Filemaker, SQL Express, PHP?

By mark-lawyer ·
My small law firm lives in the stone age, but has asked me to set up a database to handle clients. This is for a single project likely to last about a year. It will involve getting outside voluntary workers in - the whole thing has to be done on a shoestring.

The database must:
1) Hold records of around 2000 clients. Each record will have traditional contact details. We also have various scanned materials (probably as PDFs) that we need to "attach" to each client. Some will have none at all, some could have several.

2) I need to code up a pretty simple interface to allow staff to perform functions - add/modify records, attach new documents etc. Ideally this interface will allow users to view the attached documents - ie call up Acrobat. The whole point is to try and get away from paper files.

3) Support around 25 users. Typically around 10 or so will be logged in at any time, but only 3 to 5 will be accessing concurrently.

4) Be secure. Much of the information is personal sensitive data.


1) Access would be via a web-browser. This is just something one of the partners has said. I can argue the point if necessary - but I think his idea is that he "doesn't want to have to load stuff onto PCs" and it will be easier for people to learn.

2) Be remotely accessible - albeit perhaps with reduced functionality. This could save costs as some volunteers can work from home and use their own equipment.

3) Have access restrictions. Ie normal users would not get access to the database except via the interface/forms I have created for them.

4) Log record updates by author and time/date.


1) Although the system has to support sorting/exporting/filtering records, I will probably handle these functions directly so a user-friendly front end isn't required for this.

2) I don't think there will be much "heavy" processing. Most data will be collected, entered and will just sit there. It will be viewed frequently, but not modified/sorted often.

They've come to me because I am the most IT savvy guy they have. By way of background many years ago I could program in C and was proficient in Paradox for DOS. I can hang a few scripts off Excel.

Given my rusty skills, I'm looking at learning curves whichever way I go. I'm keen to "have a go" at all this, but it's not going to be a career change - I'm a lawyer these days and left IT behind more than 10 years ago.

My thought was to go for something like Filemaker 10 - it seems it comes with some typical applications set up and could be ready-to-run from the box. I could then tailor it as we go along.

Or should I go with SQL Express?

Also... for a web-type interface, should I use something like PHP?

Thanks for the advice. Apologies if I haven't specified the problem clearly enough.

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All Answers

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How are you with Linux?

by Peconet Tietokoneet In reply to Filemaker, SQL Express, P ...

In Linux (depending on which you go for), there are SQL, PHP, and many more, so that you can set up a server for the actual database. I think Filemaker is only Windows based. Saying that you can map the drives off of a Windows system through a Linux system so as to cut down the costs involved. But the most cost will be your time setting it up and getting it running the way you or they need it. Are you prepared for the time involved?, if so, at what cost to you?
Just a few things to remember and think about before you start. Make sure you get something out of it, otherwise you will come out as the loser, money wise. You will need to get a costing base set up first to see the full cost of implementing this project.

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I once used Unix

by mark-lawyer In reply to How are you with Linux?

I grew up on Unix on Suns hacking out Modula-2, and C using the vi editor. A long time ago! Never touched Linux, so it would be another learning curve, but not impossible.

Yes, this is very much a poisoned chalice. If I get it right, it could make for a secure job for me.

I think something that works (to some extent) out of the box that I can configure as time goes on would be best. Once the decision's been made I think the firm will be frustrated if they see me at the screen with nothing appearing for a couple of weeks - and for this reason I fear anything that involves a big learning curve or writing something from scratch.

Thanks for the advice.

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Download and test out Windows 2008...

by Peconet Tietokoneet In reply to I once used Unix

Very secure and with most of the tools that you will need and on the plus side your FileMaker should run just fine, download from here:

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Consider a web application generator like SynApp2

by rhowelljr In reply to Filemaker, SQL Express, P ...

At the risk of blowing my own horn, the description of your project seems like a good fit for a development tool I've been working on. I've created a web application generator called SynApp2. It creates web-based UI, just as you've described, around a database definition created in MySQL (or Oracle). There are links to the site in my TechRepublic profile. It's open source and its free.

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Use CiviCRM

by abrookins In reply to Filemaker, SQL Express, P ...


Your best bet is to use CiviCRM (, which is designed to do everything you want.

FileMaker may seem like a good option at first. But having worked as both a FileMaker developer and a PHP developer, my opinion is that CiviCRM is a much better solution to the particular problem you've outlined.

CiviCRM is a free, open-source contact management system. It has these features:

1. It's a web application, and is remotely accessible

2. Without making any modifications, you can enter individual, organization and household records and track basic data on them, including demographics, addresses, relationships to each other, etc.

3. You can attach files to contacts

4. You can group contacts, and use groups to send emails to contacts

5. Robust access control system

6. Ability to add custom data fields

And lots more. Check it out...

Andrew Brookins
Redspire Development

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