Spreadsheets vs. Databases: Find the Right Fit for Your Data

June 24, 2016 Appirio

By Karuna Singh


As we know, the most sensitive and vital component of any industry is data. So obviously, any loss of data or incorrect data is a matter of acute concern. This directs us to a particularly tedious aspect of data: data management. Because the amount of data generally grows, there has to be a system capable of efficiently handling and managing a very large amount.

Both spreadsheets and databases are used to store and manage growing sets of data. The basic content in a spreadsheet or a database is a set of data values. Therefore, understanding the key differences between spreadsheets and databases is vital if you want to make the best use of either or both of them. Spreadsheets and databases vary in how they store and manipulate data. While spreadsheets don’t require a high level of technical processing as compared to databases, there are certain limitations in data storage with them. Let’s consider a scenario to realize the value of a database in the practical world.

Consider you are working in a department store and you need to keep track of customers and their orders. You could use Microsoft Excel to store and manage this type of data. However, Excel is a spreadsheet software program that is traditionally used to manage numerical information, like totaling up the yearly fees of students.

Sorting and filtering to locate data in Excel

Suppose you need to list out your customers making heavy purchases from your store in a year in order to generate a special offers campaign for them. And you also need to target a specific region’s customers for the campaign during the current year. In Excel, you can store your data in a worksheet to fulfill your requirement.


However, if you want to see very specific results in your data — like if you need to filter such customers in FMCGs and make this campaign a recursive event every year — then it would be cumbersome to opt for Excel.

Data entry in Excel

If you use an Excel spreadsheet to track your orders, each time a customer places an order you would have to enter a new row of information in the spreadsheet. This would likely include the customer’s name and address. If that customer orders from your company more than once, information would have to be entered each time. Your spreadsheet would likely contain redundant information.


Here, Jones’s and Rose’s contact information is entered each time they have made purchases from the store. This is the limitation of spreadsheet software such as Excel because it is a single, flat file.

Linking 2 spreadsheets or updating spreadsheets

Say you need to refer to 2 Excel spreadsheets to extract the information of total sales of 2 different cities in a year. Working on this in Excel would be a tedious task with a high probability of errors. And if your customer relocates to another location, then you need to update all the related spreadsheet files that contain the customer’s address.

When to opt for a database?

  • When the information is so large that it would become unmanageable in spreadsheet form and is related to a particular subject.
  • When you want to maintain records for ongoing use.
  • When you want to perform analysis on historic data.
  • When information is subject(ed) to many changes.
  • When you want to generate reports based on the information.

When to go for spreadsheets?

  • When you want to easily develop charts and reports of your data.
  • When you want to crunch and perform automatic calculations.
  • When you want to track a simple list of data.
  • When you want to create “what-if” analysis.
  • When access to data is limited to a person or security of data is not a priority (as data integrity is harder to maintain when using spreadsheets).

So, before opting for a database development, if you find yourself answering yes to at least 3 of the following questions, you should definitely investigate the use of a database to better organize your data:

  • Do you find yourself entering the same values of information into multiple spreadsheets/reports/documents?
  • When you make the changes in your spreadsheet/reports/documents, are you forced to make the same changes in others?
  • Do you have a large amount of data that is becoming even larger and unmanageable?
  • Do several people in your organization need to view your data at the same time?
  • Are you tracking related information in several spreadsheets — such as separate sheets for sales for different departments or different geographical locations?
  • When viewing your information, are you constantly scrolling to view it all? Do you have a difficult time viewing the specific sets of data that you want?
  • Does it take a long time to extract relevant data because you are having to refer to more than one spreadsheet?

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