Don’t Let the Limitations of Excel Ruin your Business Software – Part 1

“In the past 25 years, many of you have discovered some truly inventive uses for Excel.” This quote is from an email I received from Microsoft celebrating 25 years of Excel use.  I have to admit, the statement is true to its word. Excel can be a powerful tool that enables clever people to creatively solve problems. However, from my perspective — through the eyes of a Software Developer — Excel frequently offers a good short-term solution but exhibits long-term limitations.

It Starts with Good Intentions

Excel_Pt1_AThe comments on the Microsoft page reveal a telling trend: Most  large excel spreadsheets begin as a simple 1 page sheet that grows rapidly with use and time.

The story tends to go something like this: Bethany needs to collect, organize, and display a set of related data for management. She gathers the data and places it in a single worksheet within Excel. Her manager is pleased with her presentation and realizes that this spreadsheet can be leveraged for so much more. What at first was a harmless and pragmatic solution will quickly become an overgrown monster. Additional worksheets, pivot tables, and external data sources will be added. Colleagues will begin to collaborate on the same file or email different copies to each other. Excel row limits will be reached. Maintenance of this Excel “Application” will have become a nightmare even before considering what happens when something goes wrong.

The Growth of an Excel File

Historically, when Excel files grow in size and number of rows they do not do so gracefully. As the amount of data increases in a file, the time it takes for custom programming routines to process increases. As file sizes grow, so does the amount of time to transfer the file or save it to a central location. Both scenarios lead to employees twiddling their thumbs waiting for the computer to finish its work so they can do theirs.

For those still using Microsoft Excel 2003, the number of rows isinfamously limited to 65,536 and columns limited to 256. When storing enterprise-level data, that is simply not enough.

Departments are Slow to Upgrade

Often, the decision to upgrade to the latest released version of Microsoft Office/Excel is delayed with good reason. Still, most surveys indicate that half of all Microsoft Excel users are on versions that are greater than 6 years old.


Figure 1 – Survey from early 2010, just before the release of Office 2010

New versions of a software product are developed for good reason: to fix old problems and to introduce better usage patterns. By not upgrading to the latest version, employees are forced to continue to work around known issues of the Excel software. Some of the issues listed in this article could be easily resolved by moving to the latest version, such as the Excel row limit problem mentioned above.

To be continued…

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