Relational Model Constrains and Relational Database Schemas

So far, we have discussed the characteristics of single relations. In a relational database, there will typically be many relations, and the tuples in those relations are usually related in various ways. The state of the whole database will correspond to the states of all its relations at a particular point in time. There are generally many restrictions or constraints on the actual values in a database state. These constraints are derived from the rules in the mini world that the database represents.

In this section, we discuss the various restrictions on data that can be specified on a relational database in the form of constraints. Constraints on databases can generally be divided into three main categories:

  • Constraints that are inherent in the data model. We call these inherent model based constraints or implicit constraints.
  • Constraints that can be directly expressed in schemas of the data model, typically by specifying them in the DDL. We call these schema-based constraints or explicit constraints.
  • Constraints that cannot be directly expressed in the schemas of the data model, and hence must be expressed and enforced by the application programs. We call these application based or semantic constraints or business rules.

The characteristics of relations that we discussed in Section before are the inherent constraints of the relational model and belong to the first category. For example, the constraint that a relation cannot have duplicate tuples is an inherent constraint. The constraints we discuss in this section are of the second category, namely, constraints that can be expressed in the schema of the relational model via the DDL. Constraints in the third category are more general, relate to the meaning as well as behavior of attributes, and are difficult to express and enforce within the data model, so they are usually checked within the application programs that perform database updates.

Another important category of constraints is data dependencies, which include functional dependencies and multivalued dependencies. They are used mainly for testing the “goodness” of the design of a relational database and are utilized in a process called normalization.

The schema based constraints include domain constraints, key constraints, constraints on NULLs, entity integrity constraints, and referential integrity constraints.

Domain Constraints

Domain constraints specify that within each tuple, the value of each attribute A must be an atomic value from the domain dom(A). We have already discussed the ways in which domains can be specified. The data types associated with domains typically include standard numeric data types for integers (such as short integer, integer, and long integer) and real numbers (float and double precision float). Characters, Booleans, fixed length strings, and variable length strings are also available, as are date, time, timestamp, and money, or other special data types. Other possible domains may be described by a subrange of values from a data type or as an enumerated data type in which all possible values are explicitly listed. Rather than describe these in detail here, we discuss the data types offered by the SQL relational standard.

Key Constraints and Constraints on NULL Values

In the formal relational model, a relation is defined as a set of tuples. By definition, all elements of a set are distinct; hence, all tuples in a relation must also be distinct. This means that no two tuples can have the same combination of values for all their attributes. Usually, there are other subsets of attributes of a relation schema R with the property that no two tuples in any relation state r of R should have the same combination of values for these attributes. Suppose that we denote one such subset of attributes by SK; then for any two distinct tuples t1 and t2 in a relation state r of R, we have the constraint that:

t1[SK]≠ t2[SK]

Any such set of attributes SK is called a superkey of the relation schema R. A superkey SK specifies a uniqueness constraint that no two distinct tuples in any state r of R can have the same value for SK. Every relation has at least one default superkey the set of all its attributes. A superkey can have redundant attributes, however, so a more useful concept is that of a key, which has no redundancy. A key K of a relation schema R is a superkey of R with the additional property that removing any attribute A from K leaves a set of attributes K that is not a superkey of R any more. Hence, a key satisfies two properties:

  • Two distinct tuples in any state of the relation cannot have identical values for (all) the attributes in the key. This first property also applies to a superkey.
  • It is a minimal superkey that is, a superkey from which we cannot remove any attributes and still have the uniqueness constraint in condition 1 hold. This property is not required by a superkey.

Whereas the first property applies to both keys and superkeys, the second property is required only for keys. Hence, a key is also a superkey but not vice versa. Consider the STUDENT relation. The attribute set {Ssn} is a key of STUDENT because no two student tuples can have the same value for Ssn. Any set of attributes that includes Ssn for example, {Ssn, Name, Age} is a superkey. However, the superkey {Ssn, Name, Age} is not a key of STUDENT because removing Name or Age or both from the set still leaves us with a superkey. In general, any superkey formed from a single attribute is also a key. A key with multiple attributes must require all its attributes together to have the uniqueness property.

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Santhakumar Raja

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