Three important characteristics of the database approach are
(1) insulation of programs and data (program-data and program-operation independence);
(2) support of multiple user views; and
(3) use of a catalog to store the database description (schema).
In this post we specify an architecture for database systems, called the three-schema architecture, which was proposed to help achieve and visualize these characteristics. We then discuss the concept of data independence.
The Three-Schema Architecture
The goal of the three-schema architecture, illustrated in Figure 1, is to separate the user applications and the physical database. In this architecture, schemas can be defined at the following three levels:
1. The internal level has an internal schema, which describes the physical storage structure of the database. The internal schema uses a physical data model and describes the complete details of data storage and access paths for the database.
2. The conceptual level has a conceptual schema, which describes the structure of the whole database for a community of users. The conceptual schema hides the details of physical storage structures and concentrates on describing entities, data types, relationships, user operations, and constraints. A high-level data model or an implementation data model can be used at this level.
3. The external or view level includes a number of external schemas or user views. Each external schema describes the part of the database that a particular user group is interested in and hides the rest of the database from that user group. A high-level data model or an implementation data model can be used at this level.
Figure 1 The Three Schema Architecture
The three-schema architecture is a convenient tool for the user to visualize the schema levels in a database system. Most DBMSs do not separate the three levels completely, but support the three-schema architecture to some extent. Some DBMSs may include physical-level details in the conceptual schema. In most DBMSs that support user views, external schemas are specified in the same data model that describes the conceptual-level information. Some DBMSs allow different data models to be used at the conceptual and external levels.
Notice that the three schemas are only descriptions of data; the only data that actually exists is at the physical level. In a DBMS based on the three-schema architecture, each user group refers only to its own external schema. Hence, the DBMS must transform a request specified on an external schema into a request against the conceptual schema, and then into a request on the internal schema for processing over the stored database. If the request is a database retrieval, the data extracted from the stored database must be reformatted to match the user’s external view. The processes of transforming requests and results between levels are called mappings. These mappings may be time-consuming, so some DBMSs—especially those that are meant to support small databases—do not support external views. Even in such systems, however, a certain amount of mapping is necessary to transform requests between the conceptual and internal levels.
The three-schema architecture can be used to explain the concept of data independence, which can be defined as the capacity to change the schema at one level of a database system without having to change the schema at the next higher level. We can define two types of data independence:
1. Logical data independence is the capacity to change the conceptual schema without having to change external schemas or application programs. We may change the conceptual schema to expand the database (by adding a record type or data item), or to reduce the database (by removing a record type or data item). In the latter case, external schemas that refer only to the remaining data should not be affected. Only the view definition and the mappings need be changed in a DBMS that supports logical data independence. Application programs that reference the external schema constructs must work as before, after the conceptual schema undergoes a logical reorganization. Changes to constraints can be applied also to the conceptual schema without affecting the external schemas or application programs.
2. Physical data independence is the capacity to change the internal schema without having to change the conceptual (or external) schemas. Changes to the internal schema may be needed because some physical files had to be reorganized—for example, by creating additional access structures—to improve the performance of retrieval or update. If the same data as before remains in the database, we should not have to change the conceptual schema.
Whenever we have a multiple-level DBMS, its catalog must be expanded to include information on how to map requests and data among the various levels. The DBMS uses additional software to accomplish these mappings by referring to the mapping information in the catalog. Data independence is accomplished because, when the schema is changed at some level, the schema at the next higher level remains unchanged; only the mapping between the two levels is changed. Hence, application programs referring to the higher-level schema need not be changed.
The three-schema architecture can make it easier to achieve true data independence, both physical and logical. However, the two levels of mappings create an overhead during compilation or execution of a query or program, leading to inefficiencies in the DBMS. Because of this, few DBMSs have implemented the full three-schema architecture.