Spreadsheets vs. Databases

These two concepts are not synonyms

Woman compiling spreadsheet on laptop

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A spreadsheet offers quasi-structured data in a row-and-column format, but spreadsheets don't intrinsically relate to each other and don't require rules about the information contained within them. In addition, they lack sophisticated summarization-and-reporting tools.

Databases, on the other hand, collect information in a structured fashion and enforce, by default, rules, and relationships about what goes in and out.

We've reviewed both to aid in your determination of which one best suits your needs.

Overall Findings

Spreadsheets

  • Contains cells made from columns and rows.

  • Able to perform mathematical calculations.

  • Ability to sort and filter data.

Databases

  • Organizes complex collection of data.

  • Controlled by a database management system (DBMS)

  • Able to access and manage large amounts of data.

Databases are designed to support the rapid reading and writing of content automatically. Unless you're using some sort of homebrew system of trigger tools like If This Then That, a spreadsheet requires manual entry of information.

Microsoft Excel or Google Sheets are the most commonly used spreadsheet programs—in fact, they're commonly available for free on computers, tablets, and even 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 Oracle's server suite, while people in the open-source and Linux communities use tools like MariaDB.

When you do use a database, you'll generally pair it with support tools. Because databases require Structured Query Language to access information, tools like visual report designers (like Crystal Reports) or dashboarding tools (like 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 formulae and named regions tie some parts of spreadsheets together, in general, a spreadsheet is a self-contained dataset, with limited ability to filter and group across different worksheets and different spreadsheet files. Spreadsheets are optimized for finance and simple data analysis. For straightforward number-crunching, this approach is far superior to a database, which incurs a much higher technical debt for initial setup and configuration.

However, any comparison of information among different data sources is a fool's errand in a spreadsheet. A database, which enforces relationships and supports querying based on attributes or subsets within one or more tables, is designed to link tables together in various ways and to perform summary statistics on those sub- and supersets.

Reporting: Appearance Is Key

Spreadsheets

  • Customizable appearance.

  • Easily create graphs.

  • Rich formatting features.

Databases

  • Formalized appearance.

  • Streamline reports.

  • Tabular report format.

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

A spreadsheet is the sum total of what you get: It's both the information and the presentation layer for that information. This approach can streamline some simple reports because the calculations are transparent to anyone who opens the file. Plus, options like rule lines, shading, graphs, and colors help you to make the final output look exactly as you intend.

A database, by design, outputs information in tabular format. Any beautification of the output must occur in a spreadsheet or in a different program (like a dashboarding tool)

Data Location: Information Access & 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 usually reside on individual computers or on file servers. Databases, for the most part, require dedicated database servers, which means that it's more work to create a database but you're not going to misfile it or accidentally delete it.

Although you're free to password-protect a spreadsheet, you generally can't audit who views or edits it. With a database, however, you cannot view or modify the data unless you have explicit permissions, and any viewing and editing you perform is logged by the database 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 largely on the amount of data you plan to work with. Spreadsheets are adequate for manageable lists of basic information, but if you plan to store large quantities of raw data for an undetermined length of time, a database will likely be a worthwhile investment of your time and resources.