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What is database software?
Database software, also known as a database management system (DBS), is a program used to create, manage and maintain databases hosted on hardware servers or in the cloud. It’s primarily used for storing, modifying, extracting and searching for information within a database. Database software is also used to implement cybersecurity measures to protect against malware, viruses and other security threats.
Most database software includes a graphical user interface (GUI) consisting of structured fields and tabular forms that give users a centralized view of the data present in a database and the tools to manipulate and query it. Structured Query Language (SQL) commands are also typically used to interact with databases through the software. Administrators input SQL queries to prompt the system to perform an action, such as retrieving a specific set of data. However, there are also databases that use other means for retrieving information in addition to SQL.
The most widely-used databases consist of a basic set of columns and rows that display information retrieved using SQL. However, more complex software has been developed in recent years to accommodate the massive amounts of unique data collected by organizations, especially enterprises. These tools are multi-layered, use a variety of query languages and support more storage formats, such as XML.
Database software is available both as a commercial product and open source software. Commercial options often have the advantage of vendor support. While open source software may lack this support, they make up for it with more customization and free downloads.
The history of database software
Charles W. Bachman developed what is considered to be the first database software management system in 1960. At the time it was called the Integrated Database system. IBM quickly saw the value of a program that could easily access and pull information from a database and set out to make their own. Soon after, they developed the IBM IMS (information management system). These two programs are largely considered to be the forerunners of modern database management software.
As more companies tried to follow suit, the market became flooded with general use databases that lacked standard functionality. As a result, Bachman formed the Database Task Group in the early 1970s to create a standard for this software that manifested as the Common Business Oriented Language (COBOL). However, these systems were still complex and required substantial training to manage.
In the 1980s, relational databases hit the market. These tools offered a much simpler system that could be implemented by a variety of organizations without the need for database experts. This quickly became the industry standard. These first relational databases used SQL for database interaction. One drawback of SQL is that its complexity meant slow slow performance, especially when it came to scaling up databases.
The largest leap in database software technology after the creation of relational databases came about in the early 2000s. At this time, large web companies, such as Google and Yahoo required high scalability and performance to deliver their products to users. The answer was to build distributed, non-relational databases that used NoSQL. These databases were designed for enterprise-scale storage and high-performance data processing.
Because of cloud computing, cloud-based database software in the form of software-as-a-service (SaaS) has become a popular option. It offers more scalability to handle massive amounts of data required by modern organizations and frees up company resources because it is typically managed by the service provider.
Benefits of database software
- Data availability: Traversing through large stores of data in a single database can be time-consuming and labor-intensive. Database software makes this information readily available by providing the ability to input queries to direct you to the exact data you’re searching for.
- Minimized redundancy: Users commonly work on the same projects within multiple locations in a database. This can end up creating multiple copies of the same file, leading to data redundancy. This was particularly an issue with file-based data management systems, the predecessor to database software. This can cause confusion when searching for and organizing data and consumes valuable storage space. Database software reduces redundancy by controlling information stored in a variety of locations.
- Improved data security: Security should always be a top concern when it comes to stored data. Database software can authorize or block user access to views of protected data within an application called, also called subschemas. It can also give access to specific functions of a database depending on assigned roles. For example, only system administrators and others with high-level access are able to modify the database or alter user access. Authorizing access typically involves using unique passwords for each user.
- Backup and Recovery: Database software has the ability to regularly backup the data from a database and store it in a safe location in the event of an outage or data breach. It can then use these backups to automatically recover and restore the database to its previous state.
- Analytics: Database software can collect valuable analytics, such as what information users access, the frequency at which they access it, potential security threats and other hiccups in the system. This information is then visualized through the GUI so administrators can easily gain insights and make data-driven decisions to improve efficiency.
Part of what allows database software to improve efficiency and maintain security is the ability to assign roles to users that authorize or restrict access to certain portions of a network. This ensures that users only have access to the assets they need to do their job. The primary roles include the following:
- Administrators: This role has the highest level of access to the database. They are able to view and manage the most sensitive information, modify other users’ access, alter security protocols and more.
- Programmers: In order to build and modify applications, programmers require special permissions. They can install new applications, modify application functionality and in some cases remove them altogether.
- End users: These users typically have the most restricted access. and can only retrieve, update, share and delete information relevant to their duties. At most, they can retrieve, update, share and delete information only in the applications that are essential to their jobs. In some cases, they are confined to read-only access. This only allows users to view this information but are not able to manipulate or delete it.
- Applications and programs: Aside from human users, programs also need to access databases to retrieve and transmit information. Setting permissions for how these programs access data is also an important aspect of network security. The level of permissions for programs can mirror those of different users stated above.
- Building tables and forms: In order to add and organize files in a database, database software is used to create fields and data entry forms. When new files are added, they are indexed according to programmer-defined parameters, such as name, type and length. Data entry forms are created to input this information for each file. This information is used by the software to determine where files are stored and how they can be accessed.
- Updating and editing data: After data is stored, it will likely need to be regularly updated or edited with new information. Database software offers an ‘Edit’ mode to make these changes. However, each file will have restrictions on who can edit data according to assigned user permissions.
- View and query data: Besides storing data, one of the primary uses of database software is to quickly and easily find relevant information. Queries are used to search through a database and retrieve data.
- Reporting: Most database software has the capability to track database activity. It also has features that allow users to pull this information into reports that can be used to make data-driven business decisions.
Types of database software
There are multiple different types of database software that are typically broken down into six categories:
- Analytical database software: This tool is used to gather and compare data to assess the performance of different assets, such as website traffic, employee productivity or business goals.
- Data warehouse software: This software acts as a large repository that can pull and store data from a variety of databases. Data sets from these different databases can then be compared to find inconsistencies to improve data integrity.
- Distributed database software: Administrators can use this tool to manage information from multiple databases from a centralized system.
- End user database software: Designed for the smaller scale, end user database software stores information used by single users.
- External database software: This software acts as a central location for multiple users to access the same information, typically over the internet.
- Operational database software: Users can use this tool to manage or modify data in real time.
Types of database software technology
- Relational database management system (RDBMS): this traditional database technology can be applied to most use cases, and as a result, is a very popular option. Information is presented in rows and columns and allows for easy querying using SQL. RDBMS are mostly used to store relatively simple information, such as contact information and user identities. This technology is also highly scalable making it a good option for large organizations. It can be hosted on-premises, in the cloud and on hybrid-cloud systems.
- NoSQL: This is the second most common database technology next to RDBMS. The name of this technology stands for “not only SQL.” Standard SQL language can be used but it also supports a variety of data models, such as key-value, document, columnar and graph formats, as opposed to just rows and columns. The purpose of this design is to allow it to handle evolving data structures.
- In-memory database management system (IMDBMS): Rather than focusing on a variety of use cases or data structures, the main goal of in-memory database tools is to provide fast response times and improved performance.
- Columnar database management system (CDBMS): This technology was mainly designed for data warehouses. These systems typically store large amounts of very similar data. So a data structure composed of mostly columns is a more straightforward solution to maintaining a database.
- Cloud-based database management system: Cloud database technology is gaining popularity as many organizations are shifting to a cloud-based or hybrid cloud infrastructure. They are highly scalable and maintenance is often provided by the cloud service.
On-premise vs. hosted database software
Database software can be delivered in two ways depending on an organization’s infrastructure. On-premise software is deployed at an organization’s physical location on hardware-based servers. It’s typically managed by the company’s internal IT department. On-premise database software generally allows for more customization.
The other option is cloud-hosting delivered as SaaS. One large benefit depending on an organization’s resources is that the software is typically maintained by the service provider, freeing up IT teams to focus on other efforts. It is also more scalable than on-premise software, as it’s not limited by hardware.
Top database software vendors
Database software is used for a number of reasons across many industries. Because they have so many uses, there are dozens of database software programs available. Here are a few of the most popular:
Microsoft SQL Server: Microsoft’s SQL server is one of the oldest players in the game, first released in 1989. It’s mainly used for Windows-based systems but also supports Linux operating systems (OS).
Oracle RDBMS: This tool is one of the most popular database software options for enterprise organizations as it can support large databases but maintains good performance. It can support Windows, Linux and UNIX systems
IBM DB2: IBM DB2 was also an early contender in the database software space, introduced in 1983. It’s praised for its simple deployment, installation and operation. It also supports Windows, Linux and UNIX systems.
Altibase: This is an open source database software solution but is also a high performing, enterprise-grade tool. It uses an in-memory database to offer high speeds and is one of the few solutions that provides scale-out technology and sharding.
MySQL: MySQL is an open source relational database tool. It’s common for web hosting providers to bundle MySQL with their offerings making it a popular tool for web developers. It can handle robust sets of data but its relatively simple deployment and management make it a good option for smaller organizations and independent web developers as well.
AmazonRDS: As an offering from Amazon Web Services (AWS), Amazon Relational Database Service (AmazonRDS) is a cloud-based database-as-a-service (DBaaS). It offers high scalability, dedicated secure connections and it creates and stores backups automatically.
Knack: Released in 2010, Knack is a relatively new database software tool. It’s another DBaaS offering that is easy to use. It allows users to structure, connect and extend data without the need for any coding. It’s already gained a notable portfolio of clients, such as Spotify, Capital One and Intel.
UPDATED: This article was updated April 2, 2021 by Web Webster.