Data Models

Underlying the structure of a database is the data model: a collection of conceptual tools for describing data, data relationships, data semantics, and consistency constraints. To illustrate the concept of a data model, we outline two data models in this post: the entity-relationship model and the relational model. Both provide a way to describe the design of a database at the logical level.

The Entity-Relationship Model

The entity-relationship (E-R) data model is based on a perception of a real world that consists of a collection of basic objects, called entities, and of relationships among these objects. An entity is a “thing” or “object” in the real world that is distinguishable from other objects. For example, each person is an entity, and bank accounts can be considered as entities.

Entities are described in a database by a set of attributes. For example, the attributes account-number and balance may describe one particular account in a bank, and they form attributes of the account entity set. Similarly, attributes customer-name, customer- street address and customer-city may describe a customer entity.

An extra attribute customer-id is used to uniquely identify customers (since it may be possible to have two customers with the same name, street address, and city).

A unique customer identifier must be assigned to each customer. In the United States, many enterprises use the social-security number of a person (a unique number the U.S. government assigns to every person in the United States) as a customer identifier.

A relationship is an association among several entities. For example, a depositor relationship associates a customer with each account that she has. The set of all entities of the same type and the set of all relationships of the same type are termed an entity set and relationship set, respectively.

The overall logical structure (schema) of a database can be expressed graphically by an E-R diagram.

Relational Model

The relational model uses a collection of tables to represent both data and the relationships among those data. Each table has multiple columns, and each column has a unique name.

The data is arranged in a relation which is visually represented in a two dimensional table. The data is inserted into the table in the form of tuples (which are nothing but rows). A tuple is formed by one or more than one attributes, which are used as basic building blocks in the formation of various expressions that are used to derive a meaningful information. There can be any number of tuples in the table, but all the tuple contain fixed and same attributes with varying values. The relational model is implemented in database where a relation is represented by a table, a tuple is represented by a row, an attribute is represented by a column of the table, attribute name is the name of the column such as ‘identifier’, ‘name’, ‘city’ etc., attribute value contains the value for column in the row. Constraints are applied to the table and form the logical schema. In order to facilitate the selection of a particular row/tuple from the table, the attributes i.e. column names are used, and to expedite the selection of the rows some fields are defined uniquely to use them as indexes, this helps in searching the required data as fast as possible. All the relational algebra operations, such as Select, Intersection, Product, Union, Difference, Project, Join, Division, Merge etc. can also be performed on the Relational Database Model. Operations on the Relational Database Model are facilitated with the help of different conditional expressions, various key attributes, pre-defined constraints etc.

Other Data Models

The object-oriented data model is another data model that has seen increasing attention. The object-oriented model can be seen as extending the E-R model with notions object-oriented data model.

The object-relational data model combines features of the object-oriented data model and relational data model. Semistructured data models permit the specification of data where individual data items of the same type may have different sets of attributes. This is in contrast with the data models mentioned earlier, where every data item of a particular type must have the same set of attributes. The extensible markup language (XML) is widely used to represent semistructured data.

Historically, two other data models, the network data model and the hierarchical data model, preceded the relational data model. These models were tied closely to the underlying implementation, and complicated the task of modeling data. As a result they are little used now, except in old database code that is still in service in some places. They are outlined in Appendices A and B, for interested readers.


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