Spreadsheets vs. Databases

These two concepts are not synonymous.

Spreadsheets and databases both provide ways to examine data. The approach each uses to collect and share this data, however, is quite different.

A spreadsheet offers quasi-structured data in the form of rows and columns. However, the spreadsheets are not related to each other and do not require rules regarding the information contained in the spreadsheet. Additionally, spreadsheets lack sophisticated summarizing and reporting tools.

Databases collect information in a structured way and apply, by default, rules and relationships about what goes in and goes out. We’ve looked at both to help you figure out which one best suits your needs.

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General Conclusions

Spreadsheets

  • Contain cells composed of columns and rows.

  • Perform mathematical calculations.

  • Sort and filter data.

Data base

  • Organize complex collections of data.

  • Controlled by a database management system (DBMS).

  • Access and manage large amounts of data.

Databases support fast reading and writing of content automatically. Unless you’re using a homebrew system of trigger tools like If This Then That, a spreadsheet requires manual entry of information.

Microsoft Excel and Google Sheets are commonly used spreadsheet programs. Both are available for free on computers, tablets and smartphones.

Besides Microsoft Access on the desktop (and clones like LibreOffice Base), the most robust database tools reside on servers. Large companies use options such as Microsoft SQL Server or the Oracle server suite. Members of the open source and Linux communities use tools like MariaDB.

When you use a database, you usually combine it with support tools. Since databases require a structured query language to access information, tools such as visual report designers (such as Crystal Reports) or dashboard tools (such as Tableau) handle both SQL generation and development of complex reports.

Design: Analysis vs. Relationships

Spreadsheets

  • Optimized for simple data analysis.

  • Limited filtering capabilities.

  • Limited ability to compare data from different sources.

Data base

  • Able to link tables.

  • Powerful relational analysis.

  • Limited computing capabilities.

Whether databases or spreadsheets make the most sense for a given purpose stems from a handful of use case characteristics.

Although lookup formulas and named regions connect parts of worksheets, a worksheet is a self-contained set of data. It has a limited ability to filter and group different spreadsheets and spreadsheet files. Spreadsheets are optimized for finance and simple data analysis. For simple analysis of numbers, this approach is superior to a database. Also, databases require more technical skills to set up and configure.

However, it is not easy to compare the information of different data in a spreadsheet. Databases enforce relationships and support queries based on attributes or subsets in one or more tables. Databases relate tables in different ways and perform summary statistics on these subsets and supersets.

Reports: appearance is key

Spreadsheets

  • Customizable appearance.

  • Easily create charts.

  • Rich formatting functions.

Data base

  • Formalized appearance.

  • Streamline reporting.

  • Tabular report format.

Spreadsheets present a grid of information. Content, formatting, appearance, and structure are determined by the spreadsheet owner. Databases require a formalized structure and separate information from the appearance of that information.

A spreadsheet is both the information layer and the presentation layer of that information. This approach streamlines simple reports because the calculations are transparent to anyone who opens the file. Plus, options like ruler lines, shading, graphics, and colors give the final output the look you want.

A database produces information in the form of a table. Any formatting of the output must occur in a spreadsheet or other program, such as a dashboard tool.

Data Location: Information Access and Audit

Spreadsheets

  • Stand-alone documents.

  • Limited security options.

  • One user at a time.

Data base

  • Dedicated database servers.

  • Permissions increase security.

  • Multiple concurrent users.

Spreadsheets are self-contained documents that reside on individual computers or file servers. Databases, for the most part, require dedicated database servers. This means that creating a database takes more work, but you can’t misclassify it or accidentally delete it.

Although you can password protect a spreadsheet, you usually can’t check who is viewing or editing it. With a database, however, you cannot view or modify data unless you have permission. The database saves all the visualizations and edits you make for future discovery.

In general, spreadsheets are designed to be opened and edited by one person at a time. Databases support many concurrently connected users.

Verdict: the volume of data decides

Deciding whether you should use a spreadsheet or a database depends on how much data you plan to work with. Spreadsheets are good for manageable lists of basic information. However, if you plan to store large amounts of raw data for an indefinite period of time, a database is a worthwhile investment of your time and resources.


More information about Spreadsheets vs. Databases

These two concepts are not synonyms

Spreadsheets and databases both offer ways to look at data. The approach each one uses in collecting and sharing that data, however, is quite different.

A spreadsheet offers quasi-structured data in a row and column format. However, spreadsheets don’t relate to each other and don’t require rules about the information contained in the spreadsheet. Also, spreadsheets don’t have sophisticated summarization and reporting tools.

Databases collect information in a structured fashion and enforce, by default, rules, and relationships about what goes in and out. We reviewed both to aid in your determination of which one best suits your needs.

Lifewire Overall Findings
Spreadsheets

Contain cells made from columns and rows.

Perform mathematical calculations.

Sort and filter data.

Databases

Organize complex collections of data.

Controlled by a database management system (DBMS).

Access and manage large amounts of data.

Databases support the rapid reading and writing of content automatically. Unless you use a homebrew system of trigger tools like If This Then That, a spreadsheet requires manual entry of information.

Microsoft Excel and Google Sheets are commonly used spreadsheet programs. Both are available for free on computers, tablets, and smartphones.

Apart from Microsoft Access on the desktop (and clones like LibreOffice Base), most robust database tools reside on servers. Large companies use options such as Microsoft SQL Server or the Oracle server suite. People in the open-source and Linux communities use tools like MariaDB.

When you use a database, you generally pair it with support tools. Because databases require Structured Query Language to access information, tools like visual report designers (such as Crystal Reports) or dashboarding tools (such as Tableau) manage both SQL generation and complex report development.

Design: Analysis vs. Relationships
Spreadsheets

Optimized for simple data analysis.

Limited filtering abilities.

Limited ability to compare data from different sources.

Databases

Able to link tables.

Powerful relational analysis.

Limited calculation abilities.

Whether databases or spreadsheets make the most sense for a given purpose follows from a handful of use-case characteristics.

Although lookup formulas and named regions tie some parts of spreadsheets together, a spreadsheet is a self-contained dataset. It has limited ability to filter and group across different worksheets and spreadsheet files. Spreadsheets are optimized for finance and simple data analysis. For straightforward number-crunching, this approach is superior to a database. Also, databases take more technical skills to set up and configure.

However, it isn’t easy to compare information from different data in a spreadsheet. Databases enforce relationships and support querying based on attributes or subsets within one or more tables. Databases link tables together in various ways and perform summary statistics on those subsets and supersets.

Reporting: Appearance Is Key
Spreadsheets

Customizable appearance.

Easy to create graphs.

Rich formatting features.

Databases

Formalized appearance.

Streamline reports.

Tabular report format.

Spreadsheets present a grid of information. The content, formatting, appearance, and structure are determined by the spreadsheet owner. Databases require a formalized structure and separate the information from the appearance of that information.

A spreadsheet is both the information and the presentation layer for that information. This approach streamlines simple reports because the calculations are transparent to anyone who opens the file. Plus, options like rule lines, shading, graphs, and colors make the final output look as you intend.

A database outputs information in tabular format. Any formatting of the output must occur in a spreadsheet or another program, such as a dashboarding tool.

Data Location: Information Access and Auditing
Spreadsheets

Self-contained documents.

Limited security options.

One user at a time.

Databases

Dedicated database servers.

Permissions increase security.

Multiple simultaneous users.

Spreadsheets are self-contained documents that reside on individual computers or file servers. Databases, for the most part, require dedicated database servers. This means that it’s more work to create a database, but you can’t misfile or accidentally delete it.

Although you can password-protect a spreadsheet, you generally can’t audit who views or edits it. With a database, however, you can’t view or modify the data unless you have permission. The database logs any viewing and editing you perform for future discoverability.

In general, spreadsheets are designed to be opened and edited by one person at a time. Databases support many logged-in users simultaneously.

Verdict: Data Volume Decides

Deciding whether you should use a spreadsheet application or a database depends on the amount of data you plan to work with. Spreadsheets are adequate for manageable lists of basic information. However, if you plan to store large quantities of raw data for an undetermined length of time, a database is a worthwhile investment of your time and resources.

#Spreadsheets #Databases


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