutions offer better security, reliability, and accessibility than locally managed software and systems like Access. For these reasons and others, you should consider moving away from Access.

This is a conversation we’ve been having more and more with clients. Here are some of the options we review to help them to decide if they should abandon Access, and if so, what they might consider instead.

Should I Ditch Access?

To know whether or not it’s time to give up on Access, it helps to understand where it fits in with other database solutions. We like to look at where they are on the scale of configuration and customization.

Configuration refers to how well you can use the tools the system comes with to change its behavior or features to meet your needs. Customization means writing code (or having someone else write code) so you can modify the software or add the features you want.

An example of software that is highly configurable but not very customizable is “commercial off the shelf software” or “COTS.” Even though these systems may be highly configurable, they do not allow for customization. But they offer ease of implementation. These work great for common problems, like customer relationship management (think CRMs). You seldom need to make your own CRM because so many solutions are available even for niche use cases.

A highly customizable platform requires a software developer or a very tech savvy power user. These are expensive to build, maintain, and use (especially when a COTS solution already exists).

For over a decade Access has made itself at home in between those two bookends. You can customize your database without using any code. You might need to use some SQL, but that’s not actually coding.

two people sitting by a computer discussing data

What Can I Replace Access With?

The list is by no means complete, so if you have an Access database that you need to replace, schedule a free 30 minute consultation with us to discuss your options using this link.

Want something you can configure without needing to code? Here are a just a few:

There are many other vendor systems that you can change to suit your needs…as long as your needs align with the purpose of that system. Trying to collect program data in Hubspot or Electronic Medical Records in Bloomerang would obviously be a bad idea. But as long as you have a need and there is a niche for it, you should start by seeking out a vendor system that you can configure rather than creating something custom.

Want something that is kind of like a spreadsheet, and is more flexible than the options above? Take a look at these “spreadsheet+” solutions.

These tools all look and feel like spreadsheets–but they do much more. You can build apps, prototype databases, collaborate, and even map out complex data relationships.

These are EXCELLENT options for prototyping when you aren’t sure what type of system you need.

Do you have a unique data model that requires lots of customization, but you don’t want to code? Take a look at these:

  • Salesforce
  • While people know Salesforce as a “CRM”, it’s actually quite a lot more than that…
  • It’s an ecosystem… it’s a platform… it’s a bird… it’s a plane… it can be expensive… it’s Salesforce! 🙂
  • If you are considering Salesforce, we recommend Isaac Shalev’s article from 2015.
  • Low-code/No-code Examples:

Low-code/no-code tools have been gaining steam lately. As they become more powerful, they often overlap the “spreadsheet+” category. They usually allow for extensive customization.

These can be both configured and customized readily by “super users” or “power users”… think of your colleague or friend that you always go to when you need tech help… they frequently have the right skills to set these up.

For more on low-code and no-code options, check out this article from TechRepublic.

Final note: Please do NOT use “free” data systems for any sensitive, confidential, or regulated data unless you sign an appropriate agreement with the vendor relative to data privacy and protections. “Free” = “you pay with your data, and the vendor isn’t responsible if problems happen.”

We wrote this article because we get so many questions about replacing Access databases. Please let us know if there are other topics you would like to hear more about! Schedule a free 30 minute consultation to discuss your Access database or any other data challenges your organization faces.


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