October 23, 2019

Answered: What's the difference between a database vs a spreadsheet

If you're confused by spreadsheets and databases, you're not alone. There's an entire field of study dedicated to designing databases. Although inaccurate, a spreadsheet is often confused with a database. While the terms aren't synonymous there are many similarities between the two. Even though a spreadsheet can look and act like a database, it's very different in terms of form and function

In this post, we'll discuss the differences (and similarities) between spreadsheets and databases to help you understand when to use one or the other. You'll learn how complex a database can be and why spreadsheets hope to become one when they grow up. In order to identify spreadsheets and databases, it helps to start with a definition.

What is a spreadsheet?

A spreadsheet is a digital ledger made up of cells organized in rows and columns used for storing information. The two most popular spreadsheet applications are Microsoft Excel and Google Sheets. Spreadsheets have become the most common method to store information online. Some of the benefits of spreadsheets include accessibility, ease of use, flexibility, and design.


Unlike a database, spreadsheets are easy to share with your team or your entire company. Although they weren't built to be manipulated by multiple authors at the same time, the low barrier to entry makes spreadsheets a great choice for quick projects.

Beginner Friendly

From dorm rooms to boardrooms, spreadsheets are easy to make, simple to understand, and hard to give up. Although databases might be a better fit for many projects, the ubiquity of spreadsheet tools like Excel and Sheets has made them a staple of business for more than 30 years.


For many data scientists, the flexibility of a spreadsheet makes them inferior to a database. However, for the average user, changing cells, rows, and columns at will is a major advantage. What if you change your mind and want to make the column headers into rows? Or what if you decide halfway through your project that a column of numbers should actually be percentages. The flexibility of a spreadsheet makes it an ideal tool for working through problems.


One of the biggest strengths of a spreadsheet is that it combines data with a visualization layer—meaning your data can sit right next to the charts and graphs it powers. This advantage of a spreadsheet is also one of its primary weaknesses. Spreadsheet users love to show off their creativity with all sorts of interesting colors, styles, and fonts. However, the lack of consistency across spreadsheets leads to confusion and, more often than not, inconsistent information.

What is a database?

A database is an organized collection of structured information typically stored in a computer. Databases allow you to easily access, modify, and store raw data. A database is made up of tables, each table containing records of information stored in rows and columns.

Although a spreadsheet can also contain a table, the term is not synonymous with a database. A key difference of a database is the ability to create relationships between records and tables known as a relational database. While databases do require more technical knowledge to set up, they also provide better data integrity, security, and scalability.

Data Integrity

Unlike a spreadsheet, a database is very strict in defining data. Each field (column) is preconfigured to store a character, number, or boolean. Since the database is just the raw data, the format of these fields doesn't change. This prevents database users from entering numbers into a character field or vice versa. As a result, databases are better at maintaining data integrity and avoiding errors.

Data Storage & Security

If you've ever accidentally given someone access to your spreadsheet then you know security is not their strength. It's not long before rows and columns have changed and you hardly recognize your hard work. Databases were created to be accessed by multiple users at the same time without breaking. Since a database keeps a log of every change, it's easier to debug than a spreadsheet.


A lot of good ideas start as rows in a spreadsheet. But if a few rows turn into a few thousand things begin to break. While spreadsheets work well with a few dozen rows of information, they are less than ideal for a few million records. A database, on the other hand, is ideal for scaling. The world's largest online companies run on databases. So for your next ambitious project, you might want to consider a database instead of a Google Sheet.

Is it time to upgrade your spreadsheet to a database?

Today, there are more no-code spreadsheet alternatives than ever. This new bread of tools combines the flexibility of a spreadsheet with the scalability of a database—making it easy for anyone to store information, visualize their data, and automate workflows from a single tool.

Before you choose one or the other, it's important to understand the scope of the project you're starting. How much information will you need to store over time? How will you need to visualize or update that information? In the long run, a database is more versatile than a spreadsheet because it maintains more accurate data in its purest form, but it's also more complex to create.

If you have more than 100,000 records or rows in your spreadsheet and it keeps crashing then it might be time to upgrade to a database. But before you Google, "How to create a database" demo Hivewire and see just how easy it is to get work done with a visual workflow builder.

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