CSVs, The side-kick to spreadsheets and the transportation & storage layer of data

September 1, 2020
Ravi Vyas

Love them, hate them, CSVs are here to stay. It is the most popular format used to transfer data. Most tools use CSVs as mechanisms to transport data across services or people. 

What Are CSV files? What makes them ubiquitous?

CSVs are plain text files that use commas as delimiters for columns to data, and lines as rows of data, thus enabling the storage of tabular data. 

The advantage of being a plain text file is they can be read on most platforms as they bundle a plain text reader. Even in the plain text format, they are readable by humans. Also, most office suites support the format, making it easier to work with them. 

Due to this ease of use and the availability of tools for viewing and editing the files, most software use CSV files when they need to support importing or exporting data for non-developers. 

Popular tools and their CSV support
Popular tools and their CSV support

This cycle; of Users being comfortable with the format and most tools supporting the format is what makes CSVs ubiquitous and, in many cases a requirement. 

Spreadsheet's Side-kick

We looked at why the Spreadsheet is a Super Apps in a previous blog post. It is primarily enabled by CSVs being the standard of transportation of the data, increasing the importance of tools that allow processing of CSVs. 

CSVs also make it easier to switch Spreadsheet tools in cases where simple copy paste does not work. While this puts the tools at risk, it pushes the ecosystem forward. 

Challenges and Limitations

While CSVs allow users to create, analyze, modify, and even provides computation capabilities when using spreadsheet software, they have their challenges and limitations.

Large File Size

Working with large file sizes on a local machine can be a painful task depending on your machine's computing capability and the efficiency of the software you use. Working with large files can bring your system to a crawl.

Duplication (Final_Final_ravi_Really_Final_01.csv)

The sharing of CSVs between teams results in multiple copies of data, which need manual syncing.

Solution & new challenges: Online Spreadsheets

Online spreadsheets resolve most of the issues with CSVs. Tools like Google Sheets and Office 365 provide familiar interfaces and capabilities with the cloud's computing capability.

They do introduce new challenges. Data spread across multiple files can't be connected or referenced easily. Access control is still a challenge as you can't give users access to slices of data; instead, it is an all or nothing control.

A challenge with both Online Spreadsheets and Local tools is the drudgery of manually moving files and the monotony of repetitive tasks on top of the data. While Macros can alleviate some of the problems in this regard, they are limited to process within the sheets. 

Endnote

All said and done until all the tools learn to communicate with each other and transfer data, CSVs will remain the way data is imported and exported.

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