The free online database platform is taking on some intriguing advanced features that make it appealing to developers and business users alike.
Since we last wrote about Zoho Creator in 2008, Zoho has made a number of enhancements to its SaaS database development tool that expand its reporting, portability, and integration.
Zoho Creator is database software that is hosted online and offered to individuals for free, with gradually increasing fees for larger businesses that need additional features.
As a platform for creating online database applications, Zoho Creator has been likened to "MS Access plus Visual Basic on the Web." It has gained significant traction among larger corporations since we wrote about it in MC Press TNT Tips 'n Techniques back in 2008 and now claims an impressive 400,000 users. So much of today's computing is moving to the Web that hosting a database online doesn't seem nearly as radical today as it did two years ago. With the success of such hosted applications as Salesforce for CRM and Ascentis for workforce management, hosting your own custom application online can make sense, particularly for smaller businesses and departments in larger corporations that need a quick or specialized database.
It's one thing to put data into a database and quite another to get it out again in a form that is useful. If you can't generate reports from your data, your database will be of limited use indeed. But if you can produce reports, being able to do so automatically gives your application genuine utility.
Zoho has recently introduced two new modules for Zoho Creator that do just that: Zoho Creator Reports and Zoho Creator Schedules. Now users can generate powerful charts, graphs, reports, and pivot tables from their applications developed in Creator. With the Reports module, users can analyze and understand their data more easily, applying business intelligence features to slice and dice their data. Reports allows users to create dynamic reports and pivot tables, filter and sort data, as well as embed and share reports. Zoho Creator's Report Builder interface has many sorting and filtering options that allow users to drill down and play with the data. If you want to share a report with others, you can do so online or even embed the report into your company or department Web site through a snippet of provided code. You can also export the report as a PDF.
Creator Schedules lets users do what its name implies: create and schedule automated tasks. A task can be activated at a specific time or triggered by user input. In form schedules, any date or time/date field in a form can launch a given action, which can be repeated for a predefined time period or stopped automatically. Report schedules, among the most useful features, gives users the ability to schedule periodic reports at different intervals from every day to annually. For power users, Zoho Creator gives users of custom schedules the power to create within their application a full set of logical actions, or mini-programs, that are executed across forms. This is in addition to its inherent support for scripting.
Zoho now has 22 online applications, including a customer relationship management module, Zoho CRM, and an invoicing module, Zoho Invoice. Users of these should be pleased to learn they now integrate with Zoho Creator. Users can access their contacts in Zoho CRM from the Zoho Creator user interface and can create invoices (as well as drafts) in Zoho Invoice while working in Zoho Creator.
One of the strengths of Zoho Creator has also been its weak point: everything from application to data is stored online and remains there hosted on the Zoho Cloud. The company got so many requests for greater portability, however, that it decided to make some changes.
"We don't want to lock anybody into Zoho," says Zoho evangelist Raju Vegesne. "We want to provide our users the choice to decide where to run the applications they build with Zoho Creator."
The solution that AdventNet (Zoho's parent company) arrived at was to integrate Zoho Creator with the Google App Engine. In effect, this makes Zoho Creator an integrated development environment for the popular engine and allows users to deploy their applications on third-party cloud platforms. It does so by converting the application to Python code, which is supported by Google App Engine. The code is offered to the user as a downloadable zip file. You can deploy both new and existing Creator applications on Google App Engine. There are some functional limitations to the converted applications, and not all can be integrated. Applications with a file upload and notes field, criteria-based views, group by operator option, HTML, summary and calendar views, and themes support have typically not been able to run on App Engine.
Zoho Creator is becoming a popular platform for developers and offers an increasingly rich set of integration tools, including various APIs to allow for data portability. It's even possible to store data locally while running a database application in the cloud. Applications built with Creator can easily be accessed by mobile devices.
Exploring its applicability to specific enterprise requirements is certainly worth a look and represents another arrow in the quiver of weapons to tame the growls of users and upper management alike.
Figure 1: Zoho Creator is free for individual use but goes up in price with greater functionality. Zoho has lowered the top enterprise price by nearly half since 2008. (Click image to enlarge.)