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Database Design Standards



Introduction

When moving from project to project, it's unfortunate that we find that there are no consistent standards on database design, despite SQL having been around for decades. I suspect that much of this is because most developers don't understand database design. In fact, with my years of hiring developers, only a handful of times have I met developers who can properly normalize a database. To be fair, normalization can be hard, but most developers I've interviewed, even excellent ones with strong SQL skills, don't have database design skills.

But this article isn't about database normalization. If you want to learn more, here's a short talk I gave which explains the basics.

Instead, when you have a working database, the question we want to know is "what standards can we apply which make it easier to use that database?" If these standards were to be widely adopted, databases would be easier to use because you wouldn't have to learn and remember a new set of standards every time you work with a new database.

CamelCaseNames or underscore_names?

Let's get this out of the way quickly. I routinely see database examples online where we see table names like CustomerOrders or customer_orders. Which should you use? You probably want to use whatever standard is already in place, but if you're creating a new database, I recommend using_undercores for accessibility. The words "under value" have a different meaning from the word "undervalue", but the former, with underscores, is always under_value, while the latter is undervalue. With CamelCase, it's Undervalue versus UnderValue which, since SQL is case-insensitive, are identical. Further, if you have vision problems and are constantly playing around with fonts and sizes to distinguish words, the underscores are much easier to read.

As a side problem, CamelCase is anecdotally harder to read for people for whom English isn't their first language.

That being said, this is a personal preference and not a strong recommendation.

Plural or Singular Tables?

There's long been a huge debate amongst experts in database theory about whether or not database tables should be singular (customer) or plural (customers). Without going into the theory, let me cut the Gordian Knot with a healthy dose of pragmatism: plural table names are less likely to conflict with reserved keywords.

Do you have users? SQL has a user reserved word. Do you want a table of constraints? constraint is a reserved word. Is audit a reserved word but you want an audit table? By simply using the plural form of nouns, most reserved words won't cause you grief when you're writing SQL. Even PostgreSQL, which has an excellent SQL parser, has been tripped up when encountering a user table.

Just use plural names and you're far less likely to have a collision.

Don't name the ID column "id"

This is a sin I've been guilty of for years. When working with a client in Paris, I had a DBA complain when I named my id columns id and I thought he was being pedantic. After all, the customers.id column is unambiguous, but customers.customer_id is repeating information.

And later I had to debug the following:

SELECT thread.*
  FROM email thread
  JOIN email selected      ON selected.id = thread.id
  JOIN character recipient ON recipient.id = thread.recipient_id
  JOIN station_area sa     ON sa.id = recipient.id
  JOIN station st          ON st.id = sa.id
  JOIN star origin         ON origin.id = thread.id
  JOIN star destination    ON destination.id = st.id
LEFT JOIN route
       ON ( route.from_id = origin.id
            AND 
            route.to_id = destination.id )
 WHERE selected.id                = ?
   AND ( thread.sender_id         = ? 
         OR ( thread.recipient_id = ?
              AND ( origin.id = destination.id
                    OR ( route.distance IS NOT NULL
                         AND
                         now() >= thread.datesent
                         + ( route.distance * interval '30 seconds' )
        ))))
ORDER BY datesent ASC, thread.parent_id ASC

Do you see the problem? If the SQL had used full id names, such as email_id, star_id, and station_id, the bugs would have stood out like a sore thumb while I was typing out this SQL, not later when I was trying to figure out both what I did wrong and why I don't drink as much as I should.

And by request of a few people who couldn't see the errors, here's the SQL after it's corrected. It's very clear that "star_id" and "email_id", or "station_id" and "station_area_id" are probabyl not valid comparisons. As previously mentioned, if SQL had a decent type system, this SQL would not even have compiled.

SELECT thread.*
  FROM email thread
  JOIN email selected      ON selected.email_id      = thread.email_id
  JOIN character recipient ON recipient.character_id = thread.recipient_id
  -- station_area_id = character_id is probably wrong
  JOIN station_area sa     ON sa.station_area_id     = recipient.character_id
  -- station_id = station_area_id is probably wrong
  JOIN station st          ON st.station_id          = sa.station_area_id
  -- star_id = email_id is probably wrong
  JOIN star origin         ON origin.star_id         = thread.email_id
  JOIN star destination    ON destination.star_id    = st.star_id
LEFT JOIN route
       ON ( route.from_id = origin.star_id
            AND 
            route.to_id = destination.star_id )
 WHERE selected.email_id          = ?
   AND ( thread.sender_id         = ? 
         OR ( thread.recipient_id = ?
              AND ( origin.star_id = destination.star_id
                    OR ( route.distance IS NOT NULL
                         AND
                         now() >= thread.datesent
                         + ( route.distance * interval '30 seconds' )
        ))))
ORDER BY datesent ASC, thread.parent_id ASC

Do yourself a favor and use full names for IDs. You can thank me later.

Column Naming

As much as possible, name columns very descriptively. For example, a temperature column doesn't make sense for this:

SELECT name, 'too cold'
  FROM areas
 WHERE temperature < 32;  

I live in France and for anyone here, 32 would be "too hot". Instead, name that column fahrenheit.

SELECT name, 'too cold'
  FROM areas
 WHERE fahrenheit < 32;  

Now it's completely unambiguous.

Also, when you have foreign key constraints, you should name the columns on each side of the constraint identically, if possible. For example, consider this perfectly reasonable, sane, SQL.

SELECT *
  FROM some_table       s
  JOIN some_other_table o
    ON o.owner = s.person_id;

That looks sane. There's really nothing wrong with it. But when you consult the table definition, you discover that some_other_table.owner has a foreign key constraint against companies.company_id. That SQL is, in fact, wrong. Had you used identical names:

SELECT *
  FROM some_table       s
  JOIN some_other_table o
    ON o.company_id = s.person_id;

Now it's immediately clear that we have a bug and you can see it on a single line of code and don't have to go consult the table definition.

However, it should be noted that this isn't always possible. If you have a table with a source warehouse and a destination warehouse, you might want a source_id and a destination_id to compare with your warehouse_id. Naming them source_warehouse_id and destination_warehouse_id will make this easier to follow.

It should also be noted that in the example above, owner is more descriptive of the intent than company_id. If you feel this is likely to cause confusion, you can name the column owning_company_id. That can still embed the intent of the column in the name while giving you a strong hint as to its intent.

Avoid NULL Values

Saving the best (or is it worst?) for last! This is a tip that many experienced database developers are aware of, but sadly, it doesn't get repeated often enough: don't allow NULL values in your database without an excellent reason.

This will take a bit of time because this is an important, but somewhat complicated topic. First, we'll discuss the theory, then we'll discuss their impact on database design, and we'll finish up with a practical example of the serious problems NULL values cause.

Database Types

In the database, we have various data types, such as INTEGER, JSON, DATETIME, and so on. A type is associated with a column and any value added should conform to the type associated with that column. × Well, that's the idea, but SQLite and MySQL regularly make a mockery of this.

But what's a type? A type is a name, a set of allowed values, and a set of allowed operations. This helps us avoid unwanted behavior. For example, in Java, what happens if you try to compare a string and an integer?

CustomerAccount.java:5: error: bad operand types for binary operator '>'
        if ( current > threshhold ) {
                   ^
  first type:  String
  second type: int

Even if you can't see by glancing at the code that current > threshhold is comparing incompatible types, the compiler will trap this for you.

Ironically, databases, which store your data—and are your last line of defense against data corruption—are terrible at types! I mean, really, really bad at them. For example, if your customers table has an integer surrogate key, you can do this:

SELECT name, birthdate
  FROM customers
 WHERE customer_id > weight;

That, of course, doesn't make a lick of sense and in a sane world would be a compile-time error. × The D specification by C.J. Date and Hugh Darwen attempts to address this, but it is not very well known. Many programming languages make it trivial to trap type errors like this but databases make it hard.

But that's not how databases generally behave, quite possibly because when the first SQL standard was released in 1992 , computers were slow beasts and anything that complicated the implementation would undoubtedly have made databases slow.

And here's where the NULL value comes into all of this. There is one place where the SQL standard got this right and that's with the IS NULL and IS NOT NULL predicates. Since the NULL value is, by definition, unknown, you can't possibly have operators defined for it. That's why IS NULL and IS NOT NULL exist instead of = NULL and != NULL. And any NULL comparison results in a new NULL value.

If that sounds strange, it becomes much easier if you say "unknown" instead of NULL:

NULL Unknown comparisons result in NULL unknown values.

Ah, now it makes perfect sense!

What does a NULL value mean?

Now that we have the tiniest amount of type theory under our belt, let's examine the practical implications.

You need to pay a $500 bonus to all employees who earn more than $50K a year in salary. So you write the following SQL.

SELECT employee_number, name
  FROM employees
 WHERE salary > 50000;

And you just got fired because your boss earns more than $50K but their salary isn't in the database (their employees.salary column is NULL) and the comparison operator can't compare a NULL with 50000.

And just why is that value NULL? Maybe their salary is confidential. Maybe the information hasn't arrived yet. Maybe they're a consultant and they're not paid a salary. Maybe they're paid hourly and are not salaried. There are plenty of reasons why that data might not be available.

The existence or non-existence of data in a column suggests that it depends on something other than just the primary key and your database is possibly denormalized. Thus, columns which might have NULL values are good candidates for creating new tables. In this case, you might have tables for salaries, hourly_rates, none_of_your_business and so on. You'll still get fired for blindly joining on salaries and missing that your boss doesn't have one, but at least your database is starting to present you with enough information to suggest that there's more to the problem than just a salary.

And yes, this was a silly example, but it leads to the final nail in the coffin.

NULLs lead to logical impossibilities

You might have some sense that I'm being a bit pedantic about NULL values, but we have one final example and it's caused much real-world grief.

Years ago I was in London working for a domain registrar and trying to figure out why a somewhat messy 80 line SQL query was returning incorrect data. There was a particular case where data absolutely should have been returned, but wasn't. I'm embarassed to say that it took me about a day to track it down and it was a combination of a few things:

  • I had used an OUTER JOIN
  • Those can easily generate NULL values
  • NULL values can cause your SQL to give you incorrect answers

That last statement is something most database developers are unaware of, so let's look at an example Database In Depth by C.J. Date. First, a trivial schema with two tables.


suppliers

supplier_idcity
s1London

parts

part_idcity
p1NULL

Those should be pretty clear and it's harder to get a simpler example.

The following, of course, returns p1.

SELECT part_id
  FROM parts;

But what about the following?

SELECT part_id
  FROM parts
 WHERE city = city;

That returns no rows since you cannot compare a NULL value with anything—not even another NULL and not even the same NULL. That seems odd because the city for every given row must the be the same city, even if we don't know it, right? And that leads us to the following. What does this return? Try to work out the answer before reading it below.

SELECT s.supplier_id, p.part_id
  FROM suppliers s, parts p
 WHERE p.city <> s.city
    OR p.city <> 'Paris';

We get no rows because we can’t compare a NULL city (p.city) and thus neither branch of the WHERE clause can evaluate to true.

However, we know that the unknown city either is Paris or it is not Paris. If it's Paris, the first condition is true (<> 'London'). If it’s not Paris, the second condition is true (<> 'Paris'). Thus, the WHERE clause must be true, but it's not, leading to SQL which generates logically impossible results.

That was the bug which bit me in London. Any time you write SQL which can generate or include NULL values you run the risk of having SQL lie to you. It doesn't happen often, but when it does, it's devilishly hard to track down.

Summary

  • Use underscore_names instead of CamelCaseNames
  • Table names should be plural
  • Spell out id fields (item_id instead of id)
  • Don't use ambiguous column names
  • When possible, name foreign key columns the same as the columns they refer to
  • Add NOT NULL to all column definitions, when possible
  • Avoid writing SQL which can generate NULL values, when possible

While not perfect, the above database design guidelines will make your database world a better place.


If you'd like top-notch consulting or training, email me and let's discuss how I can help you. Read my hire me page to learn more about my background.


Copyright © 2018-2019 by Curtis "Ovid" Poe.