Database vs Spreadsheet: The Only Guide You’ll Need (2022)

Olivia Rhye
11 Jan 2022
5 min read

Office workers spend 38% of their job hours using Excel spreadsheets on average, and the majority of apps and websites we use rely on databases: both are used everywhere. But even though they can look similar, databases and spreadsheets have different objectives. Understanding the differences of database vs spreadsheet is key to making the most of them without shooting yourself in the foot.

At Rowy, we provide databases as a software service, and we display your data in a familiar spreadsheet UI out of the box. This is why we feel our expertise provided in this article is relevant to you―because we know exactly where each tool shines! Let’s dig in.

What Is A Spreadsheet?

A spreadsheet is a document containing data structured in rows and columns. Each unit of data corresponds to the intersection of a row and a column, called a cell.

Spreadsheet tools like Google Sheets and Excel are designed for simple data storage and calculation, for activities like accounting, data visualization with charts, or inventory management.

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What Is A Database?

A database is a software system storing data in optimized structures for retrieval and manipulation. A database management system (DBMS) allows users to create databases and manage the data it contains using a structured query language (SQL).

A database is designed to store large amounts of data, as well as metadata describing how the data interact together that’s needed to build software applications. Databases are at the cornerstone of every web application you use on a daily basis―social media, calendar, project management tools, etc.

Different types of databases exist to fit every data needs, like relational databases (MySQL, PostgreSQL, sqlite), NoSQL databases (MongoDB, CouchDB), or graph databases (Neo4j, ArangoDB). Database tools like Rowy or Airtable aim to provide a hybrid database-spreadsheet tool that offers all the benefits of a database with the intuitive user interface of a spreadsheet.

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Why You Need To Know Database Vs Spreadsheet Differences

A study of over 1000 office workers illustrates perfectly how important it is to know when to use a spreadsheet, and when to prefer a database.

First, picking the right tool provides incredible time gains. 18% of employees spend more than 60% of their day using spreadsheets. The surveyed workers need help from colleagues regarding an Excel issue about twice a week, with the average issue taking 10 minutes to fix on average. A dedicated, automated tool built on top of a database could save businesses tens of thousands of dollars every year.

On the other hand, 12% of spreadsheets contain business-critical errors. And since data quality is one of the prerequisites of making better business decisions, it is absolutely critical to ask yourself if a database isn’t more suitable to increase the reliability of your data. It isn’t surprising 98% of all respondents have seen an Excel error cost money to their employers, and fortunately databases provide built-in mechanisms solving data problems encountered with spreadsheets.

Main Differences Between Spreadsheets And Databases

Pros And Cons Of A Spreadsheet

Pros

  • Access all data at once - When you look at a spreadsheet, all your data is one click or one scroll away. You don’t have to drill down different tables to find what you need, and in the worst case scenarios, the search bar is there for you to find anything fast.
  • Easy to use - Spreadsheets are easy to set up, edit, and share. The learning curve is minimal―you don’t need any specific knowledge to read one, and advanced functions are relatively straightforward.
  • Low cost - Mainstream spreadsheet tools are either free (Google Sheets) or low cost ($69.99 per year for Microsoft 365 Personal with Excel) to acquire. And they don’t require maintenance or extra charges. Perfect when you have a tight budget!
  • Lots of basic data features - Spreadsheets offer standard data management features for formatting (dates, currencies, links, pictures, etc.), visualization (bar charts, line graphs), and operations (sorting, aggregates) covering a big number of jobs.
  • Great user interface - Spreadsheets can become an addiction. You can use them for everything thanks to their flexible data structure and satisfying interface. Tools like Google Sheets even offer dead-simple API capabilities for developers, making them a pleasure to work with.

Cons

  • Doesn’t scale well - Unfortunately, spreadsheets are not so great at handling a large volume of data and will struggle once you reach a certain scale. You can’t have more than 1,048,576 rows and 16,384 columns per Excel worksheet, and Google Sheets will struggle once a document goes past 100 concurrent users.
  • Minimal security - Spreadsheets aren’t suitable to store sensitive data, as they present no encryption capabilities and little to no data quality enforcement mechanisms. Moreover, spreadsheets are trivial to hack―all it takes is a single neglectful collaborator to leak a sharing link for all your data to be released in the wild. Forget about GDPR compliance if you use a spreadsheet!

Pros And Cons Of A Database

Pros

  • Flexible and extendable - You can use a database to build any software tool you want. Unlike spreadsheets, your only limit to what you can do with your data is your imagination.
  • Ensure data quality - Databases have built-in mechanisms to prevent data corruption, duplication, and enforce constraints like data types or uniqueness. All these features combined enable end-users to maximize data quality.
  • Performance - A database allows for faster data operations, like performing calculations or querying and filtering a part of your dataset, thanks to its optimized structures. Even with a cheap web server, you won’t have trouble running tens of thousands of operations per second.
  • Scalability - Databases can adapt to any amount of data. An engine like sqlite is designed to handle terabytes of data from a single database instance, and since most websites and apps don’t need more than a few gigabytes, you’ll be covered for a long time.
  • Collaboration - A spreadsheet isn’t meant to be used by hundreds of people, but databases are! Data stored inside a database can be accessed by thousands of people at the same time. And more importantly, you can choose who gets to see what thanks to fine-grained access control using roles.
  • Security - Last but not least, a database is vital to ensure security. Databases can be backed up automatically, encrypted, and protected with passwords and permission levels.

Cons

  • Complexity - Databases require software to interact with, so it can be more complex to find and edit information at first.
  • Higher costs - Since databases are more complex than spreadsheets, they present a steeper learning curve. You will have to train your staff to use a structured query language to retrieve information, pay a developer to design and create the database, and maintain your infrastructure as your business needs evolve. Managing databases is a full-time job!

5 Questions To Choose Between A Database And A Spreadsheet

Where are you in your entrepreneurial journey?

If you are at the beginning of your entrepreneurial journey, using spreadsheets instead of databases makes total sense. Your data requirements are bound to change as you adapt to your customer needs or pivot entirely. Spreadsheets offer a flexible data structure you can edit fast at no extra cost, and they are good enough to perform simple operations like computing aggregates or sorting data. Doing things that don’t scale is key to stay competitive!

When scaling problems arise, like when the spreadsheet becomes too painful to navigate and keep track of, you’ll want to look into switching to a database.

Do you need to feed your data to another software system?

Both spreadsheets and databases can be used as data sources.

If you have a small dataset and you only need basic features like CRUD (Create, Read, Update, Delete) at a low frequency (once every minute for example), you’ll do fine exporting / importing your data manually as JSON or CSV file or using built-in spreadsheet APIs.

If you need a whole backend or need to complete complex integration workflows, you’ll be better off with a database to perform custom data operations.

How important is your data quality?

If you just need to use text, numbers, or basic data types like URLs or dates, you can set basic formatting rules within your spreadsheet.

You’ll have a harder time finding and removing redundant data or enforcing strong data conditions. Say you have a column called “Color”, nothing will stop your user from writing “27” in a corresponding row. If the accuracy of the information is critical to your business, you’ll need a database.

Who will access the data?

A database is great for complex collaborative scenarios because it always acts as a single source of truth for everyone. Syncing information spread across several spreadsheets is a pain. Same if you want to collaborate on the same dataset in real-time with 10 other colleagues.

On the other hand, spreadsheets do not provide a simple way to fine-tune your access policy―if you have the link or an invite to the document, you can share the entirety of the information contained in the document. This is a big problem if you only want to share a part of the spreadsheet without creating a new one. Because databases use a query language to retrieve data, each data request can be adjusted to suit the intended audience.

Do you need speed?

Execution speed is crucial to businesses. The faster you can do something, the more time you have to spare. Since databases are optimized data structures, you can use them to quickly retrieve, filter, sort, and modify data. And the more data your business has, the more time you’ll gain!

Spreadsheets offer flexibility at the cost of performance. If your workflow involves data intensive activities like displaying a time series from in-app payment events as a line chart after aggregating a million data points by 5-second time windows, you’re in for a world of pain.

Why Not Both? Use Rowy To Create Databases As Easily As Spreadsheets

Data spreadsheets are great for simple use cases like accounting, writing lists, or producing graphs, but databases are versatile tools befitting a variety of business cases. The added complexity can appear daunting at first, but it would be false to think you need special skills to create and manage a database: with a tool like Rowy, anyone can own and operate a database!

Rowy offers all the benefits of a feature-complete database management system, with a low learning curve thanks to its spreadsheet-like user interface! If you are used to spreadsheets to perform daily tasks at work, it’s the perfect way to minimize your costs of switching to a database. Here is a demo of Rowy’s spreadsheet UI:

https://demo.rowy.io/table/imageGeneration?templatePreview=true

The best part? We’ve got plenty of templates to get you up and running in 2 minutes! So don’t hesitate and try Rowy for free.

Olivia Rhye
11 Jan 2022
5 min read
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