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Posted 1 Jul 2006


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Fast Excel file reader with basic functionality

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4.88/5 (104 votes)
1 Jul 20063 min read
A set of managed classes for native reading of data from MS Excel files


When I was writing one of the projects (multi-format data parser) I had to deal with Microsoft Excel files.

First of all I tried to read data via COM interop, but this way was very slow (and sometimes input files have up to 100,000 rows and even more) and required Excel to be installed on the target machine.

Then I tried to read data via Excel's OleDb driver. When DataReader ran through data rows without reading them (i.e. while (rd.Read());) it was quite fast, but retrieving data was still very slow.

When I had tried out one of commercial products (TMS FlexCel Studio), it showed rather good results (several seconds for loading 17 MB file, 2 sheets, ~ 80 000 rows), but access to them was not very fast (at least not suitable for displaying data using DataGridView in virtual mode).

So, I decided to write my own reader for Excel files.


First of all I decided that the reader will produce a DataSet object, with sheets represented as DataTables within it. Access to DataTable is rather fast, and its TableName property is suitable for sheet title.

To read an Excel file, we need to get BIFF stream from xls OLE2 container. Working with OLE2 container is implemented in the following classes:

  • XlsHeader (file header representation)
  • XlsFat (support for file system in OLE2 container)
  • XlsRootDirectory (directory tree representation)
  • XlsDirectoryEntry, and
  • XlsStream (file stream)

Note that implementation of OLE2 container object model is limited (e.g. I didn't write any MiniFAT support code) and Excel-specific (XlsHeader supports only MS Excel header field values, any other will produce InvalidHeaderException).

Now we can parse BIFF stream with spreadsheet data. For handy reading data from stream we have a XlsBiffStream class derived from XlsStream. It provides a set of methods for reading XlsBiffRecord common structures. And then, each structure is converted to the appropriate type. Note that only a few record types are supported. All other structures are read as basic XlsBiffRecord and are ignored.

My implementation of reader ignores any text formatting, graphics, embedded objects and charts. Only cell values are read. When a cell contains a formula, the last calculated formula value is used as the cell value. Also, only indexed sheets are read (i.e. sheets with index data) - I didn't write not-indexed sheets support due to my laziness (I didn't come across any file without an index yet).

Using the code

Now, it's very easy to use the parser. All you need is a Stream with an Excel file.

FileStream fs = new FileStream(@"c:\file.xls", 
        FileMode.Open, FileAccess.Read);
ExcelDataReader rd = new ExcelDataReader(fs);

// Now we can access data:
DataSet data = rd.WorkbookData;

Points Of Interest

Latest versions of Excel use SST (Shared String Table) to store string information, and text cells only reference string by index. Also, the size of one BIFF section is limited, and SST can be rather big, so it uses the so-called CONTINUE sections. Every string in SST can be saved as Unicode (2 byte) or as ANSI (single byte per symbol). But when the string is broken with the continue section, it can change its encoding from one to another! This took me a lot of debugging, and I wish nobody has to do the same again...


This implementation of reader is rather nonoptimal (I was pressed for time), but it showed a good speed. It surely beats any interop or OLE method and even some commercial analogs.


This article has no explicit license attached to it but may contain usage terms in the article text or the download files themselves. If in doubt please contact the author via the discussion board below.

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About the Author

Web Developer
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.NET Developer
Russian Federation

Comments and Discussions

QuestionCell Formate Pin
Hiren Dobariya13-Mar-08 1:32
MemberHiren Dobariya13-Mar-08 1:32 
GeneralNice work... thanks for sharing Pin
Monjur Ahmed10-Feb-08 2:30
MemberMonjur Ahmed10-Feb-08 2:30 
QuestionNot support BIFF 2.1 format? Pin
guaike7-Jan-08 6:08
Memberguaike7-Jan-08 6:08 
Generalopen an excel fiel using c# Pin
ramyanaidu30-Nov-07 0:36
Memberramyanaidu30-Nov-07 0:36 
GeneralTime Read Problem Pin
Pradeep Sattikar24-Oct-07 0:32
MemberPradeep Sattikar24-Oct-07 0:32 
GeneralThanks Pin
umbgtt11-Oct-07 0:02
Memberumbgtt11-Oct-07 0:02 
GeneralAdditional Bug Fixes Pin
TheHologram1-Oct-07 9:19
MemberTheHologram1-Oct-07 9:19 
GeneralRe: Additional Bug Fixes Pin
Daniel Leykauf31-Oct-10 5:52
MemberDaniel Leykauf31-Oct-10 5:52 
Thanks; great solution! That solved my issues with my formulas!
GeneralIncorrect parsing double values Pin
lord_bek13-Aug-07 4:15
Memberlord_bek13-Aug-07 4:15 
GeneralRe: Incorrect parsing double values Pin
mukul180610-Mar-10 21:12
Membermukul180610-Mar-10 21:12 
GeneralCell Values obtained from VLOOKUP Pin
striggy5-Jul-07 3:34
Memberstriggy5-Jul-07 3:34 
QuestionDateTime problems Pin
Evolve1234514-Jun-07 3:46
MemberEvolve1234514-Jun-07 3:46 
QuestionCell's Format Pin
Micha3ldg20-May-07 18:27
MemberMicha3ldg20-May-07 18:27 
GeneralEncoding problem Pin
komonaut12-Apr-07 1:56
Memberkomonaut12-Apr-07 1:56 
GeneralNumber of columns displayed Pin
*Boreal*30-Mar-07 12:02
Member*Boreal*30-Mar-07 12:02 
GeneralRe: Number of columns displayed Pin
AyedSaad31-Jul-07 19:41
MemberAyedSaad31-Jul-07 19:41 
GeneralRe: Number of columns displayed Pin
Tae-Sung18-Aug-07 17:11
MemberTae-Sung18-Aug-07 17:11 
AnswerRe: Number of columns displayed Pin
dima polyakov11-Apr-08 18:38
Memberdima polyakov11-Apr-08 18:38 
GeneralRe: Number of columns displayed Pin
Kiran Sabinkar1-Sep-10 3:32
MemberKiran Sabinkar1-Sep-10 3:32 
GeneralProblems reading DATE data type Pin
el_toqui21-Mar-07 22:35
Memberel_toqui21-Mar-07 22:35 
GeneralRe: Problems reading DATE data type Pin
el_toqui22-Mar-07 11:57
Memberel_toqui22-Mar-07 11:57 
GeneralIncorrect number of columns. Pin
SugandhJain20-Mar-07 3:54
MemberSugandhJain20-Mar-07 3:54 
GeneralRe: Incorrect number of columns. Pin
SugandhJain20-Mar-07 3:56
MemberSugandhJain20-Mar-07 3:56 
GeneralOpenOffice problems Pin
kaitv2-Mar-07 1:41
Memberkaitv2-Mar-07 1:41 
QuestionDate DataType Pin
T. Kulathu Sarma27-Feb-07 4:01
MemberT. Kulathu Sarma27-Feb-07 4:01 

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