What is Microsoft Access? Here’s how the database management system works, and how it differs from Excel

Coworkers looking at data in cafe on laptop
Microsoft Access is a helpful data analysis tool for businesses. FG Trade/Getty Images
  • Microsoft Access is a database management system (DBMS) used to store and manage data.
  • Access is part of the Microsoft 365 suite, and is made for business and enterprise users.
  • While they both involve tracking data, Access and Excel are very different programs.
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Microsoft Access is a member of the Microsoft 365 family of applications, and is a powerful productivity tool made for business and enterprise users.

Much like Microsoft Excel, Access lets you view and edit data. But Access is more powerful than Excel, and can handle much more data at once.

Here’s all you need to know about Microsoft Access.

How Microsoft Access is different than Excel 

Both Microsoft Excel and Access can be used to store data, so they might seem like similar. But in reality, they’re quite different.

Excel is a spreadsheet program that’s primarily used for individual projects and to perform brief calculations. Most Excel users only work with a few dozen to a few hundred data cells at once. And Excel is great for graphing and charting those calculations and data points.

Microsoft Access, on the other hand, is made to store and manage vast quantities of data in a form that makes it easy to retrieve and use in different applications. While Excel users type directly into their spreadsheets, Access databases are manipulated with pre-made forms and queries. Most businesses also connect Access to other applications, so when those other apps generate data, it’s automatically ported over to Access.

How Microsoft Access is used

Here’s an overview of the major elements of Access and how they’re used.

  • Tables: Access stores its data in tables. You can build a single database that includes all the data for the entire project – this is often called a “flat” database.
  • Relational databases: It’s almost always easier, though, to create many tables, each containing elements of the data that needs to be tracked for a project (for example, a business might maintain separate tables for product data, orders, clients, and shipping information). Each of the tables can be interrelated and connected to one another – this is called a relational database, which allows developers to create many relatively simple databases and relate them to each other.
Man using laptop computer and tablet working
Access databases can be shared and edited from multiple computers. Yagi Studio/Getty Images
  • Forms: Database developers often create forms that allow users to enter information into the database without using a spreadsheet. By avoiding the need to enter data in a spreadsheet-like table, there’s much less chance for data entry error.
  • Queries: Queries are another common element in Access databases. The program supports sophisticated queries to find information in the database, which can be important when the database may contain thousands of entries.
  • Reports: Access allows users to create custom reports quickly and easily. A Report Wizard makes it easy to sort, group, and label data for easy printing and sharing.  

Taken together, these components allow businesses and organizations to manage and understand the large amounts of data they need to store.

For example, a business might use Access to track its inventory and sales, while a school can use Access to track its students, their personal information, grades, performance, coursework, and teacher data. Access can be used on specific projects, such as to manage co-workers, tasks, accomplishments, deadlines, and follow-up activities. 

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