A database system is essentially just a way to manage lists of information. The information can come from a variety of sources. For example, it can represent research data, business records, customer requests, sports statistics, sales reports, personal hobby information, personnel records, bug reports or student grades.
The power of a database system come in when the information you want to organize and manage becomes voluminous or complex so that your records become more burdensome than you care to deal with by hand.
Databases can be used by large corporations processing millions of transactions a day, of course, but even small-scale operations involving a single person maintaining information of personal interest may require a database. It's not difficult to think of situations in which the use of a database can be beneficial because you needn't have huge amounts of information before that information becomes difficult to manage.
Web Database Applications
Database systems are used now to provide services in ways that were not possible until relatively recently. The manner in which many organizations use a database in conjunction with a Web site is a good example.
Suppose your company has an inventory database that is used by the service desk staff when customers call to find out whether or not you have an item in stock and how much it costs. That's a relatively traditional use for a database. However, if your company puts up a Web site for customers to visit, you can provide an additional service: a search engine that allows customers to determine item pricing and availability themselves.
This gives your customers the information they want, and the way you provide it is by supplying a database application to search the inventory information stored in your database for the items in question automatically. The customer gets the information immediately, without being put on hold listening to annoying canned music or being limited by the hours your service desk is open. And for every customer who uses your Web site, that's one less phone call that needs to be handled by a person on the service desk payroll. (Perhaps the Web site pays for itself this way.)
But you can put the database to even better use than that. Web-based inventory search requests can provide information not only to your customers, but to you as well. The queries tell you what your customers are looking for, and the query results tell you whether or not you're able to satisfy their requests.
To the extent you don't have what they want, you're probably losing business. So it makes sense to record information about inventory searches: what customers were looking for, and whether or not you had it in stock. Then you can use this information to adjust your inventory and provide better service to your customers.
Another recent application for databases is to serve up banner advertisements on Web pages. We don't like them any better than you do, but the fact remains that they are a popular application for Web databases, which can be used to store advertisements, and retrieve them for display by a Web server.
In addition, a database application can perform the kind of record-keeping often associated with this kind of activity by tracking which ads have been served, how many times they've been displayed, which sites accessed them, and so forth.
When you stop thinking of information as something you must wrestle with and begin thinking of it as something you can manipulate relatively easily, it has a certain liberating effect on your ability to come up with new ways to use or present that information:
If the information in your database can be moved to your Web site in the form of an online membership directory, you might be able to make information flow the other way. For example, if members could edit their own entries online to update the database, you wouldn't have to do all the editing yourself, and it would help make the information in the directory more accurate.
If you store eMail addresses in the database, you could use them to send eMail to members that haven't updated their entries in a while. The messages could show members the current contents of their entry, ask them to review it, and indicate how to make any needed modifications using the facilities provided on the Web site.
A database might help you make the Web site more useful in ways not even related to the membership list. You may publish an electronic newsletter that has a children's section in each issue containing a relevant quiz.
The Web site itself could have a children's section, too, where the quizzes are put online. Perhaps this section could even be made interactive, by putting the information from which quizzes are drawn in the database and having the Web server query the database for questions to be presented on a random basis.