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Chapter: Fundamentals of Database Systems : Databases and Database Users

Characteristics of the Database Approach

A number of characteristics distinguish the database approach from the much older approach of programming with files.

Characteristics of the Database Approach


A number of characteristics distinguish the database approach from the much older approach of programming with files. In traditional file processing, each user defines and implements the files needed for a specific software application as part of programming the application. For example, one user, the grade reporting office, may keep files on students and their grades. Programs to print a student’s transcript and to enter new grades are implemented as part of the application. A second user, the accounting office, may keep track of students’ fees and their payments. Although both users are interested in data about students, each user maintains separate files— and programs to manipulate these files—because each requires some data not available from the other user’s files. This redundancy in defining and storing data results in wasted storage space and in redundant efforts to maintain common up-to-date data.


In the database approach, a single repository maintains data that is defined once and then accessed by various users. In file systems, each application is free to name data elements independently. In contrast, in a database, the names or labels of data are defined once, and used repeatedly by queries, transactions, and applications. The main characteristics of the database approach versus the file-processing approach are the following:


      Self-describing nature of a database system


      Insulation between programs and data, and data abstraction


      Support of multiple views of the data


      Sharing of data and multiuser transaction processing


We describe each of these characteristics in a separate section. We will discuss addi-tional characteristics of database systems in Sections 1.6 through 1.8.


1. Self-Describing Nature of a Database System


A fundamental characteristic of the database approach is that the database system contains not only the database itself but also a complete definition or description of the database structure and constraints. This definition is stored in the DBMS catalog, which contains information such as the structure of each file, the type and storage format of each data item, and various constraints on the data. The information stored in the catalog is called meta-data, and it describes the structure of the primary database (Figure 1.1).


The catalog is used by the DBMS software and also by database users who need information about the database structure. A general-purpose DBMS software pack-age is not written for a specific database application. Therefore, it must refer to the catalog to know the structure of the files in a specific database, such as the type and format of data it will access. The DBMS software must work equally well with any number of database applications—for example, a university database, a banking database, or a company database—as long as the database definition is stored in the catalog.


In traditional file processing, data definition is typically part of the application pro-grams themselves. Hence, these programs are constrained to work with only one specific database, whose structure is declared in the application programs. For example, an application program written in C++ may have struct or class declarations, and a COBOL program has data division statements to define its files. Whereas file-processing software can access only specific databases, DBMS software can access diverse databases by extracting the database definitions from the catalog and using these definitions.


For the example shown in Figure 1.2, the DBMS catalog will store the definitions of all the files shown. Figure 1.3 shows some sample entries in a database catalog.

These definitions are specified by the database designer prior to creating the actual database and are stored in the catalog. Whenever a request is made to access, say, the Name of a STUDENT record, the DBMS software refers to the catalog to determine the structure of the STUDENT file and the position and size of the Name data item within a STUDENT record. By contrast, in a typical file-processing application, the file structure and, in the extreme case, the exact location of Name within a STUDENT record are already coded within each program that accesses this data item.


2. Insulation between Programs and Data, and Data Abstraction


In traditional file processing, the structure of data files is embedded in the applica-tion programs, so any changes to the structure of a file may require changing all pro-grams that access that file. By contrast, DBMS access programs do not require such changes in most cases. The structure of data files is stored in the DBMS catalog sepa-rately from the access programs. We call this property program-data independence.


For example, a file access program may be written in such a way that it can access only STUDENT records of the structure shown in Figure 1.4. If we want to add another piece of data to each STUDENT record, say the Birth_date, such a program will no longer work and must be changed. By contrast, in a DBMS environment, we only need to change the description of STUDENT records in the catalog (Figure 1.3) to reflect the inclusion of the new data item Birth_date; no programs are changed. The next time a DBMS program refers to the catalog, the new structure of STUDENT records will be accessed and used.


In some types of database systems, such as object-oriented and object-relational systems (see Chapter 11), users can define operations on data as part of the database definitions. An operation (also called a function or method) is specified in two parts. The interface (or signature) of an operation includes the operation name and the data types of its arguments (or parameters). The implementation (or method) of the operation is specified separately and can be changed without affecting the interface. User application programs can operate on the data by invoking these operations through their names and arguments, regardless of how the operations are imple-mented. This may be termed program-operation independence.


The characteristic that allows program-data independence and program-operation independence is called data abstraction. A DBMS provides users with a conceptual representation of data that does not include many of the details of how the data is stored or how the operations are implemented. Informally, a data model is a type of data abstraction that is used to provide this conceptual representation. The data model uses logical concepts, such as objects, their properties, and their interrela-tionships, that may be easier for most users to understand than computer storage concepts. Hence, the data model hides storage and implementation details that are not of interest to most database users.


For example, reconsider Figures 1.2 and 1.3. The internal implementation of a file may be defined by its record length—the number of characters (bytes) in each record—and each data item may be specified by its starting byte within a record and its length in bytes. The STUDENT record would thus be represented as shown in Figure 1.4. But a typical database user is not concerned with the location of each data item within a record or its length; rather, the user is concerned that when a ref-erence is made to Name of STUDENT, the correct value is returned. A conceptual rep-resentation of the STUDENT records is shown in Figure 1.2. Many other details of file storage organization—such as the access paths specified on a file—can be hidden from database users by the DBMS; we discuss storage details in Chapters 17 and 18.

In the database approach, the detailed structure and organization of each file are stored in the catalog. Database users and application programs refer to the concep-tual representation of the files, and the DBMS extracts the details of file storage from the catalog when these are needed by the DBMS file access modules. Many data models can be used to provide this data abstraction to database users. A major part of this book is devoted to presenting various data models and the concepts they use to abstract the representation of data.


In object-oriented and object-relational databases, the abstraction process includes not only the data structure but also the operations on the data. These operations provide an abstraction of miniworld activities commonly understood by the users. For example, an operation CALCULATE_GPA can be applied to a STUDENT object to calculate the grade point average. Such operations can be invoked by the user queries or application programs without having to know the details of how the operations are implemented. In that sense, an abstraction of the miniworld activity is made available to the user as an abstract operation.


3. Support of Multiple Views of the Data


A database typically has many users, each of whom may require a different perspective or view of the database. A view may be a subset of the database or it may contain virtual data that is derived from the database files but is not explicitly stored. Some users may not need to be aware of whether the data they refer to is stored or derived. A multiuser DBMS whose users have a variety of distinct applications must provide facilities for defining multiple views. For example, one user of the database of Figure 1.2 may be interested only in accessing and printing the transcript of each student; the view for this user is shown in Figure 1.5(a). A second user, who is interested only in checking that students have taken all the prerequisites of each course for which they register, may require the view shown in Figure 1.5(b).


4. Sharing of Data and Multiuser Transaction Processing


A multiuser DBMS, as its name implies, must allow multiple users to access the data-base at the same time. This is essential if data for multiple applications is to be inte-grated and maintained in a single database. The DBMS must include concurrency control software to ensure that several users trying to update the same data do so in a controlled manner so that the result of the updates is correct. For example, when several reservation agents try to assign a seat on an airline flight, the DBMS should ensure that each seat can be accessed by only one agent at a time for assignment to a passenger. These types of applications are generally called online transaction pro-cessing (OLTP) applications. A fundamental role of multiuser DBMS software is to ensure that concurrent transactions operate correctly and efficiently.


The concept of a transaction has become central to many database applications. A transaction is an executing program or process that includes one or more database accesses, such as reading or updating of database records. Each transaction is sup-posed to execute a logically correct database access if executed in its entirety without interference from other transactions. The DBMS must enforce several transaction

properties. The isolation property ensures that each transaction appears to execute in isolation from other transactions, even though hundreds of transactions may be executing concurrently. The atomicity property ensures that either all the database operations in a transaction are executed or none are. We discuss transactions in detail in Part 9.


The preceding characteristics are important in distinguishing a DBMS from tradi-tional file-processing software. In Section 1.6 we discuss additional features that characterize a DBMS. First, however, we categorize the different types of people who work in a database system environment.

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