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IB DP Computer Science Study Notes

A.2.4 Database Terms and Relationships

The relational database model revolves around structured data and predefined relationships, essential for efficient data management and integrity. This comprehensive guide delves into the core terminologies and relational dynamics within databases, serving as a cornerstone for high-level understanding and practical application.

Fundamental Database Terms

Understanding the basic terms is essential for grasping how relational databases function.

Table (Relation/File)

In database systems, a table is the primary means of data storage:

  • It is structured into rows and columns.
  • Each column has a unique name and a fixed data type.
  • A table is often used interchangeably with 'relation' in theoretical contexts or 'file' in file-based data storage systems.

Record (Tuple/Row)

A record represents a single item of the type defined by the table:

  • A record is a row in the table.
  • It's a collection of related data points—each point is a field.
  • Records are often called 'tuples' in the context of relational databases.

Field (Attribute/Column)

A field holds the individual piece of data for a record:

  • Each field in a record is a column in the table.
  • It describes a particular attribute of the entity represented by the table.
  • The field's data type restricts what data can be stored (e.g., numerical, text, date).

Primary Key

The primary key serves as the unique identifier:

  • It guarantees the uniqueness of each record within the table.
  • It cannot contain NULL values.
  • Usually indexed, optimising data retrieval speed.

Secondary Key

A secondary key is used for purposes other than the primary key:

  • It helps in data retrieval by indexing non-primary attributes.
  • A table may have one or more secondary keys.
  • Not necessarily unique and often used for creating relationships.

Foreign Key

A foreign key is a field in one table that uniquely identifies a row of another table:

  • It creates a link between two tables.
  • Ensures that the data corresponding to the key exists in the referenced table.
  • It is a cornerstone of maintaining referential integrity.

Candidate Key

Any candidate key can act as the primary key:

  • It must satisfy the uniqueness property.
  • A table can have multiple candidate keys but only one primary key.

Composite Primary Key

A composite primary key uses multiple fields to ensure uniqueness:

  • Necessary when no single field is unique on its own.
  • It's a combination of two or more columns in a table.
  • Used to enforce uniqueness in the case of a many-to-many relationship.


In databases, a join operation brings together data from multiple tables:

  • It uses keys to identify which rows from each table to combine.
  • There are different types of joins (INNER, LEFT, RIGHT, FULL OUTER), determining how rows from each table are included in the result set.

Database Relationships and Their Implications

The structure and integrity of a database significantly rely on the relationships between tables.

One-to-One Relationship

  • Definition: A pair of tables is in a one-to-one relationship if each row in the first table is linked to no more than one row in the second table, and vice versa.
  • Implications:
    • It's suitable for sensitive or large data that is not used frequently.
    • It can indicate that two entities are closely related and might be stored in the same table.
    • Requires careful management to ensure no orphaned records or redundant data exist.

One-to-Many Relationship

  • Definition: This relationship exists when a single record in one table can be associated with multiple records in another table.
  • Implications:
    • Commonly used due to its natural organisational structure.
    • One-to-many relationships can create nested data structures, which are effective for representing hierarchical data, like a category with many products.
    • It's essential to maintain referential integrity to ensure that the 'many' side of the relationship always corresponds to a valid record on the 'one' side.

Many-to-Many Relationship

  • Definition: In a many-to-many relationship, records in the first table can relate to multiple records in the second table, and each record in the second table can also relate to multiple records in the first table.
  • Implications:
    • They cannot be directly represented in the relational model and require a junction or associative table to implement.
    • Careful consideration must be given to the junction table's design to ensure that it effectively normalises the many-to-many relationship and maintains data integrity.

Impact on Data Integrity and Database Design

Data integrity and database design are directly impacted by the way relationships and keys are structured.

  • The choice of primary and foreign keys must reflect the business logic and ensure the accuracy and exclusiveness of each record.
  • The establishment of correct relationships is vital to prevent the introduction of anomalies during database operations such as insertion, deletion, and updating.
  • Relationships affect the queries used to fetch and manipulate data, where improperly related tables can lead to complex, inefficient queries and even incorrect data retrieval.


  • Normalization is a design process that reduces redundancy and dependency by organising fields and table of a database.
  • The main goal is to isolate data so that additions, deletions, and modifications of a field can be made in just one table and then propagated through the rest of the database via the defined relationships.

Referential Integrity

  • Referential Integrity refers to ensuring all foreign key values point to existing rows.
  • It is a subset of data integrity and is enforced through the use of constraints.
  • Its violation can lead to orphan records, where a referenced row is missing, affecting the database's validity.


  • Indexing is a technique to optimize the speed of database operations by creating a special data structure that provides quick lookup to records.
  • Indexes are built using one or more columns of a database table, providing a fast path to locate records without scanning the entire table.

ACID Properties

  • Relational databases are designed to ensure ACID properties (Atomicity, Consistency, Isolation, Durability), which guarantees that database transactions are processed reliably.

In summary, a deep understanding of these terms and relationships is indispensable for anyone involved in the design, implementation, and management of a relational database. It's a balance of theoretical knowledge and practical design choices that ensure a robust, scalable, and integrity-maintained database system. Whether for small-scale applications or enterprise-level systems, the principles of database relationships and structured design are fundamental building blocks that underpin the field of data management.


A join in a relational database is an operation that combines columns from one (self-join) or more tables based on a related column between the tables, typically using keys. The performance impact of a join depends on various factors such as the join type (e.g., inner, outer, cross), the size of the tables, indexing, and the complexity of the join condition. Joins can be computationally expensive because they often require a large number of comparisons and may produce a large result set. Proper indexing can mitigate performance issues by reducing the number of records the database engine needs to scan. Furthermore, selectively choosing columns and avoiding unnecessary joins can also improve performance. It is crucial for database designers to optimize joins for efficiency, especially in databases with large volumes of data.

A secondary key, also known as an alternate key, refers to any candidate key which is not chosen as the primary key. Its main role is to enhance data retrieval and is not necessarily involved in establishing a direct link between tables, unlike a foreign key. While a primary key uniquely identifies each record in its own table and a foreign key establishes a relationship with another table, a secondary key is used for searching and sorting operations. For instance, a 'user_id' might be the primary key in a Users table, but the 'email' field could act as a secondary key, facilitating the search for user details based on their email address.

In a database context, a 'relationship' refers to how tables associate with each other. The relationships are based on the concept that a column in one table can reference the primary key of another table. Relationships are crucial to maintaining data integrity, which ensures the accuracy, consistency, and reliability of data stored in a database. Properly defined relationships prevent data anomalies, redundancies, and integrity errors. For example, in an order processing system, a 'Customer' table and an 'Order' table might have a relationship where the 'Order' table references the 'CustomerID' from the 'Customer' table. This ensures that every order can be traced back to a specific customer, maintaining referential integrity and providing a systematic way to handle data that is interrelated.

Yes, a foreign key can also be a primary key in a different table, and this is often seen in a parent-child table scenario within a database. The foreign key is used to link the records between two tables, ensuring referential integrity, while it can also serve as the primary key within its own table, ensuring entity integrity. For instance, in a franchised business model, the 'store_id' might be the primary key in the 'Stores' table. When creating a 'Managers' table, the 'store_id' can be used as a foreign key to denote which store the manager is in charge of, while also acting as the primary key in the 'Managers' table if each store has one unique manager.

A candidate key is a set of attributes that uniquely identify tuples in a relation. In essence, candidate keys have the potential to be chosen as the primary key of the table. There can be multiple candidate keys in a single relation, but only one set of attributes can be selected as the primary key. The primary key's role is to ensure the uniqueness of each row in the table and is used to enforce entity integrity. It cannot contain NULL values and is chosen from the candidate keys based on its suitability for identifying records unambiguously and efficiently. For instance, in a table with attributes 'passport_number' and 'email_address' both could serve as candidate keys since they uniquely identify a person, but 'passport_number' might be preferred as the primary key for being more consistent and reliable.

Practice Questions

Explain the concept of a composite primary key and provide an example scenario where a composite primary key would be necessary.

A composite primary key is a primary key that consists of two or more columns, which together create a unique identifier for each record in a table. This is particularly necessary in scenarios where a single column cannot uniquely identify records. For instance, in a university database, neither student ID nor course ID alone are sufficient to identify records in a table that stores information about the courses students are enrolled in. A student can enrol in multiple courses, and a course will have multiple students. Therefore, a composite primary key made of both student ID and course ID columns ensures each record is unique, accurately reflecting each student-course enrolment instance.

Describe a many-to-many relationship and explain how it is implemented in a relational database using an associative table.

A many-to-many relationship occurs when multiple records in one table are associated with multiple records in another table. This relationship cannot be directly implemented in a relational database because it requires an associative table, also known as a junction table, to break down the many-to-many relationship into two one-to-many relationships. For example, in a library system, a Book table and an Author table might have a many-to-many relationship because a book can have multiple authors, and an author can write multiple books. The associative table, BookAuthors, would have foreign keys referencing the primary keys of the Book and Author tables, thus creating two one-to-many relationships that collectively represent the original many-to-many relationship. Each record in the BookAuthors table represents a unique pairing of a book and an author, thereby implementing the many-to-many relationship.

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Written by: Alfie
Cambridge University - BA Maths

A Cambridge alumnus, Alfie is a qualified teacher, and specialises creating educational materials for Computer Science for high school students.

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