Many technologies of the last century are out of date now, but flat file databases are still very much in use today and likely will be for a long while yet. They’ve stood the test of time for over four decades and are still going strong for a variety of reasons.

Table of Contents

  1. You Can Store All Records in One Area
  2. The Files are Easy to Understand and Configure Using Various Standard Office Applications
  3. They are an Excellent Option for Small Databases
  4. They Require Fewer Hardware and Software Components

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Flat Files are Still Important

Originally devised by IBM in the 70s, flat file databases have enjoyed longevity. For data integration, these types of files are still very efficient thanks to their lightweight size and the sheer amount of data they can collect and transfer.

What is a Flat File?

flat file is one of the simplest ways to store data. It keeps the data in a plain text file, with each line of text containing one record. You can use tabs or commas to delimit the various fields within a record. Each record may represent a customer order, employee information or a product, etc. You include a field name for each section and add any attributes as comma-separated values and dividers.

Unlike a relational database, a flat file database can only contain a single table of fixed-width information. However, if you have multiple flat files, you can usually import them to a platform like Microsoft Access and add them to a relational database to include multiple tables and make them stackable.

Keep in mind that sometimes a flat file database simply refers to the way it stores the actual files. Here, they’re not in a hierarchy but stored flat files in a virtual filing cabinet so you can find them fairly easily.

You may use flat files to store anything from usernames and passwords or contact details to music collections and product descriptions. They are very flexible and can accommodate records with single or multiple attributes. Here's why businesses make them part of their data management plan:

1. You Can Store All Records in One Area

It's often difficult to pull a record when it’s buried in a hierarchy of file folders. But with flat files, it’s very simple to search through your records. Since they are all in one spot, it's easier to sort everything the way you want to. Just use simple search terms to check on and view or even extract the information you need. The basic nature of flat files also makes it easy for data warehousing project managers to import data rapidly.

Your virtual workspace will be nice and tidy, with minimal storage necessary.

2. The Files are Easy to Understand and Configure Using Various Standard Office Applications

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Multiple database applications can use and create flat files. You can create a file table in any text editor if you wish—they require no formatting. Delimiters separate the different sections.

Among the more common office apps, you’ll find:

  • Microsoft Access
  •  FileMaker Pro
  •  Berkeley DB
  •  Borland Reflex

You can also use software like Microsoft Excel to configure and manipulate flat files. In fact, most spreadsheets created with this program are like flat files. They just allow you to input your data in a more restrained way. Excel may also open the files that you have imported from another software, and you can import flat files to SQL

3. They are an Excellent Option for Small Databases

You can compile a lot of information in a flat file or a sequence of them. For small databases that require only basic information, flat files are ideal. Since each line can only hold one record, there is the danger of ending up with repeat data. But in a small database, this isn’t a big issue.

Most small databases deal with a specific data type, which makes the file type particularly effective. Whether you're using a CSV file or an XML file, flat files can handle the needs of a small business.

4. They Require Fewer Hardware and Software Components

There’s a good reason many operating systems, such as Windows, Macintosh, and Linux, use flat file databases. Though the databases can become bogged down with several thousand records, they are usually more efficient than other options.

Many software programs use these simple text files. They just need to be able to interpret the delimiters in order to present the information in a simple, easy-to-read way. Even Microsoft Access can open and work with the delimited files.

Because the files are so light, they’re ideal for data transfer as well. You can easily transfer them to and from the Cloud with minimal hardware requirements. They are also cost efficient when you use a service like Xplenty to send them back and forth.


As you can see, flat file databases are still very relevant for file storage. Whether you’re transporting data or simply storing it, these files use relatively little storage space. Text files aren’t likely to go away soon, and if you have a small database requirement, you'll likely use them yourself.

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