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Should you be using Excel as a database?

by EASA Software in Spreadsheets

Should you be using Excel as a database?

Excel is the world’s leading spreadsheet tool with over half a billion users, and is often used as a database for businesses and individuals to store information in.  But should it really be used this way? 

Well, if this sorry story from the UK is anything to go by, then perhaps not. Back in October 2020, news publications including The Guardian reported that almost 16,000 people infected with the coronavirus weren’t included in Public Health England’s infection counts and contact tracing efforts. The reason? The Excel spreadsheet had run out of space. 

And although this is a pretty extreme example, it lays bare the limitations of the enduringly popular software. This is by no means the only reason Excel doesn’t make a great database either, with everything from unwieldiness and security issues holding it back . Here we take a detailed look at the problems that arise when harnessing it this way, and what businesses and individuals should use instead.

Why you shouldn’t be using Excel as a database

Spreadsheets can be problematic

One of the main issues with Excel is that only one person can use a specific copy at a time. This can hugely slow businesses down and hamper productivity. If multiple copies are used simultaneously, each with their own unique data, then abstracting data involves accessing and searching through multiple spreadsheets, often stored in different locations, and this task is often impossible or extremely inefficient. Alternately, these spreadsheets need to be aggregated and consolidated, and this introduces ample room for errors while increasing the manual effort and time. In addition, with no means of tracking a spreadsheet’s edit history either, an audit trail is not possible. Other problems that can impact the data quality is the integrity of the data and formulas are too easily compromised, for example with an overwritten formula or an unintended edit of a data value.

Version confusion

Sharing spreadsheets among users can create confusion around which file is the master copy. This often leads to the wrong versions being sent across departments, and even to customers, clients or suppliers. Here at EASA, we describe this issue as “version confusion”.

Security issues

Even though it’s such a popular software and created by Microsoft, the world’s second largest tech company, Excel is beset with security short fallings and can be simple to hack. A password alone isn’t sufficient to protect files from cybercriminals, putting valuable company data and intellectual property at risk. What’s more, users are forced to share documents via methods like emails, which makes them even more susceptible to being accessed by outsiders.

Unmanageable

We’ve already shown how Excel can struggle with large amounts of data, and it’s not just the risk of running out of space that can impact users. The software itself is highly manual and extremely unwieldy. Although you can track, sort and filter data to a certain extent, Excel’s reliance on multiple spreadsheets, files and tabs makes it very hard to manage information overall. 

Input errors

It’s all too easy for input errors in Excel to derail things for businesses. Just one typo could massively alter the value intended to be put into the spreadsheet, which can have huge financial repercussions worth millions or even billions of dollars.

spreadsheet on computer

Why you should use a relational database instead

A relational database (also called a relational database management system (RDBMS) or a SQL database) stores a collection of data types that can be connected (related) to one another based on predefined relationships. While, like Excel, it also uses tables to hold this data, the relationships (rules) between these tables can be used to link and cross-reference them. This is achieved through “keys”, which are unique identifiers assigned to a row of data in one table and linked to a row in another, and has many advantages for users.

Relational databases store information more effectively

As touched upon, data in Excel spreadsheets is always at risk of being deleted, overwritten or changed because of human error. This type of mistake won’t happen with a relational database as the data input type is predefined during its design process. Consequently, each table won’t accept information of a kind it’s not assigned to hold.

Relational databases can handle large volumes of information

Although Excel can store roughly one million rows and 16,000 columns of data, this pales in comparison to a relational database. While the exact amount of data it can hold depends on the file size allowed by the particular operating system, it is usually a lot more than the Excel limit.

Multiple users can access the same database

Unlike Excel, multiple online users can access and use a single relational database simultaneously, facilitating collaboration and enhancing productivity.

Relational databases are easier to edit

It’s usually much simpler to update multiple tables in a relational database than do so across different spreadsheets. In the database, the changes would automatically be made in the various tables, whereas each Excel spreadsheet must be updated manually.

Relational databases offer greater data accessibility

While data in spreadsheets can be sorted and filtered, the keys in a relational database allow for much more sophisticated querying functions that can obtain all records matching certain criteria. You can also cross-reference data and perform complex aggregate calculations across different tables, which cannot be done with multiple Excel spreadsheets.

How to use a spreadsheet as a database with EASA

Though you shouldn’t use Excel as a database by itself, this is a way you can harness spreadsheets in this way: by using EASA. This converts Excel files to a web app, with the spreadsheets acting as its engine. Accessible through a web browser, the underlying Excel files and logic remain secure within the corporate network (or cloud), meaning users only touch the input data to obtain the resulting outputs, and don’t access the files themselves. 

Most pertinently, EASA comes with its own relational database. The data generated when you edit your spreadsheet is saved there, meaning everyone effectively works from the same mass document. This offers advantages like efficient and convenient reporting, enhanced analytics capabilities and better data aggregation. 

All in all, EASA facilitates collaboration considering multiple people can use the app at once, offers greater data security as the spreadsheets don’t need to be sent between individuals, and eliminates version confusion and input errors, as users don’t use the actual Excel files. That’s not all though, and there are even more benefits to the solution.

Integrate with a range of databases

EASA is easily integrated with many other software and data sources, including databases. You can integrate it with multiple databases at a time, enabling different sources to supply information simultaneously. Other typical integrations include CRM systems like Salesforce, ERP programmes such as SAP, and engineering simulation and modeling software.

Removes Excel compatibility issues

Another major issue with Excel we haven’t touched upon is that often different users have mismatched versions of the software or contrasting settings, which can stop spreadsheets from working properly, if at all. However, because EASA runs Excel on dedicated, secure servers, this problem is avoided entirely. All users need is a web browser.

Easy to use interfaces that are customizable

EASA is a low code development platform, meaning you can create your own customized user interface without the need for a developer. This lets you quickly create an elegant and intuitive design that’s best suited to your needs.

Helps you fulfill compliance and regulatory requirements

Because EASA provides an “audit trail” of usage, such as who used which app, when, and with what result, you’re much better placed to fulfill compliance and regulatory requirements.

Thank you for reading. If you would like to find out more about EASA software or make an enquiry, please don’t hesitate to contact us. 

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