It is often perceived that a spreadsheet and a database are one of the same. Maybe it’s because both applications look or perhaps feel quite similar. Each uses raw data stored in tables, so it’s easy to see why people might get confused between a database vs spreadsheet programs like Excel for business.
However, there are some key differences. Technically, the main difference between a spreadsheet vs a database comes down to how data is stored when accessed electronically.
When users enter data into spreadsheet software, such as Microsoft Excel, Google Sheets – or even a mobile spreadsheet app, it is entered into a cell within one big table. This raw data can then be manipulated, edited, or formatted.
In a database, such cells form ‘records’ that come from external tables or relational tables.
Before we explain the key differences between a spreadsheet vs databases, it may be helpful to outline what exactly a spreadsheet or database is and what each can be used to achieve.
What Is a Spreadsheet?
A spreadsheet is an interactive computer application that contains data organised into rows and columns in tabular form, meaning that multiple sheets can be created within one Excel workbook.
Users can manipulate data tables and data points within the spreadsheet to carry out simple calculations, such as totalling the sum of a column containing numbers, or carry out more complex equations such as finding the mean or average of a row of associated data. You can even use spreadsheets for the automation of repetitive tasks.
Spreadsheet software like Excel can also perform complex data science tasks, compare related data and visualise data using Excel dashboards.
The most common type of spreadsheet software used by large enterprises is Microsoft Excel. Not only is this spreadsheet application easy to use and master for a multitude of tasks it can hold data in large quantities across multiple sheets thanks to its tabular structure.
What Is a Database?
Although databases and spreadsheets are similar, a database structure comprises an organised collection of information or data, often structured and is usually stored on a computer system.
Users can search, select, and store all the data in a database.
A great example of a database would be in a library where books can be stored to keep things organised. Readers can search by book title, author or edition quickly and efficiently, saving valuable time for library staff!
There is no limit to how much data can be stored in a database either, which is a key difference, vs Excel, which has a data limit of just over 1 million rows. If you need to store more data than Excel can handle, databases are probably the best computer program for you.
Similarities Between a Spreadsheet vs Databases
Now that we know the key differences between a database vs a spreadsheet let’s look at the similarities.
In short, this is easy to answer – they both use tables!
A database structure comprises a collection of data tables and works in tandem with other applications like spreadsheets to store, retrieve or sort data.
A spreadsheet uses one large table made up of cells organised into rows and columns (although in Excel, this can be linked to other data sources, including other tables to retrieve data)
When used in either a spreadsheet or a database, tables are used to store data in fields, columns, rows, and records, with each representing a piece of information.
Therefore, it is safe to conclude that storing data in a tabular format is the main similarity between a database vs spreadsheet.
Differences Between a Database vs Spreadsheets Like Excel
The fundamental difference between a database (sometimes referred to as a DMS- database management system) and spreadsheet software such as Microsoft Excel, Google Sheets or other spreadsheet apps is that the latter is an excellent tool for short-term storage of data.
On the other hand, databases are a better method for data storage, especially if you need to store large amounts of information that may change over time because they have greater capacity than spreadsheets do.
Secondly, spreadsheets can be another useful method of data storage as they can store data in a tabular format, made up of rows and columns.
If numeric data is used, a spreadsheet lets you apply ‘a formula’ to these cells and perform preset functions such as addition, multiplication or division. Data integrity is maintained by using the formula function in the Excel toolbar.
Unlike spreadsheets, databases are not used for carryout calculations at this level.
Therefore, we can establish that a spreadsheet is used as a tool to store and calculate data, whereas a database like Microsoft Access is used to store data – and lots of it!
Both methods can be used to edit data.
Why Use a Database Instead Of a Spreadsheet?
Because databases can store and access large volumes of information more efficiently than a spreadsheet, there are many reasons to choose a database management system.
For example, large companies may need to store employer records or sales information across multiple tables whilst maintaining data integrity.
Payroll or sales teams may need access directly or simultaneously to search, change, or carry out data analysis quickly, no matter how large or small each department’s data volume is.
A database stores data – and lots of it that multiple users can access electronically from anywhere in the world; therefore, a database would be perfect for these tasks!
Because a database can store data across multiple tables (or tabular data), a relational database may be used to link these tables together (one for teachers, one for students is an excellent example of this)
Although a database can hold the same information, the key difference between a spreadsheet and a database is that a spreadsheet application can carry out calculations, whereas a database cannot.
Examples Of Using a Database vs a Spreadsheet
Below are some real-life examples of information stored in databases that can be used for everyday business needs.
- Storing employer records
- Medical or Government records
- Ticketing Systems
- Banking Applications
- Library systems
The data used in each example could be accessed by many users, such as employees or customers, at the same time to view, update, search or sort records.
What Is a Relational Database?
For those unfamiliar with the term ‘relational database’, this consists of a master table linked to slave or child tables.
A relationship is formed between the two; for example, you may require a table that holds customer data, such as names, addresses and email and a child table for orders placed, which the links to products in an online store.
The obvious reason to use a relational database is to avoid repeating data on every spreadsheet, which can be resource-intensive. However, the most important factor is that it enables you to query your data using filters to find specific information and generate reports.
Relational Database Example
In our ticketing system example previously mentioned, a relational database can be used to link data from the artist table (which holds data to represent the number of tickets available) with the customer table (who wants to buy extra tickets)
Before creating relational databases, you should plan how each table should link together.
What Is Structured Query Language (SQL)?
SQL (Structured Query Language) is probably the most common language that database developers use to extract and organise data stored in a relational database.
Because we are talking about using Excel as a database, SQL’ statements’ are used, which allows you to connect to an external data source, parse fields or table contents and import data.
SQL takes away any manual data input.
Once you import external data with SQL statements, you can sort it, carry out data analysis, or perform any calculations you might need – SQL is that powerful! Read more about it in our Excel SQL FAQs post.
Its also worth mentioning data consistency, which is the process of keeping data together as it moves across a network or between various applications on a computer.
Can Excel Be Used As a Database?
Excel is a very powerful application, and it excels at both in our spreadsheet vs database debate!
The database capabilities of Excel mean users can create a simple searchable database or even create relational databases.
Although many people believe that Excel has limited capabilities, such as reporting and filtering data, underneath the surface, complex databases can be created alongside a decent GUI.
A well known recent example was the COVID-19 pandemic when it was revealed that experts from the NHS Test & Trace used Excel to record population statistics and related data.
Although it was heavily criticised, it shows that Excel can be used as a database – if set up correctly.
There are many differences between a spreadsheet and a database, but harnessing the power of Excel, we can use our technological expertise to link tables in spreadsheets to create a bespoke database to suit your businesses needs.
Summary: Using An Excel Spreadsheet Vs Databases
There are many ways to store and organise data. What is most important is that you find a way, or more than one way, that works for your business needs and that maintains data integrity.
We can help you build an efficient database for storing information so that your business can flourish by providing a system that works for you, either for internal staff or an external project for your customers or clients.
If you need spreadsheet and database help, contact our Excel database experts today. We’ll help you find the right tool for storing your data and use our extensive knowledge to build databases in Microsoft Excel and other solutions like Microsoft Access.