Spreadsheet vs Database: Which is Better?

Posted on March 14, 2022

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Enterprises know that data is essential for their success. Without collecting, analyzing and utilizing it correctly, organizations are not likely to be able to assess their current business position, improve their processes, and achieve growth.

However, manipulating data for your company’s needs may be more tricky than it sounds. There are so many tools at your disposal that it’s sometimes difficult to tell what’s best for you. 

The main two applications used for data manipulation are databases and trusty old spreadsheets. So, what are the advantages and disadvantages of each? And what exactly is the difference between a spreadsheet and a database? Let’s explore.

What is a spreadsheet?

In order to truly understand the difference between spreadsheets and databases, we need to firstly grasp what each one actually is. Generally, most people know what a spreadsheet is — we’ve all used Microsoft Excel at least once in our lifetime! In simple terms, it’s a ledger made up of rows and columns in which information is stored. The grid can be manipulated and used for various calculations and analysis of the data, while spreadsheets can also be a great solution for hosting data. Among the main benefits of spreadsheets are:

Simple to use

Like we mentioned before, most people have used a spreadsheet before. This means that the vast majority — if not all — of your stakeholders can work one without much training. When you share your file around, it’s going to be far simpler for people to figure out than a database.

Flexible

A spreadsheet is a blank canvas. Whatever your needs are, you can create a file that works exactly like you need it to, and then change and amend it accordingly without much hassle. This is why Excel is not exclusively used as a database — its performance depends on what you want to achieve.

Easily visualized

Different people understand data in different ways. For some, a table chock-full of numbers is decipherable. But most of us require some form of visualization, be it color-coding, charts, or graphs. A spreadsheet can accommodate this, showing these elements right beside the data and helping both laypersons and professionals understand the information better.

What is a database?

Similarly to a spreadsheet, databases host information in a table-like manner. However, they are purpose-made for this reason, and therefore have some additional functionality that helps with the analysis of data. So, saying that a database is a table is actually simplistic  —  it is, in fact, data stored in various tables that can be connected to achieve better organization and make the most out of your information. Think about it this way: a spreadsheet is two-dimensional, while a database is three-dimensional. The functionality of the latter is superior to spreadsheets in some ways:

Secure

Ever tried to share a spreadsheet with a few stakeholders? Then we don’t need to tell you what a security nightmare Excel can be. Databases, on the other hand, were created to be accessed by multiple people. Not only does this mean that a number of individuals can access the same database simultaneously, but it will also keep track of every change to help debug and ensure nothing was amended without reason. What’s more, your intellectual property is hidden, and there’s no need to use unsecured methods like emails to pass on files.

Less prone to errors

There’s nothing worse than to work for hours on end on inputting information, only to find out someone messed it up. Data integrity is essential for databases, and each cell is preconfigured with the type of input you’re allowed to enter — be it a character, number or string. Another important factor is that, as mentioned above, databases can be used by multiple stakeholders at once, avoiding the confusion that is often triggered by having several versions of a file floating around whenever someone edits anything.

Scalable

Microsoft Excel can host 1,048,576 rows by 16,384 columns. For many purposes, this is more than enough. However, business needs sometimes require an awful lot more than this! Even if you stay within the remits, the software isn’t built to handle a huge amount of data and is prone to crashing. With databases, on the other hand, you have nothing to worry about no matter how many entries you have — that’s what they’re there for. Databases simply perform better for very large data sets.

Database vs spreadsheet: Which should I use?

Now that we’ve established the difference between spreadsheets and databases, and discussed some of their advantages and disadvantages, the question still stands — which should you use? The answer depends on a few factors.

The kind of data you have

If you’re dealing with relatively small quantities of data or light files, spreadsheets would be a great, no-fuss solution. However, once you start to get big — be it with lots and lots of entries or large file sizes (for example, if you need to input information from drones, GPS devices, or data loggers) — you should probably begin to consider moving onto a database. Beyond just the quantities, how sensitive your data is can be another important factor. Excel is prone to errors and security issues, and may cause real chaos if the information you’re handling is delicate.

Your data uses

When deciding between a database and a spreadsheet, you should also consider how you’re going to use your information, particularly how often it’s going to need to be edited and updated beyond adding new entries. Assuming the answer is ‘not often’, a spreadsheet is going to do a great job. However, in case your cells are going to require continuous revision, databases are the way to go. This is because of the relational element, allowing you to update records in bulk in a way that will affect your entire database, instead of manually changing cells.

The functionality you need

Consider the capabilities the software needs to have to accommodate your requirements. For example, while spreadsheets also have data validation functionality, databases are far more secure in that regard. If it’s crucial that your input is as sound and accurate as possible, data integrity is necessary for you, so you should opt for a database. Another element that may hint that databases are the right choice for you is your search and filter demands, and how quickly you need to retrieve data based on a complex set of rules. The more convoluted your needs are, it’s safe to assume databases are a better alternative.

Who requires access

For some purposes, sharing an Excel file is more than enough. However, in the case that many stakeholders require access to your sheet, or that you need to collaborate fully and simultaneously with one person or a group of users, spreadsheets simply don’t have this functionality honed yet. If that’s what you need, a database is the one for you. Dashboarding software such as Tableau is also commonly used with data, so if your information requires access to an application of the sort you need a database — a spreadsheet would not sync with it.

EASA — best of both worlds

While both a spreadsheet and a database are good solutions, neither of them are perfect. For example, you may require more capabilities than a simple Excel file can provide, but you don’t want to invest the time and effort in converting a file that already exists in the software to a database. Aggregating data from multiple spreadsheets to place in a single database can also be an odious process. Databases are also far more difficult to understand, which will almost always demand more specialized training for those who will use them.

In this case, EASA can provide a fantastic solution that’s the best of both worlds. By converting an Excel file into a web application, you can use your pre-existing spreadsheet but the EASA platform integrates its own relational database and automatically manages the data exchange. This means that the need to obtain, configure and operate a corporate relational database is eliminated, while still incorporating all of its advantages. You can then access your spreadsheet through a browser and allow stakeholders to view the parts they should be seeing, ensuring your logic remains secure on your corporate network or cloud.

When a change is made, the original file remains untouched, but the resulting outputs can be obtained. Using EASA allows for full collaboration, eliminates version confusion and input errors, and creates a useful log for everyone involved — but is still powered by an Excel spreadsheet.

In effect, you can keep on using your Excel sheet as a database without any disturbance, however, you’d be using a relational database instead!

If you’re interested to learn more, contact us for more information.