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Front-Ends 101: Microsoft Access

Last updated Mar 28, 2003.

Most Database Administrators deal only with the engine part of a system. They rarely delve into the inner-workings of the application, unless they are also developers by trade.

But even if you don't have a coding background, it's worth learning about developing applications against SQL Server. For one thing, it will give you a deep appreciation for what those poor developers do for a living, but perhaps more importantly it will help you understand how the applications get at your data.

Another benefit for creating your own application is that you can build your own environment to test certain SQL operations. You can create a program to display, change and report your data. Writing your own application gives you an insight to designing everything from tables to indexes and helps you understand the network load your data creates.

Once you've decided to create your own application, you might be faced with the fact that you're not a developer, and you don't have higher-level language programming experience. That's OK, you didn't know SQL when you started either.

I think it's important that every DBA learn at least one programming dialect. It helps round out your technical education, even if you never program professionally. My current language choices are Microsoft's C# and Java, but in my checkered past I've used everything from Pascal to Visual Basic. The point is that it really doesn't matter which language you learn, it's just important to go through the discipline of learning one.

You'll find that Informit is loaded with lots of programming resources that will teach you everything you need to know about several languages and techniques. Pick one and dive in. If it just isn't happening for you, try another. If you are really serious about the development part, I recommend a .NET language, since that will be included in the database engine for SQL Server in the next release.

If you don't have time to learn a language, or perhaps you're just not interested, I still think you should write an application or two against your database. In this tutorial I'll show you how to write a simple application using a Microsoft Office tool: Access. Don't worry; it's not the old Microsoft Access that was the bane of every DBA's existence, with awful performance and locking issues. Access 2003 (which is the version I'll use here) is actually a worthy front-end for smaller applications. To understand why, I'll need to explain a little about how Access is architected.

In a typical large-scale application, the application, business logic, and data tiers are all separated. In fact, even within these tiers multiple servers are often used to service various parts of the application, such as data entry and analysis. Multiple languages are often used within the application, and various platforms and technologies are used to separate tasks such as reporting and maintenance.

Not so with Microsoft Access. When you create a database in Microsoft access, all the layers are built into the ".mdb" file. All the tools are handled by the Microsoft Access engine, from design to implementation.

You can, however, use only the components you need in a particular .mdb file. In one you might store only the data tables, and in another you might have the interface and reporting pieces linking to those tables. It is this second method that you could first use to have Microsoft Access serve as a front-end to SQL Server. Access can use lots of data sources for the tables, including other Access databases and SQL Server, Excel, Text files, Oracle, and more. In fact, you could use all of them in a single Microsoft Access front end.

You have a couple of options for using SQL Server with Microsoft Access. The first is to use a standard Access database and attaching tables from SQL Server, or creating a "Project", which has no Access tables or views in it. Using the first method, you can include not only SQL Server tables, but you can create Access tables, connect to Oracle or any ODBC data source name.

I recommend that you go the project route, since it is a cleaner implementation for SQL Server connections. You also get some added performance benefits by having Access talk directly to SQL Server without having to go through an ODBC layer.

So just what is this front end? Well, it involves several parts, but I'll explain three of them: Forms, Queries/Views and Reports.

Forms

Forms are how you interact with the tables, queries or views. Forms have Events, which do things, and various Properties, which is how things are. For instance, a form's events include On Load, which is where you can put code for things to happen when the form starts up. A form's properties include Caption, which is the title at the top of the form. You can set these properties, or you can have an event set them.

You put objects on a form, such as text, pictures, and buttons and data fields. Objects also have events and properties, such as On Click and Font Name.

Queries/Views

If you connect to SQL Server using an Access database, you'll be able to create Queries in the Access database file. If you make a project to connect to SQL Server, you'll create Views, which are stored in SQL Server. Both do the same thing, which is to create a slice of the data from base tables. My preferred method of working with SQL Server is to use Views or Stored Procedures to access base data. So I normally create my tables, create views or stored procedures based on the data requirements, and then connect Forms to those.

Reports

One of the most powerful features of Microsoft Access is the ability to quickly create reports. It's very easy to point a report to the data, change the fonts, and create groupings and more.

So these objects are all you need to make an application to store, display and retrieve data from SQL Server. And there's an added benefit. Microsoft Access also includes VBA – Visual Basic for Applications, which is a full-up programming language that makes use of the Microsoft Office functions to make coding easy. I won't cover that in this tutorial, but I will show you a few references that will help you learn it.

Let's put this into practice. I'll show you a small application that uses the pubs database to maintain and display information in reports. Along the way you can put some of what I've shown you into place.

I start by opening Microsoft Access and selecting the Project using existing data... from the wizard menu. The first thing I have to do is set the name of the project, and the next screen asks for my connection information. I've set mine to use Windows Authentication and my testing server's name, and to use the pubs database. After a few moments the wizard finishes and I'm shown the tables and views that the pubs database has.

Next I drill to the Forms tab in the control panel on the left. I could use a wizard to build the form, but instead I'll just click on Create form in Design View. Once I've done that, I'm presented with the form and its properties and events sheet. I click on the Data tab and enter the following query in the Record Source property:

SELECT title, au_lname, price, ytd_sales FROM titleview

You can enter any valid SQL Server statement here. Once I do that, I get a box with all the fields in that select statement so that I can drag them onto the screen:

I drag the fields onto the panel, and then click the View and then Form View menu item. While this is hardly usable in this state, the data shows up just fine:

One of the benefits of Microsoft Access forms is that you get navigation controls for free, without code. You can see those at the bottom of the form; they look like the regular VCR buttons. You can also see the large arrow bar on the extreme left of the form, that's for record selection.

That's a whirlwind tour of creating a simple form in Microsoft Access against an existing database. There is so much more that you can do with this tool, and all of it comes with wizards to get you started.

If you create a project using the wizard option of Project using new data... then you can also create the tables and other objects using Access, with all the wizards helps.

So what's the downside? Microsoft Access still isn't the best front end for production applications. It has to carry so many features that some performance enhancements won't work. Also, it's a pretty hefty client – both in price and hardware resources. Still, if you have a small group of people that need to share data, you could do worse than use Microsoft Access to deploy. Even if you don't, it's a great prototyping environment for SQL Server.

Informit Articlesand Sample Chapters

Our own Tom Bunzel has a great set of articles on Microsoft Access as part of the Microsoft Office guides.

Online Resources

There are tons of Microsoft Access sites out there, and the Microsoft home site is one of the best. You can find lots of articles there about connecting Access projects to SQL Server.