Recent Posts

Those who are free of resentful thoughts surely find peace. - Buddha

Modeling Database - I

Posted on 19th Jan 2017

<-Back to Blogs

A good database design starts with a list of the data that you want to include in your database and what you want to be able to do with the database later on. This can all be written in your own language, without any SQL. In this stage you must try not to think in tables or columns, but just think: "What do I need to know?" Don't take this too lightly, because if you find out later that you forgot something, usually you need to start all over. Adding things to your database is mostly a lot of work.


Identifying Entities

The types of information that are saved in the database are called 'entities'. These entities exist in four kinds: people, things, events, and locations. Everything you could want to put in a database fits into one of these categories. If the information you want to include doesn't fit into these categories, than it is probably not an entity but a property of an entity, an attribute.

To clarify the information given in this article we'll use an example. Imagine that you are creating a website for a shop, what kind of information do you have to deal with? In a shop you sell your products to customers. The "Shop" is a location; "Sale" is an event; "Products" are things; and "Customers" are people. These are all entities that need to be included in your database.

But what other things are happening when selling a product? A customer comes into the shop, approaches the vendor, asks a question and gets an answer. "Vendors" also participate, and because vendors are people, we need a vendors entity.


Figure 1: Entities: types of information.

Identifying Relationships

The next step is to determine the relationships between the entities and to determine the cardinality of each relationship. The relationship is the connection between the entities, just like in the real world: what does one entity do with the other, how do they relate to each other? For example, customers buy products, products are sold to customers, a sale comprises products, a sale happens in a shop.

The cardinality shows how much of one side of the relationship belongs to how much of the other side of the relationship. First, you need to state for each relationship, how much of one side belongs to exactly 1 of the other side. For example: How many customers belong to 1 sale?; How many sales belong to 1 customer?; How many sales take place in 1 shop?

You'll get a list like this: (please note that 'product' represents a type of product, not an occurance of a product)


  • Customers --> Sales; 1 customer can buy something several times
  • Sales --> Customers; 1 sale is always made by 1 customer at the time
  • Customers --> Products; 1 customer can buy multiple products
  • Products --> Customers; 1 product can be purchased by multiple customers
  • Customers --> Shops; 1 customer can purchase in multiple shops
  • Shops --> Customers, 1 shop can receive multiple customers
  • Shops --> Products; in 1 shop there are multiple products
  • Products --> Shops; 1 product (type) can be sold in multiple shops
  • Shops --> Sales; in 1 shop multiple sales can me made
  • Sales --> Shops; 1 sale can only be made in 1 shop at the time
  • Products --> Sales; 1 product (type) can be purchased in multiple sales
  • Sales --> Products; 1 sale can exist out of multiple products

Did we mention all relationships? There are four entities and each entity has a relationship with every other entity, so each entity must have three relationships, and also appear on the left end of the relationship three times. Above, 12 relationships were mentioned, which is 4*3, so we can conclude that all relationships were mentioned.

Now we'll put the data together to find the cardinality of the whole relationship. In order to do this, we'll draft the cardinalities per relationship. To make this easy to do, we'll adjust the notation a bit, by noting the 'backward'-relationship the other way around:


  • Customers --> Sales; 1 customer can buy something several times
  • Sales --> Customers; 1 sale is always made by 1 customer at the time

The second relationship we will turn around so it has the same entity order as the first. Please notice the arrow that is now faced the other way!


  • Customers

Cardinality exists in four types: one-to-one, one-to-many, many-to-one, and many-to-many. In a database design this is indicated as: 1:1, 1:N, M:1, and M:N. To find the right indication just leave the '1'. If there is a 'many' on the left side, this will be indicated with 'M', if there is a 'many' on the right side it is indicated with 'N'.


  • Customers --> Sales; 1 customer can buy something several times; 1:N.
  • Customers

The true cardinality can be calculated through assigning the biggest values for left and right, for which 'N' or 'M' are greater than '1'. In thisexample, in both cases there is a '1' on the left side. On the right side, there is a 'N' and a '1', the 'N' is the biggest value. The total cardinality is therefore '1:N'. A customer can make multiple 'sales', but each 'sale' has just one customer.

If we do this for the other relationships too, we'll get:

  • Customers --> Sales; --> 1:N
  • Customers --> Products; --> M:N
  • Customers --> Shops; --> M:N
  • Sales --> Products; --> M:N
  • Shops --> Sales; --> 1:N
  • Shops --> Products; --> M:N

So, we have two '1-to-many' relationships, and four 'many-to-many' relationships.


Figure 2: Relationships between the entities.

Between the entities there may be a mutual dependency. This means that the one item cannot exist if the other item does not exist. For example, there cannot be a sale if there are no customers, and there cannot be a sale if there are no products.

The relationships Sales --> Customers, and Sales --> Products are mandatory, but the other way around this is not the case. A customer can exist without sale, and also a product can exist without sale. This is of importance for the next step.

Recursive Relationships

Sometimes an entity refers back to itself. For example, think of a work hierarchy: an employee has a boss; and the bosschef is an employee too. The attribute 'boss' of the entity 'employees' refers back to the entity 'employees'.

In an ERD (see next chapter) this type of relationship is a line that goes out of the entity and returns with a nice loop to the same entity.

Redundant Relationships

Sometimes in your model you will get a 'redundant relationship'. These are relationships that are already indicated by other relationships, although not directly.

In the case of our example there is a direct relationships between customers and products. But there are also relationships from customers to sales and from sales to products, so indirectly there already is a relationship between customers and products through sales. The relationship 'Customers Products' is made twice, and one of them is therefore redundant. In this case, products are only purchased through a sale, so the relationships 'Customers Products' can be deleted. The model will then look like this:


Figure 3: Relationships between the entities.

Solving Many-to-Many Relationships

Many-to-many relationships (M:N) are not directly possible in a database. What a M:N relationship says is that a number of records from one table belongs to a number of records from another table. Somewhere you need to save which records these are and the solution is to split the relationship up in two one-to-many relationships.

This can be done by creating a new entity that is in between the related entities. In our example, there is a many-to-many relationship between sales and products. This can be solved by creating a new entity: sales-products. This entity has a many-to-one relationship with Sales, and a many-to-one relationship with Products. In logical models this is called an associative entity and in physical database terms this is called a link table or junction table.



Figure 4: Many to many relationship implementation via associative entity.

In the example there are two many-to-many relationships that need to be solved: 'Products Sales', and 'Products Shops'. For both situations there needs to be created a new entity, but what is that entity?

For the Products Sales relationship, every sale includes more products. The relationship shows the content of the sale. In other words, it gives details about the sale. So the entity is called 'Sales details'. You could also name it 'sold products'.

The Products Shops relationship shows which products are available in which the shops, also known as 'stock'. Our model would now look like this:


Figure 5: Model with link tables Stock and Sales_details

Identifying Attributes

The data elements that you want to save for each entity are called 'attributes'.

About the products that you sell, you want to know, for example, what the price is, what the name of the manufacturer is, and what the type number is. About the customers you know their customer number, their name, and address. About the shops you know the location code, the name, the address. Of the sales you know when they happened, in which shop, what products were sold, and the sum total of the sale. Of the vendor you know his staff number, name, and address. What will be included precisely is not of importance yet; it is still only about what you want to save.


Figure 6: Entities with attributes.

Derived Data

Derived data is data that is derived from the other data that you have already saved. In this case the 'sum total' is a classical case of derived data. You know exactly what has been sold and what each product costs, so you can always calculate how much the sum total of the sales is. So really it is not necessary to save the sum total.

So why is it saved here? Well, because it is a sale, and the price of the product can vary over time. A product can be priced at 10 euros today and at 8 euros next month, and for your administration you need to know what it cost at the time of the sale, and the easiest way to do this is to save it here. There are a lot of more elegant ways, but they are too profound for this article.

Presenting Entities and Relationships: Entity Relationship Diagram (ERD)

The Entity Relationship Diagram (ERD) gives a graphical overview of the database. There are several styles and types of ER Diagrams. A much-used notation is the 'crowfeet' notation, where entities are represented as rectangles and the relationships between the entities are represented as lines between the entities. The signs at the end of the lines indicate the type of relationship. The side of the relationship that is mandatory for the other to exist will be indicated through a dash on the line. Not mandatory entities are indicated through a circle. "Many" is indicated through a 'crowfeet'; de relationship-line splits up in three lines.

A 1:1 mandatory relationship is represented as follows:


Figure 7: Mandatory one to one relationship.

A 1:N mandatory relationship:


Figure 8: Mandatory one to many relationship.

A M:N relationship is:


Figure 9: Mandatory many to many relationship.

The model of our example will look like this:


Figure 10: Model with relationships.

Assigning Keys

Primary Keys

A primary key (PK) is one or more data attributes that uniquely identify an entity. A key that consists of two or more attributes is called a composite key. All attributes part of a primary key must have a value in every record (which cannot be left empty) and the combination of the values within these attributes must be unique in the table.

In the example there are a few obvious candidates for the primary key. Customers all have a customer number, products all have a unique product number and the sales have a sales number. Each of these data is unique and each record will contain a value, so these attributes can be a primary key. Often an integer column is used for the primary key so a record can be easily found through its number.

Link-entities usually refer to the primary key attributes of the entities that they link. The primary key of a link-entity is usually a collection of these reference-attributes. For example in the Sales_details entity we could use the combination of the PK's of the sales and products entities as the PK of Sales_details. In this way we enforce that the same product (type) can only be used once in the same sale. Multiple items of the same product type in a sale must be indicated by the quantity.

In the ERD the primary key attributes are indicated by the text 'PK' behind the name of the attribute. In the example only the entity 'shop' does not have an obvious candidate for the PK, so we will introduce a new attribute for that entity: shopnr.

Foreign Keys

The Foreign Key (FK) in an entity is the reference to the primary key of another entity. In the ERD that attribute will be indicated with 'FK' behind its name. The foreign key of an entity can also be part of the primary key, in that case the attribute will be indicated with 'PF' behind its name. This is usually the case with the link-entities, because you usually link two instances only once together (with 1 sale only 1 product type is sold 1 time).

If we put all link-entities, PK's and FK's into the ERD, we get the model as shown below. Please note that the attribute 'products' is no longer necessary in 'Sales', because 'sold products' is now included in the link-table. In the link-table another field was added, 'quantity', that indicates how many products were sold. The quantity field was also added in the stock-table, to indicate how many products are still in store.


Figure 11: Primary keys and foreign keys.

Defining the Attribute's Data Type

Now it is time to figure out which data types need to be used for the attributes. There are a lot of different data types. A few are standardized, but many databases have their own data types that all have their own advantages. Some databases offerthe possibility to define your own data types, in case the standard types cannot do the things you need.

The standard data types that every database knows, and are most-used, are: CHAR, VARCHAR, TEXT, FLOAT, DOUBLE, and INT.


  • CHAR(length) - includes text (characters, numbers, punctuations...). CHAR has as characteristic that it always saves a fixed amount of positions. If you define a CHAR(10) you can save up to ten positions maximum, but if you only use two positions the database will still save 10 positions. The remaining eight positions will be filled by spaces.
  • VARCHAR(length) - includes text (characters, numbers, punctuation...). VARCHAR is the same as CHAR, the difference is that VARCHAR only takes as much space as necessary.
  • TEXT - can contain large amounts of text. Depending on the type of database this can add up to gigabytes.


  • INT - contains a positive or negative whole number. A lot of databases have variations of the INT, such as TINYINT, SMALLINT, MEDIUMINT, BIGINT, INT2, INT4, INT8. These variations differ from the INT only in the size of the figure that fits into it. A regular INT is 4 bytes (INT4) and fits figures from -2147483647 to +2147483646, or if you define it as UNSIGNED from 0 to 4294967296. The INT8, or BIGINT, can get even bigger in size, from 0 to 18446744073709551616, but takes up to 8 bytes of diskspace, even if there is just a small number in it.
  • FLOAT, DOUBLE - The same idea as INT, but can also store floating point numbers. . Do note that this does not always work perfectly. For instance in MySQL calculating with these floating point numbers is not perfect, (1/3)*3 will result with MySQL's floats in 0.9999999, not 1.

Other types:

  • BLOB - for binary data such as files.INET - for IP addresses. Also useable for netmasks.

For our example the data types are as follows:


Figure 12: Data model displaying data types.

In the next part we will see how the Normalization of the table are done. Read it here.

<-Back to Blogs


Good, better, best. Never let it rest. Untill your good is better and your better is best. - St. Jerome

© SOFTHINKERS 2013-18 All Rights Reserved. Privacy policy