Database

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A database is an organized collection of data. The term originated within the computer industry, but its meaning has been broadened by popular use, to the extent that the European Database Directive (which creates intellectual property rights for databases) includes non-electronic databases within its definition. This article is confined to a more technical use of the term; though even amongst computing professionals, some attach a much wider meaning to the word than others.

One possible definition is that a database is a collection of records stored in a computer in a systematic way, such that a computer program can consult it to answer questions. For better retrieval and sorting, each record is usually organized as a set of data elements (facts). The items retrieved in answer to queries become information that can be used to make decisions that might otherwise be more difficult or impossible to make. The computer program used to manage and query a database is known as a database management system (DBMS). The properties and design of database systems are included in the study of information science.

The central concept of a database is that of a collection of records, or pieces of knowledge. Typically, for a given database, there is a structural description of the type of facts held in that database: this description is known as a schema. The schema describes the objects that are represented in the database, and the relationships among them. There are a number of different ways of organizing a schema, that is, of modelling the database structure: these are known as database models (or data models). The model in most common use today is the relational model, which in layman's terms represents all information in the form of multiple related tables each consisting of rows and columns (the true definition uses mathematical terminology). This model represents relationships by the use of values common to more than one table. Other models such as the hierarchical model and the network model use a more explicit representation of relationships.

Strictly speaking, the term database refers to the collection of records, and the software should be referred to as the database management system or DBMS. When the context is unambiguous, however, many database administrators and programmers use the term database to cover both meanings.

Many professionals would consider a collection of data to constitute a database only if it has certain properties: for example, if the data is managed to ensure its integrity and quality, if it allows shared access by a community of users, if it has a schema, or if it supports a query language. However, there is no agreed definition of these properties.

Database management systems are usually categorized according to the data model that they support: relational, object-relational, network, and so on. The data model will tend to determine the query languages that are available to access the database. A great deal of the internal engineering of a DBMS, however, is independent of the data model, and is concerned with managing factors such as performance, concurrency, integrity, and recovery from hardware failures. In these areas there are large differences between products.

History

The earliest known use of the term data base was in June 1963, when the System Development Corporation sponsored a symposium under the title Development and Management of a Computer-centered Data Base. Database as a single word became common in Europe in the early 1970s and by the end of the decade it was being used in major American newspapers. (Databank, a comparable term, had been used in the Washington Post newspaper as early as 1966.)

The first database management systems were developed in the 1960s. A pioneer in the field was Charles Bachman. Bachman's early papers show that his aim was to make more effective use of the new direct access storage devices becoming available: until then, data processing had been based on punched cards and magnetic tape, so that serial processing was the dominant activity. Two key data models arose at this time: CODASYL developed the network model based on Bachman's ideas, and (apparently independently) the hierarchical model was used in a system developed by North American Rockwell, later adopted by IBM as the cornerstone of their IMS product.

The relational model was proposed by E. F. Codd in 1970. He criticized existing models for confusing the abstract description of information structure with descriptions of physical access mechanisms. For a long while, however, the relational model remained of academic interest only. While CODASYL systems and IMS were conceived as practical engineering solutions taking account of the technology as it existed at the time, the relational model took a much more theoretical perspective, arguing (correctly) that hardware and software technology would catch up in time. Among the first implementations were Michael Stonebraker's Ingres at Berkeley, and the System R project at IBM. Both of these were research prototypes, announced during 1976. The first commercial products, Oracle and DB2, did not appear until around 1980.

During the 1980s, research activity focused on distributed database systems and database machines, but these developments had little effect on the market. Another important theoretical idea was the Functional Data Model, but apart from some specialized applications in genetics, molecular biology, and fraud investigation, the world took little notice.

In the 1990s, attention shifted to object-oriented databases. These had some success in fields where it was necessary to handle more complex data than relational systems could comfortably cope with: spatial databases, engineering data (including software engineering repositories,) and multimedia data. Some of these ideas were adopted by the relational vendors, who integrated new features into their products as a result; the independent object database vendors largely disappeared from the scene.

In the 2000s, the fashionable area for innovation is the XML database. As with object databases, this has spawned a new collection of startup companies, but at the same time the key ideas are being integrated into the established relational products. XML databases aim to remove the traditional divide between documents and data, allowing all of an organization's information resources to be held in one place, whether they are highly structured or not.

Database models

Various techniques are used to model data structure. Most database systems are built around one particular data model, although it is increasingly common for products to offer support for more than one model. For any one logical model various physical implementations may be possible, and most products will offer the user some level of control in tuning the physical implementation, since the choices that are made have a significant effect on performance. An example of this is the relational model: all serious implementations of the relational model allow the creation of indexes which provide fast access to rows in a table if the values of certain columns are known.

A data model is not just a way of structuring data: it also defines a set of operations that can be performed on the data. The relational model, for example, defines operations such as selection, projection, and join. Although these operations may not be explicit in a particular query language, they provide the foundation on which a query language is built.

Flat model

Some would disagree that this qualifies as a data model, as defined above.

The flat (or table) model consists of a single, two-dimensional array of data elements, where all members of a given column are assumed to be similar values, and all members of a row are assumed to be related to one another. For instance, columns for name and password might be used as a part of a system security database. Each row would have the specific password associated with an individual user. Columns of the table often have a type associated with them, defining them as character data, date or time information, integers, or floating point numbers. This model is, incidentally, a basis of the spreadsheet.

Network model

The network model (defined by the CODASYL specification) organizes data using two fundamental constructs, called records and sets. Records contain fields (which may be organized hierarchically, as in COBOL). Sets (not to be confused with mathematical sets) define one-to-many relationships between records: one owner, many members. A record may be an owner in any number of sets, and a member in any number of sets.

The operations of the network model are navigational in style: a program maintains a current position, and navigates from one record to another by following the relationships in which the record participates. Records can also be located by supplying key values.

Although it is not an essential feature of the model, network databases generally implement the set relationships by means of pointers that directly address the location of a record on disk. This gives excellent retrieval performance, at the expense of operations such as database loading and reorganization.

Relational model

The relational model was introduced in an academic paper by E. F. Codd in 1970 as a way to make database management systems more independent of any particular application. It is a mathematical model defined in terms of predicate logic and set theory.

The products that are generally referred to as relational databases (for example, Oracle, DB2, and SQL Server) in fact implement a model that is only an approximation to the mathematical model defined by Codd. The data structures in these products are tables, rather than relations: the main differences being that tables can contain duplicate rows, and that the rows (and columns) can be treated as being ordered. The same criticism applies to the SQL language which is the primary interface to these products. There has been considerable controversy, mainly due to Codd himself, as to whether it is correct to describe SQL implementations as "relational": but the fact is that the world does so, and the following description uses the term in its popular sense.

A relational database contains multiple tables, each similar to the one in the "flat" database model. Relationships between tables are not defined explicitly; instead, keys are used to match up rows of data in different tables. A key is a collection of one or more columns in one table whose values match corresponding columns in other tables: for example, an Employee table may contain a column named Location which contains a value that matches the key of a Location table. Any column can be a key, or multiple columns can be grouped together into a single key. It is not necessary to define all the keys in advance; a column can be used as a key even if it was not originally intended to be one.

A key that can be used to uniquely identify a row in a table is called a unique key. Typically one of the unique keys is the preferred way to refer to row; this is defined as the table's primary key.

A key that has an external, real-world meaning (such as a person's name, a book's ISBN, or a car's serial number), is sometimes called a "natural" key. If no natural key is suitable (think of the many people named Brown), an arbitrary key can be assigned (such as by giving employees ID numbers). In practice, most databases have both generated and natural keys, because generated keys can be used internally to create links between rows that cannot break, while natural keys can be used, less reliably, for searches and for integration with other databases. (For example, records in two independently developed databases could be matched up by social security number, except when the social security numbers are incorrect, missing, or have changed.)

Relational operations

Users (or programs) request data from a relational database by sending it a query that is written in a special language, usually a dialect of SQL. Although SQL was originally intended for end-users, it is much more common for SQL queries to be embedded into software that provides an easier user interface. (Many web sites — including MediaWiki which is the engine that runs Wikipedia — perform SQL queries when generating pages.)

In response to a query, the database returns a result set, which is just a list of rows containing the answers. The simplest query is just to return all the rows from a table, but more often, the rows are filtered in some way to return just the answer wanted.

Often, data from multiple tables gets combined into one, by doing a join. Conceptually, this is done by taking all possible combinations of rows (the "cross-product"), and then filtering out everything except the answer. In practice, relational database management systems rewrite ("optimize") queries to perform faster, using a variety of techniques.

The flexibility of relational databases allows programmers to write queries that were not anticipated by the database designers. As a result, relational databases can be used by multiple applications in ways the original designers did not foresee, which is especially important for databases that might be used for decades. This has made the idea and implementation of relational databases very popular with businesses.

Dimensional model

The dimensional model is a specialized adaptation of the relational model used to represent data in data warehouses in a way that data can be easily summarized using OLAP queries. In the dimensional model, a database consists of a single large table of facts that are described using dimensions and measures. A dimension provides the context of a fact (such as who participated, when and where it happened, and its type) and is used in queries to group related facts together. Dimensions tend to be discrete and are often hierarchical; for example, the location might include the building, state, and country. A measure is a quantity describing the fact, such as revenue. It's important that measures can be meaningfully aggregated - for example, the revenue from different locations can be added together.

In an OLAP query, dimensions are chosen and the facts are grouped and added together to create a summary.

The dimensional model is often implemented on top of the relational model using a star schema, consisting of one table containing the facts and surrounding tables containing the dimensions. Particularly complicated dimensions might be represented using multiple tables, resulting in a snowflake schema.

A data warehouse can contain multiple star schemas that share dimension tables, allowing them to be used together. Coming up with a standard set of dimensions is an important part of dimensional modeling.

Object database models

In recent years, the object-oriented paradigm has been applied to database technology, creating a new programming model known as object databases. These databases attempt to bring the database world and the application programming world closer together, in particular by ensuring that the database uses the same type system as the application program. This aims to avoid the overhead (sometimes referred to as the impedance mismatch) of converting information between its representation in the database (for example as rows in tables) and its representation in the application program (typically as objects). At the same time object databases attempt to introduce the key ideas of object programming, such as encapsulation and polymorphism, into the world of databases.

A variety of ways have been tried for storing objects in a database. Some products have approached the problem from the application programming end, by making the objects manipulated by the program persistent. This also typically requires the addition of some kind of query language, since conventional programming languages do not have the ability to find objects based on their information content. Others have attacked the problem from the database end, by defining an object-oriented data model for the database, and defining a database programming language that allows full programming capabalities as well as traditional query facilities.

Object databases suffered because of a lack of standardization: although standards were defined by ODMG, they were never implemented well enough to ensure interoperability between products. Nevertheless, they have been used successfully in many applications: usually specialized applications such as engineering databases or molecular biology databases rather than mainstream commercial data processing. However, object database ideas were picked up by the relational vendors and influenced extensions made to these products and indeed to the SQL language.

Database Internals

Indexing

All of these kinds of database can take advantage of indexing to increase their speed, and this technology has advanced tremendously since its early uses in the 1960s and 1970s. The most common kind of index is a sorted list of the contents of some particular table column, with pointers to the row associated with the value. An index allows a set of table rows matching some criterion to be located quickly. Various methods of indexing are commonly used; B-trees, hashes, and linked lists are all common indexing techniques.

Relational DBMSs have the advantage that indices can be created or dropped without changing existing applications, because applications don't use the indices directly. Instead, the database software decides on behalf of the application which indices to use. The database chooses between many different strategies based on which one it estimates will run the fastest.

Relational DBMSs utilize many different algorithms to compute the result of an SQL statement. The RDBMs will produce a plan of how to execute the query, which is generated by analysing the run times of the different algorithms and selecting the quickest. Some of the key algorithms that deal with joins are Nested Loops Join, Sort-Merge Join and Hash Join.

Transactions and concurrency

In addition to their data model, most practical databases ("transactional databases") attempt to enforce a database transaction model that has desirable data integrity properties. Ideally, the database software should enforce the ACID rules, summarized here:

  • Atomicity - Either all the tasks in a transaction must be done, or none of them. The transaction must be completed, or else it must be undone (rolled back).
  • Consistency - Every transaction must preserve the integrity constraints -- the declared consistency rules -- of the database. It cannot place the data in a contradictory state.
  • Isolation - Two simultaneous transactions cannot interfere with one another. Intermediate results within a transaction are not visible to other transactions.
  • Durability - Completed transactions cannot be aborted later or their results discarded. They must persist through (for instance) restarts of the DBMS after crashes.

In practice, many DBMS's allow most of these rules to be selectively relaxed for better performance.

Concurrency control is a method used to ensure that transactions are executed in a safe manner and follow the ACID rules. The DBMS must be able to ensure that only serializable, recoverable schedules are allowed, and that no actions of committed transactions are lost while undoing aborted transactions.

Replication

Replication of databases is closely related to transactions. If a database can log its individual actions, it is possible to create a duplicate of the data in realtime. The duplicate can be used to improve Performance or Availability of the whole database system. Common replication concepts include:

  • Master/Slave Replication: All write requests are performed on the master and then replicated to the slaves
  • Quorum: The result of Read and Write requests is calculated by quering a "majority" of replicas.
  • Multimaster: Two or more replicas sync each other via a transaction identifier.

Applications of databases

Databases are used in many applications, spanning virtually the entire range of computer software. Databases are the preferred method of storage for large multiuser applications, where coordination between many users is needed. Even individual users find them convenient, though, and many electronic mail programs and personal organizers are based on standard database technology. Software database drivers are available for most database platforms so that application software can use a common application programming interface (API) to retrieve the information stored in a database. Two commonly used database APIs are JDBC and ODBC.

See also

References

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