Adventures in Alpha Land

Episode 7: Access to Alpha with Peter Caspari

Adam Green interviews Peter Caspari, a developer of business applications in New South Wales who has made the transition from MS Access to Alpha Anywhere.
Show Notes

00:00 Adam: Intro to episode 7.

00:35 Peter: Overview of development experience with Access

01:13 Adam: What type of databases did you use?

01:21 Peter: First the Access database, then SQL Server.

01:29 Adam: What was the size of your clients?

01:40 Peter: A range from ma and pa businesses up to large organizations.

01:59 Peter: My main focus was the aviation industry.

02:24 Adam: When did you make the switch to Alpha?

02:32 Peter: About 3 years ago I was getting requests for web based applications and I found Alpha.

03:02 Adam: Was this your first experience developing for the web?

03:16 Peter: I had some basic HTML, but that's all.

03:23 Adam: Do you feel Microsoft will add web capability to Access?

03:35 Peter: They don't seem serious about enhancing Access.

04:03 Adam: Where did you learn how to build mobile apps?

04:16 Peter: I used the videos by Selwyn Rabins.

04:40 Adam: Are you still building applications in Access?

04:46 Peter: I have one more Access application in the field, but the rest have come across.

04:54 Adam: Are you rewriting or building extensions?

05:00 Peter: I build an Alpha application on top of the Access data.

05:11 Adam: So you are doing a complete move to Alpha?

05:15 Peter: Correct.

05:16 Adam: A lot of people tend to do extensions.

05:31 Peter: My experience is that clients want to rebuild in Alpha to handle growth.

06:05 Adam: How do you handle the transition?

06:21 Peter: I build a new system with a copy of the data, and then migrate the final data.

07:01 Adam: Which is more important, web or mobile?

07:14 Peter: All the systems start on the web and then are moved to mobile.

07:51 Adam: What problems have you found with Alpha?

07:57 Peter: I finding scaling Alpha to be a problem as the systems grow, but the IIS version should solve that.

08:53 Adam: What kind of servers are you working with?

09:01 Peter: I use Rackspace and I'm testing a VPS system.

09:24 Adam: Cloud systems are useful when you don't know how much memory you'll need. How much memory do you typically use?

09:44 Peter: I use 12G, but I need to understand IIS better.

10:04 Adam: Do your clients pay for the servers?

10:11 Peter: The fee sructure is based on the load.

10:28 Adam: So you make sure clients understand the variable costs?

10:36 Peter: That can be a challenge, but I need to cover the costs of usage.

10:52 Adam: So there is some client education needed.

11:15 Peter: Exactly, but once I explain it isn't a problem.

11:26 Adam: Are you planning on continuing with Alpha or looking at competitors?

11:39 Peter: I have had no reason to change. They add features before I need them.

12:35 Adam: That's a strong endorsement.Thank you very much.

12:42 Peter: Thank you.


00:00 Adam: Welcome to episode 7 of Adventures in Alpha Land. I am Adam Green, your host for this episode. Today, we'll be continuing our series of podcasts with application developers who made the transition from MS Access to Alpha Anywhere.

00:17 Our guest will be Peter Caspari, owner of GCS Research in New South Wales. Welcome, Peter. Why don't you start this off by giving us a little bit of your background. What kind of apps do you build? What's your background with programming?

00:34 Peter: I'm largely self-taught. My education is not in programming, but I do have quite a bit of experience in it, having been developing for 20-odd years now. I started with Access back in the late '90s when I was working for the Australian Aviation Regulator, equivalent to the US FAA. I was building some Access-based solutions for them.

01:02 Shortly after that, I started working for myself. That was about 1999. Access seemed to have fit the bill, as far as providing solutions for clients in those days.

01:14 Adam: What kind of databases were you using then? Were you mostly using the Access database, or did some clients use SQL Server?

01:21 Peter: It was a bit of a mix. It started off mostly just Access, but then, as I got involved in larger projects, it became Access with SQL Server back-end.

01:29 Adam: What scale? You've given a brief background. Any very large enterprises? Any mom and pop?

01:40 Peter: There were some reasonably large organizations, multinationals, that I developed systems for. KPI systems, for instance. Medium-sized and your ma and pa, as well. I was across the full range of organizations.

01:57 The main focus, for me, though, was my background in aviation led me to a lot of work in the aviation industry, both for, as I mentioned, the Australian Aviation Regulator but also for smaller operators. I was involved in a lot of business systems for the aviation industry -- scheduling of aircraft, scheduling of pilots and general business systems associated with that.

02:25 Adam: When did you start making the switch to Alpha or adding Alpha to your set of tools?

02:32 Peter: About three years ago, I was getting requests from clients to provide Web-based solutions. To be honest, at the time I really didn't have any skills in that area, so I needed to find a product that would allow me to migrate to developing Web-based solutions.

02:47 That's when I started looking, and I came across Alpha. I think I did a pretty thorough search, at the time, of looking at all the different alternatives. Alpha stood out as the ideal solution for someone with an Access background to migrate to the Web and then, ultimately, mobile.

03:01 Adam: When you moved to the Web, at that point, you're saying you hadn't had Web experience? You hadn't been working with PHP, HTML, CSS, the whole suite of technologies typical for the Web?

03:16 Peter: No, I had some basic HTML but that's all. Certainly no PHP or CSS.

03:22 Adam: You made the switch to Alpha to get that Web capability. Do you feel that Microsoft is going to eventually give you stronger capability in that area for Access?

03:33 Peter: From what I've seen, I would suggest no. The thing I'm a bit concerned about with Microsoft, they have got bugs in Access that have been there for 10 years or more. It seems to me that they're not serious about Access. Otherwise, they'd be a lot more proactive in the features that they offer, which they're obviously not doing. For that reason, I don't have any concerns that Access is going to be a significant alternative in the future.

04:03 Adam: You also mentioned mobile apps. What kind of educational experience was that? Did you have to study mobile apps? Where did you learn best practices, beyond just the technical features of Alpha?

04:17 Peter: I don't think I did anything more than follow the bouncing ball that Alpha provides. Selwyn's videos, which are fantastic, in conjunction with the features as the product matured, in terms of the capability in mobile, allowed me to grow my own skills. I went along the path that Alpha laid out for me, basically.

04:40 Adam: Are you still building Access systems? Do you still have systems that you're supporting that you wrote in Access?

04:46 Peter: I've still got one more Access system out in the field I'd like to move over to Alpha. Otherwise, everyone else has come across.

4:54 Adam: How do you define "come across"? Are you rewriting completely or building extensions only?

05:01 Peter: I take the underlying tables from the Access or SQL Server database and move them to SQL Server and build an Alpha application on top of that.

05:11 Adam: You are doing a complete move of the app?

05:15 Peter: Correct, yeah.

05:17 Adam: A lot of the people I've spoken to try to avoid that. They feel that the Access systems they've built have been too large, and tend to do just extensions. You're finding your clients would rather have you do a complete rewrite?

05:30 Peter: My experience has been that most of my clients who have had their Access systems for some years want to develop further the application and give it more capabilities. It's at that opportunity where you can rebuild the whole system in the Alpha environment but still use the underlying tables that you've already established and go from there.

05:54 No, that hasn't been a big concern, from my experience. From my experience, companies grow and the systems need to grow along with it.

06:05 Adam: How do you manage the transition? You said you transferred the data, sometimes, to a different database or Access to SQL Server. How do you handle the transition where you're developing and they're still using the older Access system?

06:21 Peter: I would take a copy of it in the Access, convert it to SQL Server, build a new system, let them continue to run the Access system until it's at a state where they're ready to hand over. Then, over a weekend or something when they've got some downtime, I'll migrate the data across.

06:40 I've managed to make every system that I've transferred compatible with the old system, in terms of the data. It just needs a bit of massaging. I develop utilities, queries, whatever to adjust the data as required when I migrate it across. By Monday, they're live with their new system, still able to access their old data, and they're away.

07:02 Adam: When you described the features you needed to move, you described Web and mobile. Which has been more important? Have you found that mobile is getting to be more and more a demand?

07:14 Peter: It's certainly becoming more of a demand but, initially, all the systems start off as a Web-based migration. The mobile option is something we plug in later. That's typically the way it goes.

07:26 Some systems, I build them both at the same time, but typically we take one step and then take the other. With the Alpha environment, it makes that process quite straightforward. A lot of the times, you've got some XBasic code that you've developed on the website that you can almost cut and paste into the mobile side of things. That saves you a lot of time, and it's certainly a good part of Alpha's rapid application development philosophy, I think.

07:52 Adam: You've had good things to say about Alpha. What problems have you found?

07:57 Peter: The good things are certainly that my own business has flourished as a result of moving to Alpha. I think I can say that, because the demand has certainly increased.

08:05 As part of that, though, the actual growth of the systems that I provide is also something I'm dealing with right now. That's where I'm struggling. I'm finding scaling Alpha to be a bit of a problem. I'm needing to provide a lot of Windows application servers and then provide a lot of features around that, such as load balancing and so forth, to provide a level of performance that the clients expect. That's a bit messy and a bit of a struggle.

08:39 That said, I think they've got a solution for that already with the IIS that's currently in beta. That's something I'm looking at right now. I'm going to start testing it. I've just purchased a server to test it with, and I'm hoping that's going to be a solution to that problem.

08:54 Adam: What kind of servers are you working with? Dedicated servers? Cloud, Rackspace kind of servers?

09:02 Peter: I've got two different organizations I'm dealing with. Rackspace is one of them. I'm starting with VPS, just for testing. If I'm happy with the IIS solution and happy with the performance, I might consider a dedicated alternative there. I need to get some serious performance happening, because these systems I've developed are really starting to grow.

09:25 Adam: One of the things I've found, Rackspace and cloud-based systems are useful for building the first version of an app for a client because you don't know what scale you need or how much hardware you'll need.

09:38 Peter: Yes, that would be my experience too.

09:41 Adam: How much memory do you typically find that you put on your servers?

09:44 Peter: At the moment, I'm getting away with 12 gigs on one of them, but I think there's going to be some room to move there. I also need to understand the IIS and how much memory it requires. I don't know that product well enough to understand what the requirements there are.

10:03 Adam: Do you have clients pay for the servers themselves? Do you bundle that into your overall fee?

10:11 Peter: The fee structure I agree with with my clients is based on the load that the system puts in, whether it's per job or per user. It's got to be per something that affects the load, because that's where my costs are going to increase.

10:28 Adam: You make sure that the client understands the variable cost based on capabilities and overall usage?

10:36 Peter: Exactly. Sometimes, that can be a challenge to explain and they don't understand why they need to pay for it in these terms. You do need to sit down and explain, "Look, my costs are such. The more you load up my server, the more I need to pay in terms of resources for that server and I need to cover that."

10:52 Adam: There is some education needed for the clients? I agree on that. They're not used to that model, because a lot of the Web apps they run are either free or flat-rate. They're not used to actually paying attention to the load that they have, unless they have an IT department, in which case they would.

11:15 Peter: Exactly. Most of my clients don't have an IT department, so it's up to me to do that education. Usually, once I've explained it to them in some detail, they understand and it doesn't pose a problem.

11:26 Adam: As far as the future, are you planning on continuing to put new clients onto Alpha? Have you looked at any of the competitors for Alpha, especially for mobile apps?

11:40 Peter: To be honest, I've been pretty happy with Alpha. I've had no cause to look around at what the alternatives are. I really don't know what else is out there that's competitive, but I have no reason to change. It would be another learning curve. Right now, I'm happy to continue with what's being provided.

11:59 I'd just like to add that it's almost amazing how the features that become available from Alpha match up with my requirements. If a client comes to me one day and wants, for instance, a signature control for the mobile app, I can say, "Yeah, sure." I knew that it's something Alpha were going to be providing.

12:16 I had no inkling on how to actually implement it, but I knew Alpha would make that easy. That's happened a number of times with a number of different features, and I love that. That Alpha is able to see what the demands are and have an answer for it in their products in pretty good time has helped me out on numerous occasions.

12:35 Adam: That seems to be a pretty strong endorsement. We should stop here. Thank you very much.

12:43 Peter: Thank you.