Should You Rebuild or Remodel Your Database?

How is improving your database like remodeling your home? Imagine you’re standing in a kitchen. The appliances are all 15 years out of date, the countertops are in need of some love and the cabinetry is from a different century altogether. In that situation, remodeling the kitchen would be the way to go—not only to enjoy this home more, but to get more value out of it as well.

On the flip side, maybe there are more serious problems with the home—like a cracked foundation or lead plumbing. In that case, you’d have to tear the house down and start over from scratch.

Or perhaps you need a bit of both. As with many things, the question of rebuild vs. remodel is not truly a question of “which” but “when.” To carry on with our analogy, your kitchen really needs to be expanded…but in the short run, new cabinetry would go a long way toward improving your experience until you have better plans (and more funds) available for that expansion.

At Skeleton Key, we take a similar approach in our work with existing solutions. Not all of them need a fresh start, and knowing when to rebuild and when to remodel is key to maximizing your satisfaction with both the interim and the final results.

When You Should Remodel

The key to a great home remodeling project is that it improves the function of one area while maintaining what’s already working in others. In database remodeling, the same principle applies. Limiting the scope is essential to a quality remodel. Focusing on fixing the right things with a remodel is often more effective than trying to update everything all at once, which carries the risk of disrupting system integrity without delivering noticeable improvements. If you need more extensive changes, it’s time to rebuild.

However, a few common problems oftentimes are best solved with a remodel.

Slow performance is a common problem that remodeling can fix.

Database software companies release new versions of their programs on a regular basis. Versions that are even a few years out of date can mean missing out on huge speed and security improvements. This problem is compounded if it’s been more than a decade since your database was first installed and it hasn’t received an update. The good news for users is that platforms like Claris FileMaker are generally backward compatible, so updates won’t break anything you’re using.

However, it’s still a good idea to have a professional on hand when running major updates, for two reasons. First, having someone who can determine in advance if there are going to be any issues and find ways to mitigate them is invaluable. Second, having a pro around to restore things if they go wrong gives you peace of mind.

Another area where remodeling has a massive impact is in the front-end experience.

Sometimes organizations find themselves with an interface that was designed 20 years ago, and while it gets the job done (more or less), it’s not as intuitive as it could be. Sure, it might make sense to you if you’ve worked with the system for years…but if you’re finding it takes weeks or months for someone to really get the hang of the system, that’s a sign there’s room for improvement. Those long ramp-up times for new hires mean lost productivity and lower worker satisfaction. A new front-end interface not only can make your workers more efficient, but it also can cut training time significantly by making the user experience more intuitive.

Existing users also learn new ways to interact with their technology. Just think of how people have changed the way they interact with their phones, TVs and household devices over the past decade. We are now much more used to ideas such as swiping, pinch-to-zoom, touch updates and even voice commands; we are familiar with icons such as the gear for settings, or the three-bar “hamburger” as a collapsible menu. Developers can take advantage of how users are maturing in their understanding of how apps work, as well as evolving best practices for designable apps.

When You Should Rebuild

One common question we get is, “If we only add a single new feature, shouldn’t it just be a remodel?”

In our experience, it usually should be a rebuild. That may be surprising to hear. But think about this problem in terms of your house. “Just adding a single room” isn’t the small task it seems at first glance. The foundation and roof have to integrate into what already exists, and the HVAC and plumbing systems have to be rerouted to support the new room. Plus, there’s the problem of figuring out where the hole in the wall should be so that the new room connects to the rest of the house. In those terms, it’s not such a simple problem after all.

Of course, it’s not always going to be economical to rebuild the entire system each time you need a new feature. We get that, and we do sometimes add new features as part of a smaller-scope “remodeling” effort. However, in the long run, repeatedly doing this can lead to degraded system performance and coherence, which can make future support and changes harder to deliver…situations we want to avoid, if possible.

Sometimes the problems in a system run deeper. If a home has extensive foundation damage, the roof is full of holes, and the entire structure is water damaged and rotting, it’s time to forget about a remodel. The only path forward is to start from scratch and rebuild.

In some situations, there’s little choice other than rebuilding a database. One common case where a rebuild is necessary is when the purpose of the database has shifted over the years to the point where it no longer resembles its original self. If a database that functioned as a CRM is now being used primarily for user communications or project management, there’s going to be a ton of friction in the process. In cases where there is such friction, remodeling won’t fix the underlying issue: The database and tools, as they are, just aren’t going to provide value.

Likewise, if you’ve added new equipment (such as smartphones or tablets) that isn’t supported by the applications needed to use your old database software, rebuilding can be a great way to enhance productivity—sometimes the only way. Rebuilding in these situations might not feel ideal initially, but the incremental time saved might well be worth it.

How Skeleton Key Guides You Through the Process

There are many factors to consider when working on an older database. The good news is that you don’t have to go through this process alone. At Skeleton Key, we find the right solutions for our clients.

Sometimes, starting the process is understanding that both approaches are needed. For example, a rebuild might be necessary in the long run to achieve your goals, but a remodel is needed in the short run to make critical features work. If that’s the case, we can always split up a project into phases to ensure you have continuing access to your system, while we work on developing “version 2.0.”

When you first contact us, we sit down with you and review your pain points to figure out whether a rebuild or a remodel better suits your needs. In many cases, we recommend both to our clients: A short-term remodel to get the system functioning well enough to allow time for a long-term rebuilding project. As with many things, rebuild vs. remodel is not always a question of “which” but “when.”

No matter what, we’ll also start by evaluating your systems in greater detail, uncovering potential issues before we start, and factoring them into our plan and estimate. That way, you get the service you need, with fewer surprises. If you have a database that is running slowly, doesn’t have all the features you need or just needs a fresh coat of paint, contact us for a free consultation.