At its most fundamental level, a database is a system for storing and organizing information. That box of 3×5 cards your grandmother kept all her recipes in? That’s a database. Knowing a bit about how databases work can help you know how best to use them for your small team.
There are basically three types of databases. (Don’t quibble, Nerds!) They are: flat, relational, and graph.
Your grandmother’s recipe box is a flat database. Each card is a record of dishes, ingredients, and instructions. It works, though not all that well. If you know the dish you want to make, you are fine. Just find it in the box. But if you want to make a dish based on the ingredients you have, you have to scan each card. What would make it work better would be to put it into a spreadsheet. Then you could sort, filter, and search until you got the recipe you needed. That is really all a database is at its most fundamental level: a spreadsheet.
Continuing with the culinary metaphor, have you ever been halfway through a recipe and realized you did not have an ingredient? You need a quick substitution. So you go back to the spreadsheet row for the recipe, click on the missing ingredient, and see a popup window listing all the possible substitutes. What just happened there? Well, in purely technical terms, a very tiny computer elf hopped over to your Substitutions.xlsx file, scrolled down to cumin, and then read you every item in each cell in that row. But what if you were making something for someone with a lot of food allergies? In that case, your magical elf would be able to quickly find you a list of recipes that have a lot of potential ingredient substitutions. That is the real power of a relational database. By showing you connections between things, it can help you make stronger and faster strategic decisions.
Let’s say you click on the recipe for lasagna, then all of a sudden Flippy the magical computer elf pops up at the bottom of your screen and says, “I see you like Italian food. Have you thought about making spaghetti with meatballs?” When you click on that recipe, Flippy says again, “I see you like meat! Have you thought about Spam?” In a graph database, your magical elf has ADHD and is slightly annoying. Anytime you click on a row, Flippy looks at every other row in every other spreadsheet and finds things they have in common. If that scenario sounds familiar to you, it is because online stores use graph databases to try to predict your behavior. More benignly, a graph database can be used to help small teams “think outside the box” by identifying trends and patterns they might not have thought to look for.
Most small organizations are going to get the most mileage out of a good relational database. While spreadsheets alone might work for a while, they are going to hold you back as you start to grow. The more you need information for key strategic decisions, the less time you have to sort through all the different spreadsheets to find it. Keep in mind that it becomes much harder to change an inefficient system once it is already in use, so databases are an area where it pays to get it right the first time. There are a lot of options out there. We can help source and set up the database that is the right fit for your team.