The magnificent and ever present spreadsheet. How could anybody live without it?
It’s true that its flexibility, versatility, ease of use, convenience and near limitless
possibilities through the use of VBA coding make it a first choice for virtually
all office applications, everything from the telephone contact list to the tabulation
of a project’s spent man-hours.
Then, why would anybody then bother with a database at all? By comparison it’s complicated
and rigid. Plus a spreadsheet can do in principle pretty much everything a database
The reality of course is that they are simply different, in the same way that a sports
car and a tractor are different. Yes, they both have an engine, and wheels, and both
will run on a country lane. However you can see clearly that while they share similarities,
they are intended for very different purposes.
The key to understanding their their respective strengths/ application suitability
can be neatly highlighted by answering 2 basic questions as follows:
-Number of users: Single user, or multi-user. Will the data be accessed by one single
user or many users. Spreadsheets will favor single user access, while multi-user
(especially if concurrent) access will warrant the use of a database.
-Static or Dynamic data: Is the data static, whereas there will be no changes, or
is the data dynamic with many changes, edits, additions and deletions? An example
of static data could be the listing of expenses incurred during a business trip which
is to be handed over to the finance department for reimbursement. Once submitted
there should be no further need to make changes except for errors and omissions.
On the other hand an example of dynamic data could be the contact list for a very
large company with people joining and leaving all the time. If the data is static,
then a spreadsheet might well suffice, however if the data is dynamic, then a database
can be a much better option.
Note: Other considerations for a database of course is the much greater robustness,
where access to data tables can be finely managed to only certain users, as well
as their access rights, and the database’s inherent powerful data mining capabilities.
Ultimately this is the litmus test: Do you find yourself looking at a spreadsheet
that’s out of date, or managing and cross-referencing multiple spreadsheets to gather
or calculate information across these? If the answer is yes, think database. Otherwise,
if the data is accessed by a single user and is of a static nature (will not be updated
again, or on rare occasions only), then think spreadsheet.