Access Database Applications
by Luke Chung,
President of FMS, Inc.
PowerPoint Presentation on Taking Over Microsoft
Introduction and Background
Since its revolutionary introduction in 1992, Microsoft Access has
been customized by end users and professional developers to create a
wide range of solutions. By becoming a part of Microsoft Office with the
Access 97 version, Access established itself as the most popular desktop
database in the world. It's now evolved with Microsoft Office through
Access 2000, 2002, 2003, 2007 and 2010.
Most organizations are literally filled with Access databases. Of
course, there are more Excel and Word files, but Access applications
have a longer life span, and over time, some of these databases remain
in use and continue to serve a critical need for its users.
Many of these legacy databases were designed and created years ago by people
who are no longer with the organization or can no longer remember them.
New people need to enhance the application and there's the challenge.
Inheriting and taking over someone else's software is challenging in any environment.
MS Access is particularly challenging because it combines user objects
and code. Programming experts often finds this disconcerting because
everything isn't done in VBA code alone, while non-programmers or power
users are intimidated by all the VBA.
Certainly, someone who takes over another application needs to
understand the fundamentals of how the platform works. This paper
doesn't attempt to teach how to use Access. Instead, assuming you
already understand Access, we explore tips and techniques
we've found helpful for working with inherited Access applications.
There are many types of Access applications and enhancements
requiring the assistance of an Access developer, so it would be
foolhardy to claim a single solution to address all these situations.
This paper attempts to cover some of the more common situations and
how we've approached these challenges by combining our knowledge of
with the various tools we've built to address these issues efficiently
Since there are so many Access databases with various levels of
sophistication, one cannot give a blanket statement. Certainly, if
there's lots of code, the person who is expected to take over must be
able to understand and write VBA code. However, if the enhancements
are simply modifying or adding new reports, someone skilled with creating Access reports could do the work.
That said, Access users and programmers, like any other platform,
grow and evolve their skills over time. They may not be able to handle
the most difficult applications in the beginning, but over time, they
will hopefully gain the necessary skills and avoid the past mistakes
that give them headaches today.
Definition of a Microsoft Access Developer
For lack of a better term, I will call the person who is customizing
a Microsoft Access database as the developer without requiring this person
to be a "professional programmer". It is critical that an Access
developer have a solid understanding of how to use the Access user
interface to create objects. That means how to create tables, queries,
forms, and reports. Experience creating tables and designing normalized
database structures is also critical. After all, Access is a database
first, then a programming platform.
Being able to automate steps through macros and/or
some basic VBA module code would also be helpful but
it's much more important to understand and use all
the pieces of the Access user interface and menus.
Through the user interface, they are able to create
solutions using queries, forms, and reports, that
require minimal coding. Because they understand the
power of the Access objects, code is only written
when the user interface is insufficient.
With this skill set, an Access developer can support many Access
applications to properly maintain and enhance them.
Please note that these are the minimum requirements. Ideally, the
skills of the developer taking over the project exceeds the skills of
the original author. Our emphasis on the user interface and database
skills is borne from experience seeing lots of code written to address
problems that the user interface can solve more efficiently or for
"free" through a query, simple command, or better database design.
Working Collaboratively with End Users
A big competitive advantage of Access developers is their ability to
straddle the end user needs with the more sophisticated professional,
back-office IT operations. Microsoft Access fills the gap between the flexibility
and ease of use in Excel which is entirely controlled by the end user,
to the more rigorous demands (and benefits) of database applications.
Great Access developers have an excellent understanding of their
organization's requirements, what the data really means, its relation to
other data and what it's used for. He/she is also comfortable working
with end users in an iterative manner to reach the final solution.
Demanding an upfront, detailed design document is nice, but that
rarely works because most end users simply cannot provide it perfectly
-- because they simply don't know. But as soon they see a result, they
can make good suggestions that they could not perceive before. Access
provides an environment where rapid application development (some call
it prototyping) can be performed quickly and for minimal cost compared
to alternative platforms.
If you are simply tasked to create a new report or modify some fields
on a form with no other support needs in the future, then that may be
all you need to do. Enhance the database and move on, you'll never have
to think about it again.
What we're considering here is the larger situation when you inherit
MS Access application and assume total responsibility. You'll need to
maintain it over the foreseeable future, and establishing Best Practices
to minimize the costs and headaches, while maximizing its functionality
and potential, makes sense. Areas to consider:
Stop the bleeding and stabilize the application.
Do what's necessary quickly while establishing base
line support so a worse disaster can't occur.
- Fixing Immediate Problems
- Backup and Disaster Recovery Plan
- Basic System Administration Needs
Documenting what You Have, What's Wrong, and What
Should be Fixed
Once stabilized and the immediate emergency is
over, it's important to spend some time to assess
the situation and go into detail to see what's
working, what's not working (but hasn't been
reported yet), and what can potentially cause
problems in the future. You may also discover
opportunities to make simple changes that have a
very positive impact:
- Applying Best Practices such as:
- Finding tables without primary keys or
odd primary keys
- Detecting inconsistencies with the same
field name having different types across
- Having good startup routines when the
- Having centralized code for printing and
- Cleaning Up Existing Code
- Making sure Option Explicit is used in
every module and the code compiles
- Establishing a global error handling
system and error handling to every procedure that
- Format the code so it's more readable
- Apply variable naming conventions based
on data type and scope
Strategy for Updating the User's Database
It's important to also lay the foundation to make
it easy to deploy your updates for the application.
Nothing worse than making the changes and spending
even more time deploying it. Ideally, you'd like to
do that as easily and transparently as possible for
your users. We've established processes where this
is centrally controlled and users automatically
receive updates the next time they launch the
- Splitting the Database
- Multi-user Support
- Simplifying Deployment
- Establishing a Quality Assurance/Testing
Adding New Features in Access and 3rd Party
There are many ways to add new features to your
application. Some just require coding the specific
features requested by the users. The other takes the
application beyond what users want, and provides
them with functionality they didn't even know they
could ask for. This is a combination of applying the
features in the latest version of Access and using
3rd party products such as those from FMS:
System Administrative Needs
- Application Development Processes
- Using Microsoft Visual SourceSafe (VSS)
- Simplify deployment of application updates (Total
Of course, every situation is unique and the
approach necessary may differ. We'll basically
outline what we generally do when taking over an
When an emergency exists, we simply need to fix
what's critical and worry about the other issues
later. Obviously, how to fix specific problems
is beyond the scope of this paper.
As a resource,
the 100,000+ lines of code in our
SourceBook may help address
specific issues and let you address those needs
without having to write your own code, but when a fire is burning, you do
what you need to do to stop it.
If you're now responsible for the application,
avoid any chance of being blamed if a hardware
failure, user mistake, or database corruption wipes
out data or copies of the application. You should
have backups of the application kept on another
machine and also off-site. Off-site can be
physically on a CD in another location or online.
Use Off-Site Backup Storage (free sites
Lots of organizations provide online storage. If
the database isn't too big (and security is not an
issue), you can zip it up and email it to a Hotmail,
Google or Yahoo account. You can also create a
SkyDrive account where you can store up to 7GB
for free (25GB if you upgraded your legacy account)
with more space for purchase.
Document the Plan
Establish how often the application needs to be
backed up. This determines how much data (time) the
organization is willing to risk losing between
backups. Then document where the backups go, and how
they can be recovered. In addition to the Access
application you need to make sure related programs
such as Office/Access, referenced libraries, ActiveX
controls, and other dependencies are documented with
instructions on how to reinstall them.
Test the Plan
There are many disaster recovery plans that were
never actually tested, so when disaster struck, an
unrecoverable failure occurred. You may not be able
to test the complete plan during the triage phase,
but at the very least, verify the backup copies
more details, read our paper on
Creating a Backup and Disaster Recovery Plan for Microsoft Access
Make Sure Basic System Administration Needs are
Total Visual Agent
program provides the repetitive database chores that
are necessary to keep your Access applications
healthy. Access Jet databases (MDB and ACCDB) files
need to be periodically compacted for optimal
performance. Total Visual Agent lets you schedule
these in the middle of the night so you don't have
to worry about it. It also lets you zip and create
backups of the file, run data extracts if users are
still in it, collect database statistics, and launch
any macro on a schedule you specify. Events
can be scheduled hourly, daily, weekly, monthly, or
at a time you specify. All the actions are kept in
an audit log and if something goes wrong, you're
notified via email. A fully functional
Total Visual Agent is available.
Microsoft Visual Source Safe (VSS)
For our development environment, we use Microsoft
Visual SourceSafe (VSS) to manage our work. VSS is
included with MSDN and provides source code control for
Access development (and other platforms). It's critical
if multiple developers are involved so you don't
overwrite each other's work, but also useful if you're
the only developer.
It lets you check-out and check-in individual objects
(queries, forms, reports, macros, and modules), and
keeps copies of your checked-in versions so you can see
what changed over time and rollback if necessary. One
shortcoming is that all the tables are treated as one
object so only one person can change table structures at
a time (understandable since table relationship go
VSS integrates with Microsoft Access directly from
the ribbon when you install the Access Developer
Extensions. Here's a tip for
Microsoft Access and Visual SourceSafe (VSS)
The first step is to understand the overall design of
your database and its dependencies on other objects and
- Is the application single user or multi-user?
- How the data goes in and out of the application?
- Is it all from data entry?
- Is data shared by other applications?
- If so, what do those applications do to the
- Is it all in Access (Jet)?
- If so, is it broken up into a front-end and
- Does it use data from other sources?
- Linked tables (Jet, SQL Server, etc.)
- Imports from download files, Excel, etc.
- Does it export data to other sources?
- Exports to Excel or Word
- Exports for other applications
- Is there workgroup or password security?
- Do files violate Windows security (User Access
- Microsoft Access files which require editing,
cannot be installed in C:\Program Files
- Use the User’s Application Data folder for
If the application is a single database containing
both the data and programming around it, it needs to be
split so that it's more easily maintainable. It's the
proper architecture for supporting multiple users and
- Back-End database resides on the network and has
all the data that’s shared among users
- Front-End database includes:
- Links to the back-end database tables
- Application objects (queries, forms, reports,
- Temporary/intermediate tables that are part of
processing output to avoid multi-user collisions
- Front-End database can be easily replaced without
impacting the data
- Avoids getting the users’ latest data
- Is local to each user (performance gain)
- The front-end database should know its version,
and check a table in the back-end database that
contains the latest version number so it knows if it's
For more information, read our paper:
Microsoft Access Split Database
Design to Improve Performance and Maintainability (front end and back end databases)
Simplifying Application Deployment
Making it easy to deploy your application provides a
more professional experience for your users and
simplifies deploying updates of your database. For optimal
performance, each user should have their own copy of
Access deployed to their local machine, but you want to
update that when you create a new version. Here are some
things to implement:
Users should click on a shortcut and start the
- Avoid having them know your database name. They
shouldn't have to run Access, then open your
database. The shortcut should hide that from them.
- Make sure the right version of Access is launched
with the database – do not trust Windows to just
launch an MDB file
- Recognize that what you build will have bugs and
updates will be necessary
- Simplifying the deployment process reduces the
pain of each update and makes you look better
- Make it transparent to users
To address many of these issues, we created our
Total Access Startup
program to let you centrally manage all your Access
applications and automatically update the database on
each user's desktop when you release an update.
Eliminate the need to manually go to each user's
Make sure that your application launches with
settings to minimize problems your users may encounter:
- Lock down the application
- Keep users out of your database
- Don’t let them bypass your startup routines by
holding down the Shift Key when launching the
- Set the database property "AllowBypassKey" to
- Hide Everything!
- Hide the database window/navigation pane
- Hide all the objects in case they unhide the
- Hide the Access menus and ribbons
- Set the database options to suppress special keys
so people can't press Ctrl+G to get into the editor,
F11 to get the database window, etc.
- Make sure Error Handler is set properly: Application.SetOption “Error Trapping”, 1
For more details, see
Microsoft Access VBA/VB6 Debugging Tips and
Techniques: Basic Error Handling
Making Sure the VBA Module Code
One of the first steps for examining a database is to make sure its
VBA code compiles. Code that compiles may still have lots of problems, but
code that doesn't compile is guaranteed to have problems now. Open any module and from the VBA menu, select Debug, Compile...
Fix or delete any of the code the compiler flags. Unfortunately, it
may not be so easy because while the compiler pinpoints syntax
problems, you may actually need to fix the broken code to make it
functional. Of course, if you can identify unused code, deleting the
offending code is the easiest if you are confident you'll never need to
Note that if the module doesn't have Option Explicit
set, the compile feature will not catch syntax errors in
that module. We identify these in our
Total Access Analyzer
and even fix it in our
Total Visual CodeTools products described later.
Decompiling Corrupt Code
There are situations where an Access application gets into a state
where its code and the built-in VBA functions fail. Compacting the
database does nothing and people mistakenly believe the database is
corrupt. It is corrupt, but only the code. This is fixed by:
- Decompiling the database
- From a module in design mode, selecting the Debug, Compile..
- Compacting the database
To decompile a database, use this Windows Run command line:
C:\Program Files\Microsoft Office\Office14\MSACCESS.EXE /decompile
where the first part is the entire path where your copy of Access is
installed. This loads Access, then open your database and follow the
For simplicity and since you'll likely need it over time, you should
create a Windows shortcut with this command so you can open Access in
this mode when you need it.
Access doesn't behave any differently with the decompile option other
than decompiling the code in the database you open. Once you resolve
that, Access runs behaves normally.
For more information, read our paper: Decompile
Your Microsoft Access Database to Improve Performance,
Fix Corruption, and Avoid Strange VBA Errors
Verify Library References and ActiveX Controls
A code area that could have problems is library references. These can
be seen from the VBA menu: Tools, References.
Libraries contain code that the application requires. Some are
built-in Microsoft libraries such as VBA, Access, Office, DAO, ADOX,
Outlook, etc. But others may be part of your application.
Make sure there are no broken or missing library references. For instance, the application may use commercially available ActiveX
controls or code libraries. If so, you'll need to make sure your
development environment has these controls and/or libraries.
Without the libraries your code may not compile, and without the ActiveX
controls (including their license to modify), you may break the forms or
reports using those controls.
Assuming you have a bit more breathing space, we
created and use
a few of our products to help us take control quickly,
detect and fix problems that we can identify before
users do, and make the code easier to read and maintain.
Total Access Analyzer
Generates Documentation and Finds Errors and Suggestions
for Design Improvements
The first task we perform is running
Total Access Analyzer
on the Access database to understand what's going on.
Total Access Analyzer examines each object in the
database to determine what's in it and how it connects
to the other objects. It generates a wide range of
useful reports to help us understand the existing work.
Here are some of the highlights we use immediately:
- Basic Documentation
Diagrams Showing Relationships Across Objects
- Application Flow Diagram to understand the
procedure calling chain
- Data Flow Diagram to see which object each table
- Object Flow Diagram to see for each form/report,
what tables and queries feed into it
List of Errors, Suggestions, and Performance Tips
- Errors indicate things that will crash so
they need to be reviewed and fixed right away
- Suggestions indicate areas of design
improvement that could point to deeper problems.
- Performance Tips indicate opportunities to improve speed
If Total Access Analyzer finds really serious errors,
like broken table or field references and Option
Explicit not in your modules, you may need to fix these
immediately. By adding Option Explicit, you may find all
sorts of other errors that the compiler previously
skipped. For its other findings, we use it to diagnose
and prioritize what needs to be done later.
Code Cleanup Feature in Total Visual
CodeTools Makes the VBA Code More Readable and
There's nothing worse than reading someone else's
code with non-standard indentations, variable naming
conventions, etc. I often find myself trying to reformat
the code before being able to read and diagnose it. To
avoid this busywork, our
Total Visual CodeTools
product has a
VBA Code Cleanup feature. It can do a lot of
things but at this stage, we would use it to:
- Add Option Explicit to any module that lacks it.
This lets the compiler catch blatant coding
- Standardize indentations so loops are properly
- Apply variable naming conventions (if you're
used to having variable names identified by their
data type and scope which makes it easier to
understand the code)
With these changes, the application doesn't behave
differently. The code is just easier to read,
understand, and maintain.
There are lots of ways to improve the Microsoft
Access application. The first step is creating the error
handling system to know what's broken without requiring
every crash to be manually reported to you. This can be
done with a professional VBA error handling system with
error handling code in each procedure and a global error
handler. Read this paper
Microsoft Access, VBA, and Visual Basic Debugging Tips and Techniques
if you're not familiar with error handling.
The error handling system can automatically:
- Present a friendly screen to let the user know a
crash occurred through no fault of their own and who
- Create a text file or entry into a database to
record the crash:
- The error number, error description and line
- Procedure call chain so you know how they
got to that point
- Current state of the system (where it's
installed, Access version, particular objects
or IDs, DLLs, etc.)
With a robust error handler that's triggered when
unhandled errors are encountered, developers:
- Acknowledge that a bug really occurred rather
than blaming the user
- May identify the bug without needing to consult
the user (by knowing the error and exact line of
code, the solution may be obvious)
- Rely less on the user's recollection (which may
not be reliable) for reproducing the crash
- Simplify the creation of repro steps when
The result is an efficient system to trap, document,
diagnose and fix bugs. With this system in place, people
don't need to manually report bugs because they'll be
automatically recorded. We've found that many users
don't report their crashes because they often feel they
are at fault, or worse yet, they feel the application is
useless and of poor quality. By knowing what's wrong and
fixing them proactively, the quality of the application
Adding Error Handling to Your Application
If you don't already have a global error handler,
consider getting the source code from
Total Visual SourceBook. Among its huge code library,
there are two of particular interest here:
This code is what you'll call when you start your
application and in every procedure.
Applying Error Handling to Your Application
Once you have the code you'd like to use when an
error occurs, you need to add it to every procedure.
This can be a monumental task and prone to error if
you do it manually. To document the call stack of
every procedure and how it calls each other, we also
want to have code at the beginning and end of each
procedure. Fortunately, a feature in Total Visual
CodeTool's Code Cleanup routines adds your custom
error handler to every procedure that lacks it.
Examples of the
VBA Code Cleanup feature were described earlier, but
now we're actually changing the behavior of the
When we're ready to ship the Access application,
we'll want to add line numbers to every line of code (so
Exact Line Where A Crash Occurs. The
Code Delivery feature does this along with many
other features if you want to obfuscate the code.
Taking over someone else's work is challenging regardless of the
technology. We hope this paper helps you anticipate and address some of
the issues so you can position yourself for success. At FMS, we've taken
over hundreds of databases created by others and automated many of the
steps to implement enhancements and ensure consistency. In fact, we
created most of our Microsoft Access products
to address the needs we encountered during application development,
taking over someone else's work, and deploying them. If you're working
on critical projects, our Total Access Ultimate Suite will simplify your
work and pay for itself very quickly.
If you need direct help, whether it's triage, making
enhancements in Access, upsizing to SQL Server, or
migrating to a new platform, consider our Professional
Solutions Group and our custom
Access Programming Services.
for more information.