Dyce & Sons Ltd.

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Filemaker Pro Server & Server Advanced 7.0

Wednesday 3rd November, 2004

One phrase describes the latest additions to FileMaker’s product range: vicariously satisfying. To upgrade an already popular product, and not screw it up, is rare enough. But to produce a new version that makes a positive virtue out of upgrading? Time for a chorus of Hallelujahs. FileMaker Server and Server Advanced are two such a products.

FMPro clients already support peer-to-peer sharing for small networks: turn on Sharing, and suddenly network users can all work on the same file together. But there’s a ten-user limit, and you need FMPro running on the host machine all the time.

FileMaker Server 7 takes the same files, but makes them available to 250 concurrent, cross-platform users. Server also scales in terms of files - sharing up to 125 files, each storing up to 8TB of data. Remember also that the new version 7 file structure allows for more than one data table per file (in fact as many as you need, limited only by file-size). A complete solution will fit into a single file, instead of the 16 files that it took under version 5.x. FileMaker claims performance improvements too, down to better caching techniques, and searches and calculations that can be run at the server end (taking advantage of that nice, shiny multi-processor G5 in the server room). In use, it certainly feels snappier.

Server admin tools

For old hands, Server 7 reintroduces some keenly awaited features. If you’re familiar with OS X Server’s admin tools, or can remember FMPro Server 3, then the Server Admin application (which replaces 5.x’s FMServer Config and Remote Access plug-in) will make you feel right at home. Server Admin can be run from any networked machine, and provides a front-end for dealing with served files and clients - showing what’s open, who’s using it, and on which IP address. You can use it to specify timed execution of backups or scripts: backups are now live, and don’t result in damaged files and ‘Not Closed Properly’ dialogs. You can also schedule execution of script files from the scripts folder - it recognises terminal command scripts, AppleScript scripts or applets. The backup folder can be specified, as well as an additional database folder. Best of all, most settings don’t require a server restart to take effect. For the deeply nerdy, an fmsadmin command allows basic control of the server from the UNIX command line.

Permission to land

The massively improved permissions system (one of the client version’s killer features) gives control over who has access to which files, and for what purpose. Indeed, you can decide which files individual remote users can see, based on who they are. Need global account management? Tie Server into an Active or Open Directory server. For the truly suspicious, there’s SSL encryption between server and client, and if you don’t trust your fellow admins, there’s also administration event logging, so you can see who changed what, when.

Server Advanced is available shrink-wrapped, or as an upgrade to FileMaker Server 7. For ‘Advanced’, read ‘Web server’. Server Advanced contains Server’s features, plus Web-sharing functionality from FileMaker Unlimited 6, for up to 100 concurrent Web-users.

Server Advanced publishes databases to the Web with little effort. The new setup is slightly different: you now turn on Web access for different users, rather than the file as a whole. The Web interface is greatly improved; layout objects are rendered faithfully (although HTML controls means no rounded buttons, platform-dependent checkboxes, or transparent graphics), and thanks to the Web-compatibility script step highlighting in the client version’s Script Editor, you can be certain of which scripts will work. You can even install plug-ins into the server itself, so users get plug-in functionality too. It really feels like the client version: the phrase ‘seen to be believed’ just about covers it.

Installation involves three elements - the Server (or multiple copies thereof) to serve the data, the Web Publishing Engine to handle database requests and format them for the Web, and a Web Server (Mac OS X’s built-in Apache) to deal with the Web users themselves - and each element can run separately, split across two machines, or all shovelled onto the one machine. Straightforward installation instructions explain the four possible permutations.

For those needing an acronym dose to justify the cost, one disappointment may be the lack of CDML support. This cut-down version of Lasso’s LDML scripting language has been dropped in favour of the more flexible, less proprietary XML and XSLT. To get started, Advanced includes two Java apps: Site Assistant, for creating bare-bones XSLT files; and CDML Converter, for turning an existing CDML-based Web site into XSLT files. (Expect to have to work on the resulting .xsl files to get them up to snuff.) This combination of XML and XSLT means you can create XHTML, RTF, Excel, and even PDF documents on the fly. They even support a method for sending emails via SMTP.

The product isn’t without (albeit temporary) flaws. The Mac OS version won’t yet act as a data source for ODBC or JDBC databases, but support is planned for Q4 2004, paving the way for the development of FMPro sites using Macromedia Dreamweaver or Adobe GoLive.

Buying Advice

FileMaker-based offices have been waiting for the server product for some time. It was worth the wait. With scheduling of live backups, external authentication, encrypted transfers, and support for server-side plug-ins and processing, Server and Server Advanced aren’t just great products; they’re compelling reasons to upgrade.

Get Further Info
Manufacturer FileMaker Inc
Pros Live backups; external authentication; encrypted data transfer; support for server-side plug-ins and processing; XML & XSLT support; automatic Web-publishing.
Cons No ODBC and JDBC source support.
Price FileMaker Server 7, £650; FileMaker Server 7 Advanced, £1,650; FileMaker Server 7 Option Pack, £1,000. Prices exclude VAT
Originally Published MacWorld, Wed, 3rd Nov 2004