Theory and Practice of Database and Data Analysis (4) – Capturing additional information on relations

So far in this series, I have been talking about traversing related data by navigating down the referential constraints. The physical database makes no distinction about the nature of the foreign key, whether it is parent-child relationship or another type of reference. In logical ER modeling, we often capture more information. So in this blog, I will explore the idea of capturing additional information so that we can build more powerful tools.

Let me further refrain myself by using the fictitious e-commerce company example introduced in the part 1 of this series: We have an Orders table to capture the order header and OrderDetails table to capture the line items. An order must be placed by a customer, and may or may not originates from marketing campaign. An order may be fulfilled by one or more shipments. Each shipment would ship order line items in part or in full. So we have an ER diagram likes the following:


In the ER diagram, there is a clear parent-child relationship between Orders and OrderDetails and between Shipdments and ShipmentDetails. If we send the data in an XML file, each OrderDetail element would be a child of an Order element and each ShipmentDetail element would be a child element of an Shipment element. However, it appears that ShipmentDetails table has two parents: Shipments and OrderDetails. We will pick the parent by the importance of the relationship so we will pick Shipments as the parent. We then need to establish an additional mechanism to store the cross references between ShipmentDetails and OrderDetails in our XML file.

Let us examine other relations. Customer is a mandatory attribute for the Order table and Product is a mandatory attribute to the OrderDetails. Campaign is an optional attribute of the Orders. We can further classify as Products as system table and Customers as data table.

So we have classified the relations in our simple example into several categories: parent-child, cross-reference, mandatory attribute to system table, mandatory attribute to data table and optional attribute.

Now let us use an example to see how such classification can help us. Supposing we are building a tool to export all data related to a transaction from our production database into an XML and then import into our development database. The ID of an element could change from one system to another. That is not a problem with parent-child as we will get a new key when we insert the parent and we can propagate that down to the children. However, we need to take extra care to ensure that the cross reference is maintained.

We do not have to worry about the system table but we do have to worry about the data table. Our development database may or may not have the same customer. So from our classification, we can generically determine that we need to get a copy of mandatory reference to a data table and its children to check for existence in the destination database.

Besides categorization, other information that we like to capture are one-to-one relationships, some of them can be inferred; if a referential constraint references to primary key in both tables, it has a one-to-one relationship. We also like to capture hidden relationship; they are real references but cannot be enforced by foreign key constraint in Sql Server. For example, some tables contain an ID column that can store multiple types of IDs; a separate column is used to indicate the type of ID stored in the ID column.

With human input of extra information beyond those we can extracted from physical databases, we shall be able to build better tools. I will explorer some tools in upcoming blogs of this series.

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