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MS Excel for Data Analytics

Updated on May 10, 2017

Microsoft Excel - What is it?

In the 90's Microsoft ruled the tech world with an iron fist. Not to say that it doesn't still hold a commanding lead over the competition even now, but it certainly doesn't feel like the behemoth it did in the last two decades. The reason for Microsoft's lead in the market was the one stop solution they provided, with the operating system and the productivity apps, they had every finger in the tech pie.

One of these tools was Microsoft Excel. The infamous spreadsheet program created by Microsoft. For almost two decades, it had been the go-to app for most professionals in any job profile where number crunching was required. After all, it has everything from great presentation, mathematical chops, to data visualization. Yet somehow it seems, that Microsoft's productivity tool is not really the go-to tool in today's world of data analytics. Ever wonder why?

What Changed?

The rise of the silicon valley in the late 80's and 90's not only brought Computer Science to the forefront, but it also started a revolution in the way businesses ran. Further, as the technology improved, so did the demands of the business to push limits and reach new frontiers.

Microsoft Excel was among the first tools to be used for data analytics, back when this service wasn't even a formal revenue stream for most firms today. It was the perfect fit, low learning curve and easy availability made it the go-to tool for most "technovice" folks.

As technology improved, it allowed for larger data sets to be collected by ERPs for analysis. This is where Microsoft Excel could not or rather did not want to keep up. MS Excel has always had limitations with data sizes. Even the latest versions only allow working with data sets up to a million records. Needless to say, that capacity is a joke in the world of data analytics, which moved beyond just analytics into predictive/statistical analytics. Along with limitations with the size of the data, MS Excel simply was never designed to have the computing power required to process the kind of tasks that are expected in the today's analytics industry.

Also, it should be pointed out that Microsoft is a software company. It's true focus never was into data analytics in a big way like it was in the software development industry. Microsoft unlike companies institutions like SAS and tools like Audit Command Language and Tableau isn't only focused on one app. Rather Microsoft's business model is rather different and it definitely executes that visions extremely well, However, in the recent times Microsoft has been coming out with enterprise level solutions which are targeted towards enabling implementation of software services to cater for Big Data. Maybe they will play a bigger role in the future of Data Analytics.

Is Microsoft Excel still relevant in the world of Data Analytics?

Like every piece on a chess board has its role to play in a decisive victory, different tools fit in to the mix to take care of a task in data analytics industry. Various factors are always in play for any firm, when selecting the appropriate tool. It is the definition of the "appropriate tool" which defines how much of a role any tool has relevance in today's highly competitive market. Let us first look at some capabilities MS excel offers:

  1. Good Presentation
  2. GUI based data manipulation
  3. It is extremely robust due to Excel functions and connectivity with VBA Macros.
  4. Most common analytics procedures like pivot tables, regression, etc. are available at the click of a button.
  5. It is very capable of creating dashboards using data visualizations.
  6. Cheaper than most solutions available out there.

The above features are quite enough to qualify a standalone solutions. However, before coming to a conclusions let us also study the limitations for MS Excel.

  1. Excel only works with data size of about a million rows. This considerably reduces the scope of projects that can leverage excel as a tool.
  2. MS Excel only works with data sources present on local systems i.e. limited connectivity features on servers. This affects availability.
  3. Bulky - The application with its limited resources is bulky in design to be powerful enough to perform complex tasks. As we have seen often enough that heavy MS excel files take alarmingly long to open sometimes.
  4. VBA support is great but is not the most powerful programming language in the market.

Of course the above points can be debated from situation to situation. However, with such discussion points, we conclude the following:

  1. MS Excel is indeed a useful tool for data analytics. However, it only fits in line with projects with small scope.
  2. MS Excel is an excellent reporting tool.
  3. It would certainly be advisable to use MS Excel for smaller projects or in instances where there are smaller pieces of portions in a large project.
  4. The above points are worth noting because MS Excel is cheaper and much more easily available than some of the other competing products like Audit Command Language

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