Spreadsheets vs. Databases

These two concepts are not synonyms

Woman compiling spreadsheet on laptop

Image Source / Getty Images

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.

Use Cases for Databases vs. Spreadsheets

database_engine_configuration.png
Database Engine Configuration.

Spreadsheets are optimized for finance and simple data analysis. They 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.

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

Relationships

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. 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

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

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.

Information Access & Auditing

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.

High-Volume Transactions

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.

Common Spreadsheet and Database Tools

SQL code on black
KIVILCIM PINAR / Getty Images

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 like 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.