[research data management, efficiency, SQL database, CSV, JSON, XML]


One of the most important decisions at the beginning of a data-intensive project is to choose the right format for data storage. In this article, we are trying to shed a light on the pros and cons of a simple CSV/JSON/XML vs a SQL database to help you make the best decision depending on your requirements.

There are a lot of aspects you should consider before choosing between simple CSV/JSON/XML formats and a SQL database. Below we inspect some that worth considering.

How big the data is?

If you are dealing with large volumes of data, databases are much more efficient. One reason is that CSV would need to read all data before analysing it. However, with databases, you can query only the portion that you need, and if you also apply indexing, the database will only search within those indexes which is much faster.

In addition, if you foresee your data to grow exponentially in the future, then databases make it possible to scale vertically or horizontally (though the latter is easier done in NoSQL databases).

Do you need to combine various datasets with complex filters and joins?

If your data is complex enough to have relationships within it, for example, customers or products data, databases enable building relations between tables with the use of foreign keys. And more importantly, it is possible to enforce constraints to the keys to ensure data integrity.

Will other people access it at the same time?

If you are working in a collaborative project where data is accessed and modified concurrently, then databases might be your better bet. This is because database management systems use transactions to modify a database. If you are curious about how transactions help, head over to here for more details.

Is your data structured?

If your data is structured and in a tabular format, a SQL database is a good candidate. But if your data is unstructured, meaning it cannot easily fit in a table, then JSON format offers a good flexibility to store it. On the other hand, NoSQL databases are also a proper solution for unstructured data if you want to enjoy other advantages that a database can offer.

How secure your data need to be?

Despite CSV and other simple file formats, databases offer built-in user authentication functionalities and can protect your data against unauthorised access. It is fairly simple to assign groups of users with certain access privileges in a database. In addition, databases enable encryption of data at rest and in transit.

Do you need to archive data for a long time?

One perceived barrier to use databases is the cost it incurs. However, it is useful to know that there are multiple open source databases such as SQLite that can be locally hosted as well (of course for free).

Even if the data is hosted in a cloud database, it is always possible to archive it using cheaper options. For example, you can create a backup of an entire database or a specific table (as a *.sql file) and store it exactly where you would store your CSV files. Furthermore, it is possible to export your SQL tables as CSV (just make sure the commas within cells are handled properly).


Given that CSV stands for Comma-Separated Values, it’s important to ensure proper handling of commas within cells when exporting a SQL table to CSV. Failure to do so could lead to confusion where commas are mistaken for column separators.


Want to explore long-term data archiving solutions? Check out this page to learn about various options.


In this article, we’ve explored several scenarios where utilizing a database proves advantageous. Nevertheless, it’s important to note that CSVs are lightweight file formats widely embraced by individuals with varying levels of technical proficiency. And sometimes the data requirements are not heavy that justifies that extra mile.

Contributed by Maliheh Mahlouji