Wednesday, January 13, 2010

Relational database 101: A Microsoft gem hidden in plain sight

Colleagues sometimes ask me about where to get a basic introduction to databases. My informatics students should be asking that, but they usually don’t.

I’ve not had a very good response. It’s been eons since my first encounter with data models, ER diagrams, keys and the like. I dimly recalled the monstrous Microsoft Access manuals of old, which often included quite good tutorials.

That’s what led me to crack open the Table of Contents of Microsoft Access 2007. It took me a while to figure out that how to do that. You can either click on a tiny blue circle/question mark in the far right of the app bar, or you can type old F1. You can then click the wee blue book icon to see a Table of Contents or you can look at “Browse Access Help”. From either location you’ll see “Database design” as shown here in the Table of Contents:


Microsoft has put a lot of material behind that little Database design link:


Starting with Database design basics:


Wow. I feel like I’ve entered a dusty old library frozen in time, and opened a book untouched for decades (I did that once in rural Bangladesh – quite memorable). Microsoft’s tech writers are terribly underappreciated.

The materials include demonstrations, references to sample databases, etc. The vast majority of this material is applicable to any relational database, from poor little Access to Oracle.

Many students and tech workers have an unused copy of Microsoft Access near at hand. Even if you never intend to do anything with Microsoft Access, you might as well take advantage of the excellent interactive textbook that comes with it.


  1. That takes me back: I learned all the basics about relational databases from the Access manual back in 1995.

    Access has always been 95% great and 5% insanity inducing. In spite of the hours spent fighting and losing to it I still kinda like it. I just wouldn't ever use it again.

  2. Access 2007 has most the warts, and less of the love. I think the team meant well, but it must have been horrid digging through that ancient code base.

    I'm ok using 2003 because I know where the bad bits are and I know all the fixes, hacks and workarounds.

    2007 is pretty icky.

    I don't think Microsoft will do much with Access beyond 2010, it feels like a relic they'd prefer to forget.