Excel Alternatives

As another Excel-based trojan comes to light, this one aimed at large energy providers, we thought it time to have a look at Excel and discuss why it should often be replaced with something more powerful, more secure and more collaborative.

FileMaker icon

A relational database such as one running on FileMaker, or over the web on SQL plus a web front end, is happily multi-user. Lots of users can be changing data at the same time, even changing the same data, and the underlying code simply copes. There’s no locking of the file if one user’s already using a document and no messy saves that overwrite each other’s data.

This makes a database or application that’s based on a database so much more suited to collaborative working methods. Often, with Excel-based working, one user becomes the controller of data held in Excel and spends all his/her time answering queries from colleagues who need to access or change information but cannot do so themselves.

Google Sheets logo Office 365 logo

There are of course collaborative platforms for Excel users - Office 365 and Google Sheets. But neither of these can run macros, either at all in the case of Office, or in only a limited JavaScript-based form in Sheets. So unless your data is effectively little more than a simple table that does nothing but hold data, you’re out of luck.

But even compared to desktop versions of Excel, FileMaker and other relational databases are so much more powerful and simple to programme than Excel macros. You can, of course, achieve quite a few powerful functions using VB and macros, but they’re difficult and counterintuitive to programme. FileMaker in particular uses a very powerful yet relatively simple scripting language that allows highly complex data manipulation.

Excel table

Even when stretched to the limits of its coding capability, Excel documents almost always look like tables. Whether there’s a web front end or a FileMaker layout, it’s much easier with a relational database to create applications that are bespoke to a user’s requirements and that look as different from a table layout as can be.

The importance of backing up data increases with the value of the information being stored. If your Excel sheets effectively run your organisation, backing up the data has to be done manually and the files cannot be open by any user during backup. With a SQL variant of database or with FileMaker Server, backups can be done on live data and easily scheduled, with backups taken locally or off site.

Working remotely is a breeze with a relational database. Rather than having to tunnel into an internal network over a VPN and work from Excel sheets, relational databases are designed to be easily accessible by multiple users, some or all of whom can be remote workers. Plus the free version of FileMaker, FileMaker Go for iOS (or any web browser) can be used on iPad or iPhone.

Malware icon

Finally, as numerous news articles show, Excel is a source of malware that simply cannot be trusted. It’s perhaps not “evil” as The Register joke, but if your data runs your organisation, you owe it to yourself to use a secure system that is not a known source of malware and other baddies.

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