Wednesday, October 27, 2021

Nobody Understands the Relational Model: Semantics, Relational Closure and Database Correctness Part 1

 with David McGoveran 

(Title inspired by Richard Feynman)

“As currently defined, relational algebra produces anomalies when applied to non-5NF relations. Since an algebra cannot have anomalies, they should have raised a red flag that RA was not defined quite right, especially defining "relation" as a 1NF table and claiming algebraic closure because 1NF was preserved. Being restricted to tabular representation as the "language" for relationships is like being restricted to arithmetic when doing higher mathematics like differential calculus -- you need more expressive power, not less! Defining RA operations in terms of table manipulations aided initial learning and implementations by making data management look simple and VISUAL. Unfortunately, it was never grasped how much was missing, let alone how much more "intelligent" the RA and the RDBMS needed to be made to fix the problems. And I can see that those oversights were, in part, probably due to having to spend so much time correcting the ignorance in the industry."
--David McGoveran
I recently posted the following Fundamental Truth of the Week on LinkedIn, together with links to more detailed discussions of 1NF and 5NF (see References):
“According to conventional understanding of the RDM (such as it is) [and I don't mean SQL], a relation is in at least first normal form (1NF) -- it has only attributes drawn from simple domains (i.e., no "nested relations") -- the formal way of saying that a relation represents at the logical level an entity group from the conceptual level that has only individual entities -- no groups thereof -- as members. 1NF is required for decidability of the data sublanguage.

However, correctness, namely (1) system-guaranteed logical validity (i.e., query results follow provably from the database) and (2) by-design semantic consistency (of query results with the conceptual model) requires that relations are in both 1NF and fifth normal form (5NF). Formally, the only dependencies that hold in a 5NF relation are functional dependencies of non-key attributes on the PK -- for each PK value there is exactly one value of every corresponding non-key attribute value. This is the formal way of saying that a relation represents facts about a group of entities of a single type.

Therefore we now contend that database relations are BY DEFINITION in both 1NF and 5NF, otherwise all bets are off.”
It triggered a discussion that raised some fundamental issues for which an online exchange is too limiting. This post offers further clarifications, including comments by David McGoveran, on whose interpretation of the RDM (LOGIC FOR SERIOUS DATABASE FOLKS, forthcoming) I rely on. The portions of my interlocutor in the discussion are in quotes.

Saturday, October 9, 2021

Relational and Referential Integrity

“Relational Data Integrity is like every other integrity constraint that checks that the relationships created between data using foreign keys has a consistency. This can be done by using ON UPDATE, ON DELETE constraints on the table.”
I recently quoted this as one of my To Laugh or Cry? items on LinkedIn, which initiated an exchange triggered by the following question:
“You have a better definition? What is it?”
In the exchange the asker's interpretation seemed to be "referential constraints are constraints like any other constraints, so there is no problem".  It is hard to recognize misconceptions without proper understanding of the RDM. We ignore that the above is not really a definition and focus on debunking.

Decades ago I wrote an article in DATABASE PROGRAMMING AND DESIGN carrying the double-meaning title Integrity Is Not Only Referential, in which I debunked Borland's claim that its Paradox file manager supported referential integrity (at the time no PC product did). As one component of the RDM, database integrity is, of course, a DBMS function, but Pradox relegated it to applications. Then, as now, one of the most common and entrenched misconceptions was that relational comes from "relationships between tables" and so relational integrity amounts to referential integrity (RI). RI is, of course, but one of several components that comprise relational integrity -- it is necessary, but insufficient. While practitioners are familiar with referential and PK constraints, if asked what other constraints comprise relational integrity  very few know. Having enumerated them recently on LinkedIn, I asked this very question:
“... what other RELATIONAL constraints ARE there and what is their purpose? I recently posted a weekly truth and other items here that answer it.”
which went unanswered.

Data integrity is one of the three components of the RDM, together with data structure and manipulation. It consists of several categories of constraints which I detailed more than once, most recently in Understanding Relational Constraints, to which I referred the asker (can you give an example for each category?) Defining relational integrity means specifying all the constraint categories required by the RDM.

Consider now the above paragraph: it purports to define relational integrity, but it specifies functionality of referential integrity -- implying the old misconception I wrote about decades ago. The asker did not seem to comprehend the distinction:
“I can't see a problem here. Isn't it simply as follows? ... A *referential integrity constraint* ensures consistency between attributes of different entities - e.g. between primary and foreign keys of related entities (aka relational integrity). Isn't that what the definition says?"
Yes, it is the definition of referential integrity, but not of relational integrity -- there is more to the latter than the former. No matter in how many ways I tried to explain this, I was unable to convey it, because it's practically impossible in the absence of sufficient knowledge and understanding of the RDM.





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