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EnterpriseDB SQL: Data Architecture

Oracle Tips by Burleson Consulting

An index in a database is like the little card on the front of a filing cabinet that says A-C in this drawer, D-F in this drawer, etc.  An index helps programs looking for information find the information faster.  Instead of looking through every drawer possible, it can go straight to the drawer with the right folder.

Actually, the analogy falls apart somewhat at this point.  An index is really more like a list of names written on a folder.  When you look for a specific name, you know which folder it's in (and approximately where it is in the folder) but you have to look through the entire folder to find the specific name.  The list will tell you which folder it's in and will make your search quicker.

The downside to an index is that every time you add a name to the folder, you have to update the list.  Therefore, adding new records, or updating or deleting existing records, takes longer.  The trade off to an index is that you can choose to find it as quickly as possible or you can choose to add, update and delete as quickly as possible.  The more indexes you have, for example: by name, date of birth, job function, etc, the longer it takes to add or update an existing record. 

That wasn't painful was it?  We've already covered tables, columns and indexes.

Now, let's pretend we have a table called EMP.  The columns in EMP look like this:

Column       Data Type
------------ -------------
EMPNO        NUMBER(4)
ENAME        VARCHAR2(10)
JOB          VARCHAR2(9)
MGR          NUMBER(4)
SAL          NUMBER(7,2)
COMM         NUMBER(7,2)

Don't worry about the data types yet.  I'll cover those in the next section.  Right now, we're still working on architecture.

The EMPNO column can hold a 4-digit number that uniquely identifies an employee.  When I say it "uniquely identifies", I mean that the table can only have one record with a column that has that value.  This is called a primary key.

We could possibly use ENAME, which is the employee name, as a primary key but we might have two employees with the same name.  That wouldn't be unique!  We could use something like social security number but not every employee has one.  So the column, or columns, that uniquely identifies a row in a table is called the primary key.  In this case, our primary key is EMPNO.

To make sure we have a unique value in EMPNO, we can use an object called a sequence.  I will show you how to create and use a sequence below.  A sequence is a number generator.  It is user defined.  It can go forward or backwards and it skips one or more numbers between calls.  You can have many sequences defined in a database.

When we populate EMPNO, we would call this sequence and get a new number.  The database automatically increments and keeps track of the current value so that we don't have to.  Compare this to the old way of generating unique numbers (by hand on paper) and you can see how this makes life easier.

A primary key is always NOT NULL.  Keeping this general, a NULL column means it is an empty column (technically, it means the value is not known).  Before you put data in a column, it will be NULL.  When an empty field on a form, is blank, you could say that its value is NULL.

By saying a field must be NOT NULL, that means that you cannot add a record unless that column has data.  This is called a NOT NULL constraint.  Now we know that a primary key has, at least, two constraints:  Unique and NOT NULL.

We have another table in our database called DEPT. DEPT has the following columns:

Column       Data Type
------------ -------------
DNAME        VARCHAR2(14)
LOC          VARCHAR2(13)

In this table, DEPTNO is a sequence that uniquely identifies the department.  DEPTNO is the DEPT table's primary key.

Notice that EMP also has a DEPTNO column.  Just because they have the same name does not mean they are related.  You have to know the business use of the data to know if they are related.  In this case, I know they are.

When the primary key of one table is referenced in another table, it means there is a relationship between the two tables.  In this case, the EMP table has a foreign key relationship with the DEPT table.  That just means that a foreign key (in this case the DEPT table's DEPTNO primary key) exists in EMP.  This is also called a referential constraint.

What that means is that EMP is a child table to DEPT and DEPT is the parent of EMP.

If the DEPTNO column in EMP is defined as NOT NULL, then an employee cannot exist in a DEPTNO that doesn't exist in the DEPT table.

If the DEPTNO column in EMP is defined as to allow NULLs, then an employee can exist in a NULL DEPTNO.

In our case, DEPTNO in EMP does allow NULL values.  We can create an employee record that is not assigned to a department.  We might want to do that if we had a new hire who was not yet assigned to a particular position.

In the diagram below, Figure 3.1, shows the relationship between EMP and DEPT.  This is called an Entity Relationship Diagram (ERD).

Figure 3.1: Entity Relationship Diagram

Let's see what we've covered since our last summary:

* A Primary Key uniquely identifies a record.

* A NULL value is an unknown value.

* For most purposes, an empty column is also a NULL column.

* A Primary Key CANNOT be NULL.

* A Sequence is a database object that generates sequential numbers.

* A constraint is a restriction defined in the database.

* A NOT NULL constraint on a column forces that column to have data when a record is added.

* A Referential constraint, also called a foreign key constraint, restricts a row in a table to valid rows in a corresponding table.

Now we've covered the major concepts of Data Architecture, albeit at a very general level.  I don't intend this small section to make you a database designer or guru.  However, you should now be somewhat comfortable with the rest of this chapter.

Summary of Data Architecture:  Tables have columns and tables can be related to other tables on foreign keys.  A foreign key is usually the primary key of another table.  The relationships between tables are why some databases are called Relational Databases.  Indexes can make queries go faster but they might slow down updates.

This is an excerpt from the book "EnterpriseDB: The Definitive Reference" by Rampant TechPress.

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