Spreadsheets and databases play a huge part in the daily operations of many businesses. Understanding the key differences between them is vital if you want to make the best use of either or both of them.
Spreadsheets and databases involve different technologies, but they share some characteristics. Databases generally involve a higher level of technical processing.
Both spreadsheets and databases are used to store and manage sets of data. The basic content in a spreadsheet or a database is a set of data values. Where spreadsheets and databases vary is in how they store and manipulate the data. A spreadsheet stores data values in cells, with multiple cells represented in a system of rows and columns. Cells can refer to other cells, and the spreadsheet can include cells that carry out processing on other cell values.
A database typically stores data values in tables. Each table has a name and one or more columns and rows. A row in a table is called a record. A single record includes a value for each column in a table. Databases can enforce relationships between records in different tables.
Spreadsheets and databases generally use different technologies. The most widely used spreadsheet program is Excel, which is part of Microsoft Office. Other spreadsheet programs form part of OpenOffice and GoogleDocs.
Database technologies include Microsoft Access, Oracle, MySQL and SQL Server, among many others. Some databases are run on servers and accessed over networks, including the Internet. In most cases, a database will have a software application built on top of it, providing user access to the data. Databases are built and managed by software programmers and Web developers. Database applications can be written in many programming languages, including Java, PHP, ASP and others.
Volume of data
Spreadsheets are designed to analyze data and sort list items, not for long-term storage of raw data. A spreadsheet should be used for ‘crunching’ numbers and storage of single list items. Spreadsheet programs provide the means for keeping inventory, statistical data modeling, and computing data.
To store large amounts of raw data, it is best to use a database. This is especially true in circumstances where two or more users share the information. Databases require little or no duplication of data between information tables, and changes made to the data do not corrupt the programming (like at the cell level of a spreadsheet where calculations are running). Furthermore, the two most important benefits gained by using a database are the capacity to increase data integrity, and the ease of reporting and sharing data.
Both spreadsheets and databases offer a range of processing functions. Using these you can manipulate, sort and filter data. Databases offer a greater range of complexity in terms of data manipulation, but this must be expressed in programming or SQL code. However, for basic data processing, spreadsheets provide users with a range of automated functions, which are accessible to people who do not have much technical experience. Some data management needs are only possible using databases, but where this is not the case, a spreadsheet may provide a more usable option.
Accessing and presenting
Access to a spreadsheet is sometimes limited to one person at a time. With database management systems, however, several people can access the same data set. Such systems manage editing of data so that two people cannot alter the same data values at the same time. This preserves data integrity, which is harder to manage when using spreadsheets.
Output and presentation varies in spreadsheets and databases. With a spreadsheet, you can generate charts and graphs using automated software tools. With a database, such output options are normally a matter for the application providing access to the data. Databases generally require a higher level of technological expertise.
Both systems have their advantages and disadvantages. Spreadsheets have made a huge step forward due to the presence of Google Sheets. With this tool multiple people can access the same data set as well. The choice is up to you, which one would you use?