Quickbase database server allows secure Web-based sharing

In this edition of David Strom's Security Tool Shed, Strom evaluates Quickbase, a managed database service.

Category: Managed database services
Name of tool: Quickbase
Company name: Intuit Corp.
Price: Free to $50 per month, depending on service plan chosen
URL: www.quickbase.com
Platforms supported: All Windows and Macintosh operating systems running Version 5.0 or better of Internet Explorer (recommended)

Strom-meter: 
*** = Hey, not bad. One notch below very cool.

Key features: 
Pros - 
Easy to set up and use
Safe and secure with various access levels

Cons - 
Overall database size is restrictive, depending on monthly service plan chosen

Description: 
If you trust Intuit with holding on to your most personal data, you might be interested in its latest managed services offering called Quickbase. It is a dandy idea, and I haven't been this excited about a database product since Ashton-Tate first came out with dBase II, for those of you that can remember back that far.

Quickbase is a shared and secure database server that will appeal to many corporate workgroups because it is simple, solid and quick to set up and maintain. Intuit recommends at least Internet Explorer Version 5.0, although they claim parts of it will run on recent Netscape browsers as well. (I didn't find any quirks with Netscape, but I didn't test it thoroughly.) You don't need any other software: Like many managed services, it runs from your Web browser, and you can connect to your database from anywhere that you have an Internet connection. Intuit maintains the servers, backs up your data and keeps track of access controls and other administrative matters. This is a big plus for several reasons.

First, if you ever had to share a database across several different workgroups or between trading partners or suppliers and customers, then you know how hard a problem this can be. You have VPNs to set up, security credentials to exchange and access controls to your network and data infrastructure to maintain. Sometimes this can take months to get going, if you can pass muster with all the various IT hurdles. And sometimes you get through doing all this work only to find out that your overall wide-area network latency isn't sufficient to deliver decent enough screen response times.

Second, you have backup issues: Who will perform the backups, and how can you be sure that your data is really safe in case of disaster? Finally, you have programming issues to get a good-looking database going.

If you have run a serious database server like Oracle, you must be thinking, okay, so how robust is this Web-based thing? How far can I take Quickbase? The answers are very satisfying. Intuit has done its homework, and there are lots of templates to get you started, along with some sophisticated ways to develop fairly complex data structures. While you probably wouldn't want to use this for a 10,000 record database, (and you can't, because you have limits on the overall size of the database that are fairly restrictive) you can certainly make do with several thousand records without any problems.

A good database is only as good as the reports it produces and the ability to import information. Again, Quickbase does well in this area. I was able to import my data quickly and with a very sophisticated field-mapping utility that is better than just about anything I have used on higher-end products.

But the real highlight here has to be the effort that Intuit expended into securing your database, which is what you would expect given the company's heritage in the financial services area for online tax return preparation and small business and personal accounting. I am a big fan of the company?s products, having used their online tax preparation software service for a few years and having run my business on QuickBooks since I began my company almost nine years ago.

When you set up a new database, the default setting allows people to connect via Secure Sockets Layer browser connections, although you can turn this off if you have to. You can restrict access to your data by record level or by user name (users will have to register on the Quickbase Web site and have cookies and JavaScript enabled in their browsers) and have several different levels of access, such as limiting some users to just view the data while others can modify or add records. While you don't have to share your database with anyone, the real power of this service comes to play when multiple people can access the same customer records online and in real-time from across the world, with just a Web browser and an ordinary Internet connection at hand. You can even invite people via e-mail, which is a nice feature, although it should be used carefully given that it can open up your database to anyone intercepting this e-mail message.

There are other ways to share your data over the Internet, but the alternatives are trouble. You could set up your own database server at an ISP that offers managed hosting services, but that is more work and certainly more costly. You could open up your own local network to Internet users to access your own database servers, but that is more risky. There are products like FileMaker Pro and others that now come with built-in Web servers or other Web-based managed services that are mostly for sharing contacts and address books, but they aren't as capable. Quickbase really is a nice compromise and an overall superior solution.

There are free and fee-based plans. The free service doesn't get you very far (a total of three databases that can occupy at most 2M bytes of storage), but far enough that you can convince your boss to shell out some moderate bucks to upgrade to the fee-based services. These range from $15 to $50 per month, and as I said, will restrict the size and number of databases you can have per individual account. But more important are the additional features, such as being able to create access groups, set access permissions on individual fields and have multiple administrators for each database once you pony up some cash.

Overall, Quickbase is a great idea whose time has come. If you need to share your data with some far-flung friends and corporate partners, then take a careful look at what they have to offer.

Strom-meter key: 
**** = Very cool, very useful.
*** = Hey, not bad. One notch below very cool.
** = A tad shaky to install and use but has some value.
* = Don't waste your time. Minimal real value.

About the author
David Strom is president of his own consulting firm in Port Washington, NY. He has tested hundreds of computer products over the past two decades working as a computer journalist, consultant and corporate IT manager. Since 1995 he has written a weekly series of essays on Web technologies and marketing called Web Informant. You can send him e-mail at david@strom.com.


Related book

Database Security
By Silvana Castano, Mariagrazia Fugini, Giancarlo Martella & Pierangela Samarati
Summary: This book provides an authoritative account of security issues in database systems and shows how current or future systems may be designed to ensure both integrity and confidentiality. It features comprehensive, in-depth coverage of database security, including models, systems, architectures and standards. This book is suitable for advanced courses on database security and will be an invaluable reference not only for database administrators and designers, systems analysts and developers, but also IT managers responsible for the security of information systems.

This was first published in September 2001

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