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.

Database vs Spreadsheet

Overall Findings

  • Contain cells made from columns and rows.

  • Perform mathematical calculations.

  • Sort and filter data.

  • 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

  • Optimized for simple data analysis.

  • Limited filtering abilities.

  • Limited ability to compare data from different sources.

  • 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

  • Customizable appearance.

  • Easy to create graphs.

  • Rich formatting features.

  • 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

  • Self-contained documents.

  • Limited security options.

  • One user at a time.

  • 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.