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Chapter: Fundamentals of Database Systems - Introduction to Databases - Database System Concepts and Architecture

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Three-Schema Architecture and Data Independence

In this section we specify an architecture for database systems, called the three-schema architecture,9 that was proposed to help achieve and visualize these characteristics. Then we discuss the concept of data independence further.

Three-Schema Architecture and Data Independence

 

Three of the four important characteristics of the database approach, listed in Section 1.3, are (1) use of a catalog to store the database description (schema) so as to make it self-describing, (2) insulation of programs and data (program-data and program-operation independence), and (3) support of multiple user views. In this section we specify an architecture for database systems, called the three-schema architecture,9 that was proposed to help achieve and visualize these characteristics. Then we discuss the concept of data independence further.

 

1. The Three-Schema Architecture

 

The goal of the three-schema architecture, illustrated in Figure 2.2, is to separate the user applications from the physical database. In this architecture, schemas can be defined at the following three levels:

 

                                                    The internal level has an internal schema, which describes the physical stor-age structure of the database. The internal schema uses a physical data model and describes the complete details of data storage and access paths for the database.

 

                                                    The conceptual level has a conceptual schema, which describes the structure of the whole database for a community of users. The conceptual schema hides the details of physical storage structures and concentrates on describing entities, data types, relationships, user operations, and constraints. Usually, a representational data model is used to describe the conceptual schema when a database system is implemented. This implementation conceptual schema is often based on a conceptual schema design in a high-level data model.

 

The external or view level includes a number of external schemas or user views. Each external schema describes the part of the database that a particular user group is interested in and hides the rest of the database from that user group. As in the previous level, each external schema is typically implemented using a representational data model, possibly based on an external schema design in a high-level data model.


The three-schema architecture is a convenient tool with which the user can visualize the schema levels in a database system. Most DBMSs do not separate the three levels completely and explicitly, but support the three-schema architecture to some extent. Some older DBMSs may include physical-level details in the conceptual schema. The three-level ANSI architecture has an important place in database technology development because it clearly separates the users’ external level, the database’s con-ceptual level, and the internal storage level for designing a database. It is very much applicable in the design of DBMSs, even today. In most DBMSs that support user views, external schemas are specified in the same data model that describes the conceptual-level information (for example, a relational DBMS like Oracle uses SQL for this). Some DBMSs allow different data models to be used at the conceptual and external levels. An example is Universal Data Base (UDB), a DBMS from IBM, which uses the relational model to describe the conceptual schema, but may use an object-oriented model to describe an external schema.

 

Notice that the three schemas are only descriptions of data; the stored data that actually exists is at the physical level only. In a DBMS based on the three-schema architecture, each user group refers to its own external schema. Hence, the DBMS must transform a request specified on an external schema into a request against the conceptual schema, and then into a request on the internal schema for processing over the stored database. If the request is a database retrieval, the data extracted from the stored database must be reformatted to match the user’s external view. The processes of transforming requests and results between levels are called mappings. These mappings may be time-consuming, so some DBMSs—especially those that are meant to support small databases—do not support external views. Even in such systems, however, a certain amount of mapping is necessary to transform requests between the conceptual and internal levels.

 

 

2. Data Independence

 

The three-schema architecture can be used to further explain the concept of data independence, which can be defined as the capacity to change the schema at one level of a database system without having to change the schema at the next higher level. We can define two types of data independence:

 

                    Logical data independence is the capacity to change the conceptual schema without having to change external schemas or application programs. We may change the conceptual schema to expand the database (by adding a record type or data item), to change constraints, or to reduce the database (by removing a record type or data item). In the last case, external schemas that refer only to the remaining data should not be affected. For example, the external schema of Figure 1.5(a) should not be affected by changing the GRADE_REPORT file (or record type) shown in Figure 1.2 into the one shown in Figure 1.6(a). Only the view definition and the mappings need to be changed in a DBMS that supports logical data independence. After the conceptual schema undergoes a logical reorganization, application pro-grams that reference the external schema constructs must work as before.

Changes to constraints can be applied to the conceptual schema without affecting the external schemas or application programs.

 

                                                    Physical data independence is the capacity to change the internal schema without having to change the conceptual schema. Hence, the external schemas need not be changed as well. Changes to the internal schema may be needed because some physical files were reorganized—for example, by creating additional access structures—to improve the performance of retrieval or update. If the same data as before remains in the database, we should not have to change the conceptual schema. For example, providing an access path to improve retrieval speed of section records (Figure 1.2) by semester and year should not require a query such as list all sections offered in fall 2008 to be changed, although the query would be executed more efficiently by the DBMS by utilizing the new access path.

 

Generally, physical data independence exists in most databases and file environments where physical details such as the exact location of data on disk, and hard-ware details of storage encoding, placement, compression, splitting, merging of records, and so on are hidden from the user. Applications remain unaware of these details. On the other hand, logical data independence is harder to achieve because it allows structural and constraint changes without affecting application programs—a much stricter requirement.

 

Whenever we have a multiple-level DBMS, its catalog must be expanded to include information on how to map requests and data among the various levels. The DBMS uses additional software to accomplish these mappings by referring to the mapping information in the catalog. Data independence occurs because when the schema is changed at some level, the schema at the next higher level remains unchanged; only the mapping between the two levels is changed. Hence, application programs refer-ring to the higher-level schema need not be changed.

 

The three-schema architecture can make it easier to achieve true data independence, both physical and logical. However, the two levels of mappings create an overhead during compilation or execution of a query or program, leading to inefficiencies in the DBMS. Because of this, few DBMSs have implemented the full three-schema architecture.


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