Very good questions. It is kind of a "sitting on a fence" situation, in that under certain circumstances, you might go one way, but under others (or later) you might want to go on the other. In this case however you can, as you asked, move from regular FileMaker and using Instant Web Publishing (IWP) to just regular FileMaker with Server hosting the files.
IWP is kind of a marvel, in that it looks and works kind of like FileMaker, via a web browser; "kind of like". It is for sure clunkier. You can certainly view data OK; accepting its limitation of list views (25), 50 for table views, But for data entry, well, it's lacking some of the new and powerful tools, such as script triggers.
Many things can be made better and done more easily using script triggers. It may sound "advanced", but really, many simple things can be done to improve and add actions.
So, in my opinion, if people are really using the database for serious data entry, I'd want regular FileMaker. Adding IWP to the mix will block some things you may want to do.
The second part of the question, whether to use Server or not, depends on how important your data is, and whether you're willing to take the precautions required to make it safe, back up files properly, and any other maintenance needed.
FileMaker Server takes care of most of that, in an easy to use interface (it's Java, but it seems responsive in FileMaker Server 11). It can make sure that everyone has the fastest possible access to the files (well, you'd need >5 to make much of a dent).
Backups can be scheduled (multiple) to run say Daily and Hourly. A lot of files, yes, but FileMaker Server is amazingly fast at backups. It will create named timestamped folders as needed. You don't have to do much of anything after that (if all goes well forever :-).
It also protects you from the most common, yet dangerous situations. Such as, if you forget to start the "host" copy of the data, and people can access that machine via OS file sharing, then the files can end up opened improperly, on multiple machines, which can cause permanent damage to them. Damage makes them unreliable at best, and non-functional (read black box) at worst.
Using only FileMaker Pro, your backups are up to you. You cannot instigate a backup easily from a client machine. You'd have to go to the machine where the file is, and either close it and duplicate/rename, or use Save a Copy As just itself. That is likely the best way, in my opinion. Then that backup file can be backed up, via backup software. You should not run backup software on the live database files, regular FileMaker or Server hosted files (at least that's what I read, more than once).
But you can start small, and move forward later. You should however try it out on a couple computers, running FileMaker Pro and sharing, even IWP. See what you think. Remember to do the "starting" procedure every morning (before anyone else wants to log in; or just leave the file open, and hope it stays open, and do not let the computer sleep, then close down and back up every night.
You may be able to get a bundle of FileMaker Server and 5 FileMaker Pros; there's often a sale.
P.S. There is very little to do to move files to FileMaker Server later, if you decide to upgrade. You can just move the (closed) files, using FileMaker Server's control panel, to add them as hosted files. The old files are then obsolete. Everyone can open the hosted files via Open Remote.
Also, there is some disciple required to do serious database work to hosted files. But that would be true of FileMaker Pro hosted files also. Basically, stay away from things like defining fields and relationships while the file is hosted. Or be recently backed up.
What a marvelously thorough answer ! Thank you !
SO much better than reading the version-comparison checklist on the website !! :)
Can I press you a little further on one topic -
IWP is clunky, you're right - i am testing it and can see how anything like substantial data entry or report generation is going to be sluggish and sometimes awkward.
(also don't love the fact that every printout woudl have all those navigation buttons on top...)
so my question now is - what's the alternative to IWP ?
- If i install 3-4 licenses of FMP in client's office, and put the actual file on a local server, so that everyone can access it, can they actually access it simultaneously ? IWP blocks users from accessing same record at same time, which is a great conflict catcher - is there any other way to achieve this without IWP ?
I want to be able to administer the file myself but give my users maximum flexibility and ease of use ontheir end - they need to do data entry, run reports of various kinds, etc - the database building, design and maintenance will be my turf.
Any thoughts ?
Yes, If you have the files on a "host" machine, hosted by either a copy of FileMaker Pro, or by FileMaker Server, then everyone would be able to access them remotely. They can access the files simultaneously; they can view the same record at the same time. But only one person would be able to Edit that record at a time. That is a basic "record-locking" feature of FileMaker, to protect against conflicting entry, and would be true no matter how you accessed the record. Though they could trade off if the other persons clicks out of the fields, which "commits" the record, making it available to others again.
There would likely be some performance degradation if several people are running simultaneous operations which modify multiple records at near the same time. But that would likely not be a big problem, with only 3 or 4 users on a smallish file; and not at all a problem with FileMaker Server (which is multi-threaded).
Maximum flexibility would be to use FileMaker Pro as a client, not IWP. Basically IWP is a solution to save money, but lose some functionality, in my opinion. It is OK, but FileMaker Pro is better by far; also easier to develop, as you do not have to work around limitations, and can use whatever FileMaker has to offer; script triggers, native printing, etc..