Many data challenges that companies face are not large enough or important enough to merit a solution that cost $100,000 or more. Yet just because the challenge isn't large enough to merit this investment, it doesn't mean that it doesn't exist. Access can meet this in between range of data issues and challenges.
Storing data in Excel
As I mentioned earlier, and in other blog posts (see Beyond the Spreadsheet post), many people default to storing data in Excel. Its is easy to get started with and usually requires no investment. One downside to getting started quickly is that users rarely take the time to think about the data that is being stored, the amount, or how the data will be used. One thing to make clear is that Excel is not a database. It is not relational and thus does not have all of the advantages that a database provides.
Another thing to consider is that storing data in Excel is not secure and drives IT guys crazy. The average cost of creating an Excel application is $500. Excel is used because it is simple. People know it and can use it very quickly.
Using an Access Database Application
Access is the most popular database in the world. It can solve a range of problems (see Top 10 Reasons to use Access post) and can still be deployed fairly quickly. True that it takes some knowledge of Access. Access provides a great Return on Investment. It serves as a great tool for prototyping. The average cost of an Access solution is:
Access Individual user system - $3,000
Access Multi-User system - $10,000
Access Department Level system - $25,000
Using an Server Database Application
Larger than Access is a server side database. Examples of server side databases are SQL Server and Oracle. These are major systems with major investments. They are the databases that, mentioned earlier, are not useful for many small problems. They require hardware, software, database adminstrators, security concerns, conectivity concerns, and the list goes on and on. The avgerage costs for a server side database are:
SQL Server - $500,000
Oracle - $2,000,000
There are instance where an Access database can evolve into a server side application. This is another advantage of Access as it allowed you to protype a system, determine the details, and work out the solution at a smaller investment, thus making the upgrade to SQL Server must more efficient and ecconomical.
Most small businesses are never going to have the funds for ability to create true server side databases unless they outsource and rent server space somewhere.
So in short, Access should be used when you are ready to graduate from using Excel and really commit to building an Application, but aren't ready to make a giant investment into the solution.