Spreadsheets vs Databases

Databases and spreadsheets are used widely throughout majority of successful businesses. Many smaller businesses contain no IT department and rely primarily on spreadsheets, they are so easy to use and retrieve valuable information. So you may ask, what is the difference between databases and spreadsheets, why would I ever need one?

Whats a Spreadsheet?

Spreadsheet programs are primarily used to store, display and calculate data. Data can range from numbers, Excel Spread Sheetcurrency, time, dates, text and much more. Spreadsheets data is entered manually by an individual and is stored in a system of columns and rows. Spreadsheet software contains very simple programming languages that have built in functions and formulas that can crunch data to produce useful information and graphs.

Pros: easy and fast to setup, programming language (functions) are easy to learn, very simple to edit.

Cons: difficult to manage large quantities of data, high risk of human error,  not suited to scale with a business, trouble communicating with other programs.

Examples: Microsoft Excel, LibreOffice Calc and Google Sheets


Whats a Database?

Before we get started I would like to mention the complexity of databases and that I will only skim the surface of what a database is capable of doing. Similar to spread sheets databases are also stored in a series of columns and rows. Databases are manipulateted with a programming language called SQL (Structured Query Language). A query is similar to asking the database a question which will be returned with an answer of information.  The key difference between databases and spreadsheets is the way data is stored, it is much easier to pull out specific data in order to create a complex yet useful result of information. Databases are much more scalable than spreadsheets and can actually hold millions of records before seeing any system delay when performing a query. Databases are used in majority of interactive websites online and are extremely useful when inputting / retrieving data automatically. Here’s an example, think of any website you have a user profile such as Facebook, Twitter, Google, etc. each time you login notice your  previous posting still exist on your profile. This postings, pictures and information are all being retrieved from a database.

Pros: Largely scalable, great for automating data entry, fast analysis (querying), ideal for integrating applications, allows restrictive privileges for certain users.

Cons: Can be difficult to initiate a database system, requires a high level of strategic planning, requires a database administrator or knowledge of database design.

Examples: MySQL, Microsoft Access and Oracle


When should I use one over the other?

Spreadsheets are great for keeping track of a small amount of data that will not be manipulated in multiple ways to get different statistics. Propose a spreadsheets design to keep track of, basic finances, a time log, or perhaps a report needed for a meeting.

Databases on the other hand can me much more difficult to setup initially but more powerful in the end result. Consider using a database structure for storing any data that was generated from a web application, data that will be configured in multiple formulas to achieve high level statistics, or storing a high volume of data.

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