Classic Computer Magazine Archive CREATIVE COMPUTING VOL. 10, NO. 9 / SEPTEMBER 1984 / PAGE S2

What is a data base package? Bill Jacobson.

What Is a Data Base Package?

If you have a checking account and a care file of favorite recipes, you already have two data bases. They are organized collections of important information, which are used regularly and may give you enormous headaches if not properly updated and maintained. Many of us have rued the day we failed to keep our checking account in balance and were greeted with nasty notes from the bank and our creditors, or did not correct a mistake in an old family recipe and were forced to serve fried Spam to important guests.

Computers can help you with these and many other collections of information, by making them easier to maintain and much more accessible. This is accomplished with data base programs that tell the computer how to accept (input) information entered from its keyboard or another device, and to present (output) these data to a monitor screen, disk storage unit, printer, or other medium.

Data can be sorted and printed out in the order you specify, at the touch of a few keys. You can easily generate summaries of how you spent your money-- food, doctors, mortgage, car expenses, etc.--from your computerized checking account, or a shopping list of ingredients needed for next week's meals from your recipe data base. All of this is accomplished without having to wade through reams of paper each time you dream up a new way to organize or report on the information you have collected.

The larger and more complex a collection, the more a computer can help. A business that maintains many different types of accounts has a much bigger potetial headache than most of us have with just one personal checking account. Most businesses have hundreds of customers and handle thousands of transactions (sales, returnes, purchases) a month. Income and payments (cash flow) must be estimated with precision so that checks to employees, suppliers, the landlord, the bank, and others can be covered, and the company can take advantage of cash discounts offered by suppliers for prompt payment of bills. When a massive parts inventory must also be controlled, the potential complications become mind boggling.

While an infinite number of monkeys, equipped with infinite numbers of abacuses, ledgers, and quill pens could accomplish these tasks, matters of this type are best left to the computer marvels which now inhabit so many homes and businesses.

The software programs required to communicate your needs to a computer can be developed from scratch, using Basic, Cobol, Pascal, or any other high level programming language. This could involve a great deal of work, however. A fair size accounting system, for example, can take a skilled programmer months to prepare, test, and de-bug, and much more time to modify if your needs change dramatically.

Many private individuals and businesses opt for data base management programs that are faster and easier (ergo more cost effective) to set up, and may not require much expertise to master. These programs are application generators. That is, you tell the computer (via the keyboard) what you want it to do, using relatively simple and understandable commands, and these instructions are automatically translated by the program into a language understood by the computer. This can greatly simplify the preparation of complex data bases.

Some programs are very userfriendly, with menus and tutorials to direct your every step and on-screen help messages at your beck and call. Others are less friendly, but may compensate for their comparative complexity by offering more flexibility and versatility.

These are two basic types of data base packages: specific purpose and general application. The former are best exemplified by accounting modules-- ledger, payroll, inventory, and other components--that can be used only for the purpose for which they are designed. While specific purpose programs can be implemented immediately and do not require an extended program development period, they are static in design. What you see is what you get. They can be neither improved by you nor customized to suit special conditions or needs.

The general application software discussed in this article, on the other hand, lets you determine the purpose and design of your data base, including the type, length, definition, and other characteristics of data to be entered, and the layout of reports.

All data base programs are not created equal. In the next section we will discuss the options available to you, so that you can make an educated choice of the type of program that best suits your specific needs. Regardless of which program you use, the quality of your efforts will depend upon the time and care that goes into data base design and preparation. It is not uncommon for many data entry items in a poorly designed data base to be incomplete or empty; data needed for these items may be unavailable, of suspect quality, or too difficult to obtain routinely. Wishful thinking should not replace sound judgment.

After data entry items have been defined, you should gather and enter all necessary information and verify that it was properly entered with a discipline and rigor that borders on fanaticism. Inaccurate data files are of little value. A cake recipe that leaves out sugar or incorrectly calls for a tablespoon of salt rather than a teaspoon is a portent of disaster. As is a checking account that appears to be out of balance by $20 in your favor, when a trial balance might verify that you made a serious error and are actually $200 in the hole. It is a waste of time to set up a data base unless you are willing to expend time and effort to keep it accurate and up-to-date. This is especially critical in business, where good data is the life blood of a vital operation.

If you select your data base software wisely, follow a few simple rules, and apply real discipline to your data gathering, entry, and verification activities, you will be amply rewarded. Your computerized data files will provide the information you need in the format required and with an appropriate level of data integrity.