Database Drivers: How Do They Work?

Here’s how database drivers work:

Database drivers are essentially bits of software that allow apps (like Excel) to communicate with databases.

Since the apps and the databases use entirely different communication methods, a translator is needed, and that’s what the drivers do.

They do this with specific APIs that focus on rules rather than language.

So if you want to learn all about the role and function of database drivers, then this article is for you.

Let’s get right into it!

Database Drivers: How Do They Work?

What Is a Database?

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It wouldn’t make a whole lot of sense to talk about database drivers without first explaining databases themselves.

If you’re already familiar with databases, feel free to skip ahead.

If this is new or fuzzy to you, I’ll explain it all pretty quickly.

In a nutshell, a database is the software that organizes large data stores in computer systems.

Let’s explore the idea with an example.

You’ve used before, right?

It’s a massive online store with just about any product you could ever want or need.

In order for the website to work, it needs a list of every single item that is available for sale.

If you’ve ever explored Amazon, then you know that this is a ridiculously long list.

So, how do the Amazon computer systems (often called servers) organize and manage that list?

They do it with a database.

The database software provides rules and protocols that the servers can follow.

So, whenever a new item is added to the Amazon website, the database automatically knows what to do with the information pertaining to that item.

It organizes the information accordingly, and because of that, the Amazon system can rapidly and consistently find any item information that it needs, on demand.

Keep in mind that Amazon is just an example.

Any time a computer system needs to organize and manage data, it’s going to use a database to run the show.

The thing to keep in mind is that databases are designed for computer systems, not users.

The database is supposed to make it easy for the computer to manage data, but it doesn’t take you into account at all.

Instead, you have apps that allow you to manage databases (something like Excel is quite common).

I’ll get into this more later, but this disconnect is why database drivers matter.

What Is a Driver?

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Before we really get into database drivers, there’s one more thing that I should go over: drivers.

What is a driver?

In general, it is software that controls computer systems.

Drivers exist in a lot of forms and for a lot of specific functions, so once again, I’ll turn to an example.

Let’s say you get a new mouse for your computer.

You plug it in, and you get a little notification that the driver is installing.

What’s really happening?

Well, the mouse is a hardware component.

It’s a physical device that you can touch.

In order for the physical device to communicate with your computer system, software has to get involved.

After all, Windows is important to your computer, but it’s not a component you can touch.

How does the software of Windows understand the signal coming from the mouse?

The answer, as you might have guessed, is drivers.

The driver is a specific software package that is designed to enable communication between the mouse and the rest of the computer.

In general, any physical device on your computer needs a driver (or set of drivers) in order to work.

But, drivers aren’t limited to this role.

They can also be used to enable communication between two different bits of software.

What About Database Drivers?

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And that brings us to database drivers.

These are drivers, but they’re not working directly with hardware.

Instead, database drivers are designed to enable user-friendly apps to communicate with the not-so-user-friendly databases.

In other words, if you want to actually view or analyze the data in the database, you need an app for that.

I mentioned it before, so let’s consider Excel as an example.

Excel is great for creating graphs and running numbers and generally analyzing data, but you have to get the data from somewhere. 

For small jobs, you might manually type in the numbers to the spreadsheet, in which case there is no database involved.

Eventually, though, you might be working with enough data points that you can’t hope to enter them all by hand.

Instead, you just want to import the data and get to work.

In this case, you’re going to want to access a database and load its information into your spreadsheet.

That’s when you need the database driver.

Excel cannot talk to a database on its own.

It needs a driver to make that work.

How Do Database Drivers Work? (4 Ways)

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Ok. The foundation is laid.

Now, we can really get into how database drivers work.

Let’s start with a simplified look at the concept.

At a basic level, these drivers are working as translators.

You might use an app that wants to access a database.

Let’s stick with the Excel example.

You want to import data into a spreadsheet so that you can observe and analyze that data.

It’s a pretty normal thing.

In order to do this, Excel has to talk to the database, but Excel and databases don’t speak the same language.

So, a driver is implemented as a middleman of sorts (often called “middleware” in software terms).

This driver can translate between Excel and the database, and communication is seamless.

You can manipulate the data as you see fit, and you can control everything from Excel.

Being a little more technical, this middleware communication is based on the concept of protocol languages.

A protocol language is a computer language that’s based specifically on following specific rules.

So, the protocol language for a database driver can communicate with different kinds of databases that might even use different languages (like Oracle or MySQL).

Because the protocol language is based specifically on rules, a universal set of rules can give meaningful instructions to a wide range of different databases.

Using the protocols, the driver can also translate received data into something meaningful for your app.

To put it in simpler terms, the protocol language is the key to effective translations between apps and databases.

And because they’re based on protocols rather than other aspects of language (like syntax), they can provide fairly universal translations across multiple languages.

That’s the essence of how database drivers work, but we can zoom in on four separate, common systems that are utilized by these drivers to better understand everything at play.


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JDBC (or Java database connectivity) is an API used by database drivers.

Since I’m throwing even more computer terms at you, let’s pause for a moment and learn one more thing.

An API (application programming interface) is a software mechanism that allows two separate apps to communicate with each other.

Does that sound familiar?

The API will essentially be the skeletal structure of any database driver.

On top of that, an API is essentially the set of protocols necessary for this communication.

That makes the API the effective layer of the protocol language.

Technically speaking, JDBC isn’t the protocol language.

Instead, Java is the language. (It’s worth noting that Java is one of the most common computer languages in the world.)

But, JDBC is the set of rules that allows the driver to focus on protocols over anything else.

The API is the key ingredient that allows the driver to run on protocols over specific languages, and that’s where you get the universal impacts I described in the previous section.

As for JDBC, it was originally designed as an API that would allow many different apps to interact with Oracle databases (Oracle is the parent company that made and maintains Java).

But because JDBC focuses on protocol language, it actually can interact with other databases too.

As a result, it’s one of the most common APIs used by database drivers.


SQL (Structured Query Language) code on computer monitor and server room background. Example of SQL code to query data from a database.

Next up is Open Database Connectivity (ODBC).

This is another API, but it’s built quite differently when compared to JDBC.

Now, ODBC still focuses on protocols to enable communication, but it’s not derived from Java.

Instead, ODBC was designed to work independently from databases and operating systems.

In other words, ODBC utilizes a unique protocol language.

While ODBC is the API built from that language, its’ capable of higher degrees of universality (as compared to JDBC) because there is no parent programming language attached to it.

Instead, it has a set of rules that make sense to virtually all databases, and by following those rules, it can effectively translate between apps and databases.

While JDBC is popular, ODBC is even more widely used for database drivers.


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Then we have OLE DB (Object Linking and Embedding, Database).

This API was actually derived from ODBC, so the two have a lot in common.

OLE DB uses the same essential protocol language as ODBC, but OLE DB features a couple of changes that make it more efficient.

Chief among those is how OLE DB changes definitions of applications and databases.

While ODBC has many ways to arrange the two, OLE DB simplifies everything into two concepts: consumers and providers.

Typically, the app is the consumer as it wants to import data.

Meanwhile, the databases are typically the providers.

This simplification of source and destination definitions allows OLE DB to handle protocols more efficiently without sacrificing any of the things that make ODBC so popular.

At one point, OLE DB was scheduled to be phased out, but it is in use in so many systems that it was updated instead.

To this day, you’ll find OLE DB at the heart of many database drivers.


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Last on the list is ADO.NET.

This is actually the most common API of all, and that’s because it is included by default in Windows systems.

ADO.NET is part of Microsoft’s .NET Framework, which is a standard software package for Windows operating systems.

ADO.NET borrows from the consumer-provider relationship definitions that were set up by OLE DB.

As such, ADO.NET is also quite efficient and can move large stores of data from databases to apps very effectively.

In fact, ADO.NET is probably more similar to OLE DB in its basic structure than any of the other APIs discussed.

The primary difference is that ADO.NET is optimized for Windows systems.

That makes it less universal than some of the other APIs, as you can’t really use ADO.NET with non-Microsoft systems (unless you make some substantial changes to the API).

One more time for emphasis, ADO.NET is extremely popular because it is automatically included with Windows operating systems.

It’s available, by default, for the majority of personal computers in the world.

For that reason, anyone designing apps for Windows can benefit from simply using the API that is already available — which is ADO.NET.


  • Theresa McDonough

    Tech entrepreneur and founder of Tech Medic, who has become a prominent advocate for the Right to Repair movement. She has testified before the US Federal Trade Commission and been featured on CBS Sunday Morning, helping influence change within the tech industry.

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