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CSV Format: History, Advantages and Why It Is Still Popular

Comma-separated values (more commonly known as the CSV) is a very popular format that is used heavily for data storage and manipulation tasks. This is the go-to format for many scientific and business operations.

The specialty of the CSV format lies in its simplicity. The CSV format is primarily used for storing tabular data i.e. data that can be decomposed into rows and columns.

A CSV file consists of one or more rows. Each row, in turn, can be made up of one or more fields. Each of the fields in a row is separated by a comma. That being said, in many cases, you would find that many other symbols are used as delimiters such as space, tab, or hyphen.

  1. Standard definition
  2. History
  3. Why CSV is still used so widely?
  4. Advantages
  5. How does it help businesses?

CSV Format

Standard definition

The CSV format, unlike many other formats used for data manipulation like JSON or XML, is not very well specified. In other words, many of the features of the format are implementation-specific. In a nutshell, the following are the most important rules defining the structure of this format:

  1. Each new record is delimited by a line break (CRLF) i.e. new rows start from a new line.

Example:

field_1_1,field_2_1,field_3_1,field_4_1 CRLF
field_1_2,field_2_2,field_3_2,field_4_2 CRLF

  1. The last record may or may not end with a new line. It’s implementation dependant.

Example:


field_1_99,field_2_99,field_3_99,field_4_99 CRLF
field_1_100,field_2_100,field_3_100,field_4_100

  1. The file might or might not contain an additional record consisting of the corresponding record names. It is expected that this record would consist of the same numbers of fields as the other records.

Example:

field_name_1,field_name_2,field_name_3,field_name_4 CRLF
field_1_1,field_2_1,field_3_1,field_4_1 CRLF
field_1_2,field_2_2,field_3_2,field_4_2 CRLF

History

CSV is one of the most widely used formats for scientific and engineering tasks. Aside from scientific calculations, they are also heavily used in the health, manufacturing, and finance industry.

As stated, due to not being fully standardized, there are many variations of CSV itself. The programs, for example, might support CSV but may not strictly adhere to the RFC 4180 standard. The RFC 4180 is a standardized specification proposed for the CSV format.

This format existed even before the first personal computer came out. The IBM Fortran compiler supported this format when it came out back in 1972. Free-form input-output was defined in 1978. It usually used comma or space as the delimiter.

The term comma-separated value (and the corresponding abbreviation CSV) was first used in 1983 though. The first actual initiative to standardize this format was taken back in 2005 when the RFC 4180 standard was defined. The above standard definition was part of that specification.

Many other specifications would follow after the RFC 4180 in 2013, 2014, and 2015 to give this loosely bound format some structure.

Why CSV is still used so widely?

CSV files can be used by almost any text editor. An editor that can open a text file can open a CSV file. Other spreadsheet editors like Microsoft Excel or Google

Spreadsheets can also open and edit CSV files.

The CSV files differ from some of the other richer formats in that it can contain only one sheet of data. Moreover, it cannot save fancy constructs like formulae.

Despite the drawbacks, CSV files are used extensively in the business domain. It helps the organizations move and export a large amount of data to a more concentrated database.

As you can guess, the CSV format is not flawless. One of the main drawbacks of the CSV format is that it does not support complex data very well. But that is also its strong point – it is much faster and easier to read and write. You do not need to care too much about your spreadsheet application either.

Advantages

The advantage of using the CSV files ultimately boils down to the specific use case. You would get thousands of different opinions and answers from all over the internet depending on what the intended domain of the usage is. The following are the most general advantages of the CSV format.

  1. CSV is easy to create. As CSV format is human-readable, it is easy to create. In fact, it can be done using any text editor (unlike XLS or XLSX format).
  2. CSV is human readable i.e. the data is not encoded or converted to binary before storing. This increases the readability as well as the ease of manipulation. Moreover, it is easy to edit.
  3. CSV files can be read using almost any text editor.
  4. It is easy to parse. The parser is much simpler compared to an XML or JSON parser due to the inherent simplicity of this format.
  5. CSV format is dictated by a straightforward schema. The advantage of having a simple schema makes it a popular choice for number crunching works.
  6. Manipulating the CSV file is fast. Due to the simple nature of this format, it is less taxing for the parser to parse the data. Hence, it results in swift data read and write.
  7. While the CSV format is usually not known for its memory efficiency, it, in general, results in small files. That being said, many other formats available out there provide more memory savings than CSV.
  8. CSV format is compact. Compared to other formats like XML or JSON, you do not need to care about tags. You need to start and end tags separately for each row and column which can be unwieldy.

How does it help businesses?

The objective of most of the businesses today is to reach as many clients as possible. CSV files are easy to create, read, and write. Hence they give the business owners a convenient way of manipulating these files in many different ways.

CSV files provide a convenient and effective way of importing and exporting business-specific data such as customer information to and from your database.

With the rise of the popularity and importance of social media platforms, it becomes necessary that you consider the marketing aspect of your business. Social media networks are likely to send the consumer data in the form of a CSV file to be integrated into your database.

If the formatting is correct, they are also easy to convert to other file types. As it lacks most of the bells and whistles of the other more advanced file formats, it is easier to manipulate and convert.

   

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