Anybody who’s done any open source development knows about this nifty tool called phpMyAdmin that lets you manipulate mysql databases through a web interface. For Luddites like me, using the command line interface is usually preferable to using any sort of GUI tool that requires pesky mouse moves and clicks, so I’ve generally deployed phpMyAdmin to be used by others who needed to screw with databases but haven’t been comfortable with (or had access to) the command line.
One of my tasks for today is drawing up some diagrams to show relationships between tables in a big fancy dimensionally modeled database I’m trying to blunder my way through designing. The problem is that I utterly hate all the tools I’ve tried for this on Linux. What I wanted was something that would read in a mysql schema file and populate the basic diagram for me so that all I had left to do was to map out the relationships. There’s a UML-diagram application called Umbrello that does entity-relationship diagrams of the type I need to deliver, and a user has contributed a script that will read in a schema file (though it’s finicky). I don’t like the application itself very much, but it fit my basic requirements. This morning, it started crashing, though, and was unusable. Luckily, I hadn’t done much manipulation of the model in it yet. So the quest for a better tool was back on.
I tried various versions of DBDesigner4 and MySQL Workbench, even going so far as to try running the Windows versions in wine when I experienced problems with the Linux versions, but nothing worked out.
Finally, I decided to take another look at phpMyAdmin to see if it had been enhanced with any sort of modeling capabilities. And it has! In recent versions, you can enable a “Designer” view by uncommenting a couple of lines in the config file and slurping in the tables for the phpmyadmin database in the scripts directory. It’s not a perfect tool by any means, but when I click the “Designer” tab in the app, it shows me a nice DHTML view of the tables that lets me drag them around, specify relationships, toggle to show or hide tables that have no relationships defined, etc. It comes with a nifty little palette and a toggleable sidebar to handle these operations, and it’s really a pretty elegant little piece of work. What’s more, and what makes this really useful for my purposes, is that I can save the frame (phpMyAdmin keeps a navigation frame open on the left) to my local disk, zip it up, and send it to somebody, who can then perform the same DHTML manipulations I was able to perform, making it ideal for sending along a complex schema that can have portions of it disabled for ease of viewing. (To clarify, they can save none of the information back to the database, but there’s some degree of flexibility with respect to how they can control the static view.) And to top if all off, if I want to make changes to tables, I can do it at the command line or right there in phpMyAdmin, and there’s no re-importing of a schema — the Designer view will be up to date the next time I reload it. In Umbrello, it’s my impression that any changes I made after import (e.g. drawing relationships) could not be exported back out in a useful way for porting back to the database, so I would constantly have been updating the schema, importing, and redrawing relationships.
This is a great tool for my purposes, and of course phpMyAdmin’s core features are also very useful in many environments.