Open Database Connectivity

Mr. Harvey describes the ODBC open specification for application developers.

Figure 4. ODBC Data Flow

This is a share library which implements many useful Microsoft extensions and a number of unixODBC extensions. It provides an API for reading and writing ODBC system information (see Figure 4). This essentially means reading and writing the various INI files and environment variables. unixODBC also provides a command-line interface to this library. This command-line tool (of the same name) can be used by driver programmers when creating their install script/RPM. The Odbcinst library is used heavily by ODBCConfig, the Driver Manager and drivers but is seldom used by other applications. Odbcinst implements many Microsoft extensions.


The drivers, and their data source-specific client libraries, typically implement the vast majority of the ODBC functionality. As important as the Driver Manager is, it is the driver that carries out most of the work. The unixODBC Driver Manager has been designed to be binary compatible with any compliant drivers compiled on Linux. unixODBC includes several drivers (and their sources) as examples. unixODBC also includes a driver template for those wishing to write a new driver. MiniSQL, MySQL and PostgreSQL are examples of drivers included in unixODBC. unixODBC maintains a driver-certification process which can be found at its web site (see Resources).

Other Utilities

unixODBC also includes a library for working with INI files, a LOG library and a command-line tool for executing SQL commands. The INI library is used by Odbcinst for reading/writing the ODBC system information. The LOG library is used by the Driver Manager and Odbcinst to log ODBC activity, such as errors, and implement ODBC tracing. The isql command-line tool allows the user to submit SQL commands in a terminal window. isql can also be used in batch mode, which can be quite useful because it can return results wrapped in an HTML table or delimited with a chosen character. It supports piping and redirection.

How Do I Get Started?

You can download the source distribution from the unixODBC website. Unpack the file using tar, then follow the instructions in the README file. You will want the Qt dev libraries to build the GUI components and you will need the database-specific client libraries for any drivers you decide to build. The README talks about this in more detail. You must have at least one driver section in /etc/odbcinst.ini. You can add this section using the Odbcinst command-line tool or your favourite editor. Normally, odbcinst.ini will get updated by driver install scripts using the Odbcinst command-line tool, but at this time, you may have to edit this file directly. A driver section in odbcinst.ini should look something like this:

[MiniSQL 2.x]
Description = MiniSQL ODBC Driver
Driver = /usr/lib/
Setup = /usr/lib/
FileUsage = 2

Now run ODBCConfig to add, edit or remove data sources. You will need to be root to work with system data sources, but any user can add, edit and remove user data sources. Now run the DataManager, and you should see all ODBC data sources. When you try to expand the TreeView below a data source, you will be prompted for login information to connect to the data source. You can also try to connect to your data source using the isql command-line tool. Simply execute the command:

$isql DataSourceName MyID MyPWD

An Application's Perspective

Most database access can be accomplished using a simple handful of ODBC function calls. In fact, it is good practice to keep it simple, because each driver implements its own level of compliance and completeness. An application can expect to be used with very modest drivers from time to time. The isql command-line tool is an example of an application that uses only a small, simple set of ODBC functions. I will not get too deep into ODBC APIs, since you can pick up excellent reference material elsewhere. The typical sequence of events goes something like this:

  1. Connect to a data source.

  2. Create and Execute an SQL Statement.

  3. Process results.

  4. Close connection.