What is a Database?

A database is a collection of data. That may sound overly simplistic but it pretty much sums up what any database is.

A database could be as simple as a text file with a list of names. Or it could be as complex as a large, relational database management system, complete with in-built tools to help you maintain the data.

Methods for Storing Data

Before we get into dedicated database management systems, let's look at some common methods for storing data.

  • Screenshot of a Notepad text file

    Text File

    Imagine we have a text file called Artists.csv, and that the contents look like this screenshot.

    This is a text file. More specifically, it's a comma separated values (CSV) file. The commas separate each field within a row.

    The commas give it structure. It enables us to distinguish the artist ID from the artist name. We could easily add more fields and separate them by more commas.

    Each row represents a different record. In this case, each row represents a different artist.

    Technically, this is a database. It contains data that is structured in a way that's easy to retreive.

    With a small list like this, a text file may serve our purposes perfectly.

  • Screenshot of an Excel spreadsheet


    Another option would be to store the data in a spreadsheet using spreadsheet software (for example, Microsoft Excel). That way, we could do some extra things with our list (such as format it, or sort by artist name, etc).

    A spreadsheet program like Excel makes these tasks relatively easy to do. Also, programs like Excel organize the data into rows and columns, making your data easier to comprehend.

  • Screenshot of a Microsoft Access database table

    Database Software

    A better option would be to store the data in a database table using specialized database software, such as Microsoft Access.

    Database management systems like this are purpose built for data storage and retrieval.

So What's the Difference?

You may be wondering what the difference is between the last two examples (Excel vs Access). After all, both examples have the data organized into rows and columns.

There are many differences between spreadsheet software and database software. The rest of this tutorial will show you why database software is a much better option for creating databases.