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Data file is a general term that refers to any computer file that holds data. Because these can be any type of data-storing file in a computer, data files are used by most computer users. Collectively, all of the data storage on a system is made up of files of various types. In business environments, a data file sometimes specifically refers to a database of business information, such as customer data or sales charts.
In general, data files are most often referred to as just "files." A data file comes into play when a piece of data must be stored or saved. Even when a user does not manually save a file, the computer may create temporary data files to make things faster for the user. This feature is most often seen used in web browsers that keep a data cache of website information to give the user quick access to the site later.
A data file differs from a program file; while program files feature executable program code, data files store data that can be called up by an application. Types of data files number in the hundreds. Common extensions include .xls, which refers to a Microsoft Excel® spreadsheet, and .efx, usually an eFax document. Program files are also numerous, including files that contain executable code include extensions .msi, the Microsoft Windows® Installer program file, and .dll, a dynamic link library file.
Opening a data file requires the use of a program equipped with the ability to read the file type. For example, a .txt text file needs a text reader or editor to access the data in the file, and a user would need Microsoft Excel® or a compatible program on hand to read a Microsoft Excel® spreadsheet file. Some word processing programs, like OpenOffice® and Microsoft Word®, have the ability to read multiple data file types and convert files originally created in a different program. Converting a file type from one program to another rarely results in a perfect conversion, and often causes formatting or text placement problems in the converted file.
Data file backup is an important part of maintaining a computer storage system. Hard drives can break with little warning, and data files on computers with multiple users can sometimes disappear without a trace. Backing up important data, either on a backup hard drive or on a remote data storage server accessed via the Internet, protects a user's access to important files like financial information, media projects, or term papers. Data lost on a broken hard drive can sometimes be recovered by a computer storage technician, but the process can be expensive and slow, and it may be unsuccessful.
It's worth mentioning that computers were really embraced by businesses after programs like dBASE showed up in the late 1970s and showed how efficiently computers could store and manipulate databases. Prior to the development of such effective, business related tools, computers were viewed as primarily gaming and hobbyist machines.