Introduction to database concepts

A database is a collection of related data. By data, we mean known facts that can be recorded and that have implicit meaning. For example, consider the names, telephone numbers and addresses of the people we know.

A Database Management System (DBMS) is a collection of inter-related data and a set of programs to access those data. The primary goal of a DBMS is to provide an environment that is both convenient and efficient to use in retrieving and storing database information. DBMS is a general purpose software system that facilitates the processes of defining, constructing, manipulating and sharing databases among various users and applications. Defining a database involves specifying the data types, structures and constraints to the data to be stored in the database. The database definition or descriptive information is also stored in the database in the form of a database catalog or dictionary; it is called metadata. Constructing a database is the process of storing the data on some storage medium that is controlled by the DBMS. Manipulating the database includes functions such as querying the database to retrieve specific data, updating the database to reflect the real world changes and generating reports from the data. Sharing a database allows multiple users and programs to access the database simultaneously. Other important functions provided by the DBMS include protecting the database and maintaining it over a long period of time. Protection includes system protection against hardware or software malfunctions and security protection against unauthorized or malicious access. Maintenance includes allowing the system to evolve as requirements changes over time.

Purpose of Database Systems

The typical file processing system is supported by a conventional operating system. Permanent records are stored in various files and different application programs are written to extract records from, and add records to, the appropriate files. Keeping organizational information in a file processing system has a number of disadvantages.

  • Data redundancy and inconsistency: Since different programmers create the files and application programs over a long period, the various files are likely to have different formats and the programs may be written in several programming languages. Moreover, the same information may be duplicated in several places (files). For example, the address and telephone number of a particular customer may appear in a file that consists of savings-account records and in a file that consists of checking-account records. This redundancy leads to higher storage and access cost. In addition, it may lead to data inconsistency; that is, the various copies of the same data may no longer agree. For example, a changed customer address may be reflected in savings-account records but not elsewhere in the system.
  • Difficulty in accessing data: Suppose that one of the bank officers needs to find out the names of all customers who live within a particular postal-code area. The officer asks the data-processing department to generate such a list. Because the designers of the original system did not anticipate this request, there is no application program on hand to meet it. There is, however, an application program to generate the list of all customers. The bank officer has now two choices: either obtain the list of all customers and extract the needed information manually or ask a system programmer to write the necessary application program. Both alternatives are obviously unsatisfactory. Suppose that such a program is written, and that, several days later, the same officer needs to trim that list to include only those customers who have an account balance of $10,000 or more. As expected, a program to generate such a list does not exist. Again, the officer has the preceding two options, neither of which is satisfactory.The point here is that conventional file-processing environments do not allow needed data to be retrieved in a convenient and efficient manner. More responsive data-retrieval systems are required for general use.
  • Data isolation: Because data are scattered in various files, and files may be in different formats, writing new application programs to retrieve the appropriate data is difficult.
  • Integrity problems: The data values stored in the database must satisfy certain types of consistency constraints. For example, the balance of a bank account may never fall below a prescribed amount (say, $25). Developers enforce these constraints in the system by adding appropriate code in the various application programs. However, when new constraints are added, it is difficult to change the programs to enforce them. The problem is compounded when constraints involve several data items from different files.
  • Atomicity problems. A computer system, like any other mechanical or electrical device, is subject to failure. In many applications, it is crucial that, if a failure occurs, the data be restored to the consistent state that existed prior to the failure. Consider a program to transfer $50 from account A to account B. If a system failure occurs during the execution of the program, it is possible that the $50 was removed from account A, but was not credited to account B, resulting in an inconsistent database state. Clearly, it is essential to database consistency that either both the credit and debit occur, or that neither occur. That is, the funds transfer must be atomic—it must happen in its entirety or not at all. It is difficult to ensure atomicity in a conventional file-processing system.
  • Concurrent-access anomalies: For the sake of overall performance of the system and faster response, many systems allow multiple users to update the data simultaneously. In such an environment, interaction of concurrent updates may result in inconsistent data. Consider bank account A, containing $500. If two customers withdraw funds (say $50 and $100 respectively) from account A at about the same time, the result of the concurrent executions may leave the account in an incorrect (or inconsistent) state. Suppose that the programs executing on behalf of each withdrawal read the old balance, reduce that value by the amount being withdrawn, and write the result back. If the two programs run concurrently, they may both read the value $500, and write back $450 and $400, respectively. Depending on which one writes the value last, the account may contain either $450 or $400, rather than the correct value of $350. To guard against this possibility, the system must maintain some form of supervision. But supervision is difficult to provide because data may be accessed by many different application programs that have not been coordinated previously.
  • Security problems: Not every user of the database system should be able to access all the data. For example, in a banking system, payroll personnel need to see only that part of the database that has information about the various bank employees. They do not need access to information about customer accounts. But, since application programs are added to the system in an ad hoc manner, enforcing such security constraints is difficult.

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