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Are you relational? Notes from the FileMaker Developer Conference

By Bruce Robertson (bfr@nwlink.com), September 7, 2002

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[This is an expanded version of an article which first appeared in the dBUG newsletter - Ed.]

This was my first visit to the FileMaker Developer Conference, which is held yearly in August, at the Palm Desert Marriott in Palm Desert, California. Nobody understands why FileMaker chooses to meet in the California desert in August. But everybody agrees that it is an exciting, inspiring event, at which 1200 people spend a week learning from each other. There are daily technical conferences in four large meeting rooms, and a vendor sales area. Breakfast, lunch and dinner are part of the package most days; this provides an excellent chance to meet with FileMaker reps, plus developers and users of every skill level.

New toys

So what’s happening in the FileMaker world? My pick for best product is Metadata Magic by New Millennium. If you do anything moderately complex in FileMaker, sooner or later you need to know which scripts are called by other scripts and which fields and layouts aren’t being used. Do you have errors in calculations? Do you call files that don’t exist anymore? Have you developed or edited on three different computers, so your file links actually carry multiple IP addresses?

Metadata Magic answers all these questions and more. It can even tell you how many times a file has crashed. A free demo is available for use with three files or less. The full product license and pricing is based on a sliding scale, depending on how many files you need to analyze. Data is output as a FileMaker file. You can view the reports yourself, or you can import them into your own FileMaker file. It even works on FileMaker 3 and 4 files. You need the master password, and the files must be closed when Metadata Magic runs. Since the files must be closed, that means you can even use last night’s backup CD! Running Metadata Magic against a client’s 41-file solution on CD took about 2 1/2 hours, and showed 2000 errors, unreferenced objects and other glitches (I have inherited maintenance and updating of this system).

Brushfire 2, the script analysis tool still in beta from Chaparral Software, was also demonstrated.

It is still lightning fast, and in addition to script information it now compiles data about fields, relations and so on. The XML output is great, providing navigation through scripts, error lists, etc. But the developers don’t provide a way to pull this data into FileMaker. I may be dropping Brushfire, as I need to pull the errors into a database, track them, decide which items to fix, record fixes against the items, and so on.

Security administration in FileMaker is very versatile, but settings must be edited for each database, and they can’t be edited while anybody is connected. This can make it difficult to maintain large solutions. Several vendors offered products which simplify this process, managing all file security from a single database. These even allowed “live” edit of user privileges, auto-expiring privileges, etc.

The Stravin Group introduced FM Structures. It has a range of products that let you connect FileMaker to SQL databases, plus a FileMaker security solution of its own. During the show, it seemed to be making things up as it went along, trying to define pricing and marketing strategy. At one point the group tentatively discussed a product show price, then raised it by $1000 by that afternoon. Fascinating products, though.

The Australian company iHook demonstrated Version 1.7 of its comprehensive IT Asset Management package iHook. It provides asset and call tracking in a very comprehensive package.

New directions

FileMaker has always excelled at connecting to other data sources, and this capability is getting better. FileMaker can store its own data, but it can also act as a front end to Oracle, Microsoft SQL Server, MySQL and FrontBase, among others.

XML is getting to be a big deal in the data world. It’s been a buzzword for years, but it is finally reaching critical mass in real applications now. One of the conference speakers compared XML to high school sex. Until recently, everybody talked about it, few really did it, and those people didn’t do it well.

But now we’re mature! Demonstrations showed FileMaker talking to Amazon, using its XML Developer Services to quickly pull down data about Amazon products. Other demonstrations showed how you can connect to serviceobjects.com and validate email and mailing addresses, or instantly get shipping cost estimates from USPS, UPS and Federal Express in one quick XML query.

Several vendors demonstrated document management applications. Microsoft Office documents can be associated with a project, document author or customer. The documents can be called up by FileMaker, then edited in its native application and stored. Another developer, SiteCraft, demonstrated a plugin technique that provides a very rigorously managed document system. All documents are stored on a central server, compressed and locked with a password. They can only be opened and accessed through the FileMaker front end, which checks a document out to an individual and unstuffs the file. When the individual closes the document, the file is restuffed and password-protected, automatically.

The Single File Interface is becoming a big thing in FileMaker development, and several sessions covered the details of this approach. A single file interface uses one FileMaker file to view and edit data in other files. The interface file contains no business data. This means that if you need to develop new features, a new look, new scripts or new access limitations, you do it all in the interface file. You can install the new interface file without doing any data export/import operations. Even better, you can use FileMaker’s new plugin update procedure to automatically send the user this new file. For developers maintaining complex systems, this has substantial advantages.

Bottom line?

At this conference I talked to people using FileMaker for all kinds of applications: a half-million dollar, 250-file system used for FAA approved commercial aircraft maintenance tracking; an audio systems builder who uses FileMaker to import AutoCAD wiring data and validate wiring hookups; a market research company that tracks which companies are using customer response card databases; and many others. A Hewlett Packard/Compaq sales executive discussed how the entire sales staff uses a FileMaker solution he developed, in response to the classic “All our product data is in a zillion workgroup spreadsheets” problem. A NOAA rep showed how to click on a map and automatically pull up FileMaker data for the selected geographical area.

FileMaker is used for everything from recipes to rocket science. It is a powerful, versatile tool. The FileMaker Developer Conference is a great place to learn about how to use FileMaker more effectively. And certainly well worth the summer trip to the California desert.

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