What are the main benefits of Lamplight over something like Access?

There’s a question.

It appeared in my inbox yesterday and (with permission) I’m going to try and answer it here, because in one way or another we get asked it fairly frequently.

The short answer:

it depends.

The long answer:

We occassionally go to conferences and things, and here is one of our exciting hand-outs:

A picture of a Lamplight bookmark in a book
Appropriate technology

Appropriate technology. A bookmark is a great piece of technology if you’re reading a book. It’s less useful if you’ve got a Kindle. So, if you’ve got a paperback, use a bookmark; if you’ve got a Kindle, well, it does it for you. It might seem obvious, but sometimes after talking to potential customers, we’ll suggest that actually Lamplight isn’t the most appropriate technology for what they want to do. In some cases Access, or Excel (or the LibreOffice equivalents) or index cards, or whatever else will do just fine.

However, at a basic level, there are some differences, which we’d see as benefits:

  • Lamplight is hosted.  The computers your data are stored on are in super secure data centres with backup power supplies, spare internet connections, auto-copying hard drives.  In general they are going to be more reliable and more secure than the computer in your office.
  • We do the technical stuff.  We keep the server up to date, we do daily backups, we are constantly checking and updating the software.
  • Lamplight is online – so you can access it wherever you’ve got web access.  (Granted, this one raises other security issues – we’ve written at length about these and there’s a download).  This also means it’s much, much easier to do some things, such as linking to your website.
  • You can make changes to the system yourself, without needing to be a database expert.  Need a new field?  Click, type in the label, choose the type of field it’s going to be: all done.  (OK, Access can be set up to do this, and if you’re an Access developer you can change more in Access.  But in our experience, most people in the voluntary sector aren’t Access developers, and Access databases aren’t set up to be easily configurable without being a developer.  In fact we came across one situation where a member of staff or volunteer had set up an Access system and password protected the ‘back-end’ to stop it from being accidentally broken.  A few years later, they were uncontactable and to get their data out the organisation had to re-type all their data.)
  • Lamplight is constantly getting updated, with new features, improvements, new modules, all in response to customer requests.  You’re getting full-time development on your system included in your hosting fee.

There’s also some important similarities, which are still ‘good things’:

  • You own your data.  You can download it whenever you want, and the hosting agreement is for a month, so you’re not locked into any long-term contracts.
  • Lamplight is designed solely for the voluntary sector.  The assumptions, language, and ideas that lie behind Lamplight are those of the voluntary sector.  (Assuming you’ve had an Access database developed for you).
But the main benefit?  I’d say: Lamplight does a lot, if you need it to.  The core system has a ton of features, and there’s a load of modules if you need it do more.  Trying to replicate just a fraction of what Lamplight can do would cost tens of thousands of pounds.  It would be difficult to replicate pretty much any of Lamplight for less than our hosting fees.  What a waste.