Flat File Database: Definition & Example

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  • 0:04 What is a Flat File Database?
  • 1:19 Flat File Database Examples
  • 3:23 Flat File Database Drawbacks
  • 3:58 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Martin Gibbs

Martin has 16 years experience in Human Resources Information Systems and has a PhD in Information Technology Management. He is an adjunct professor of computer science and computer programming.

This lesson will define and explain flat file databases; examples will be provided. While most database administrators strive to create relational databases, there are valid uses for flat file databases.

What Is a Flat File Database?

If you ask some database administrators (DBAs) about flat file databases, they may wonder if you just told them the world was flat. That's because flat file databases can become unwieldy and complicated. However, they have a use and a purpose, as will be detailed in this lesson.

A flat file database is basically a giant collection of data in which the tables and records have no relation between any other tables. In fact, one could have a single table (e.g., My Small Business Data) with everything stored in it, from customers to sales to orders to invoices.

Sound too messy? Often it is. But there are uses. One doesn't necessarily have to normalize a database. By normalize, we mean break out all the repeating values in tables and save them into other, related tables. Sometimes simple is best.

In fact, if the data set is fairly simple, the flat file option makes more sense. A CD collection, a list of cell phone numbers, or results from a 10k could be stored in a flat file database. Even a web page or computer program could be written to interact with these types of databases; in fact, from a developer's perspective, it would be easy to maintain.

Flat File Database Examples

If you have ever created an Excel spreadsheet, you have created a basic flat file! A workbook with multiple tabs makes up the database of the flat-file database; there could be many values that are the same in both worksheets, but they are not linked together.

The database table (yes, it is just a snippet from Excel) shown in the image below could be used in a small web application for a running a club:

Flat File Example
flat file example

You will notice that some names repeat; for a small table this is not that big of a deal. However, if you wanted to change the record for Dave and add a last name, you have to find all records for him and update each one.

This lesson's author, when starting a career in information technology, was given the task of creating a database to track all printers for a given department. He generated an overly complex relational database with over 25 tables. When presented to a colleague, the colleague replied: 'Why not just make a flat file?' This turned out to be the simplest solution; although it was a large file, it wasn't unwieldy and was user-friendly. Using Microsoft Access, a simple user form was created, and no special coding or updates to related tables were needed.

Relational databases use primary and foreign keys to index the data. A flat file database table can still use an index; however, it's specific only to that table. An index is usually an auto-generated number that identifies the record number in the table, usually starting at 1. The small flat database table below has an index:

Example of a Flat File Database Table
flat database table

Even though flat file databases don't have relationships between the tables within them, the tables should still contain an index, which aids in searching and organizing.

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