Your database can be a valuable asset.

The real acceleration into an information-savvy business environment didn't start until the 1990s, although the “information age” actually dawned back in the '70s, when data management and leverage became a competitive advantage for some very strategic-thinking companies. Today, the use of data in conducting normal business is assumed, and a company's owned information can be one of its most valuable assets.

Owned information can be customer or prospect lists, sales and contact records, market information or an almost endless number of valuable information sources all contained in databases. What is a database? A collection of information organized in such a way that a computer program can quickly select desired pieces of data. You can think of a database as an electronic filing system.

There are many different types of databases, however it's best to standardize as much as possible. Most software applications today utilize a database of some type to store information. It's a good idea to make sure that the applications are using the same type of database as much as possible.

If you expect to modify the application that is accessing your database or plan to add additional reporting functionality, you will want to choose a database that is easy to work with or very common. A database like Microsoft SQL would be a good choice in this case, because many programmers and administrators are available to assist you, as compared to a proprietary or less common database.

For small and specialized data collecting tasks within your organization, you might consider developing an Access database on your own. Microsoft Access comes with Office Professional and is extremely powerful. With a class or two and a good book, you can put together a small database that will do a specific function within your company. This can prove very rewarding and provide you with exactly what you are looking for in terms of a solution to a specific problem. Like anything else, it pays to do your homework and find the best fit for your organization.

If any of this database discussion sounds foreign to you, you might consider this: Each year, we depend more and more on the information available to us in order to succeed. And, assembling that information in its most useable form also builds the asset value of the business. In my mind, that's plenty of motivation to learn more about it and become more comfortable! Like it or not, the Information Age is here to stay.

Sidebar: Best Practices

Each month, we'll provide proven Best Practices. Readers are encouraged to send along any successful IT management approaches they may be using. We will feature the best of them in upcoming columns.

13. Develop a comprehensive database maintenance program.

You will want to set up a maintenance program for your databases. Databases are typically accessed frequently by multiple users at any given time. As they grow in size, there becomes a bit of “data bloat,” which can cause slowdowns initially. If that's not bad enough, slowdowns can eventually cause inconsistencies or problems with the data, if some basic maintenance is not performed. Each type of database has its own maintenance procedures so refer to your database vendor for more information.

14. Have a contingency plan for database backup.

Regarding contingency planning, make sure that you keep a copy of the software for your version of each database offsite. With respect to backups and disaster recovery, you have options, depending on how critical the data is to your operation. For critical data, you should choose a server with RAID which means that there are redundant drives built in so that if a drive fails, the database will still be useable until you are able to replace the bad drive. You should also have a solid backup plan in place. A good example of a plan would be to replicate your database to a secondary location “real time” and back the data up to tape nightly, making sure to store the tape offsite.