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Establishing Referential Integrity

As you can see, establishing a relationship is quite easy. Establishing the right kind of relationship is a little more difficult. When you attempt to establish a relationship between two tables, Access makes some decisions based on a few predefined factors:

  • Access establishes a one-to-many relationship if one of the related fields is a primary key or has a unique index.
  • Access establishes a one-to-one relationship if both the related fields are primary keys or have unique indexes.
  • Access creates an indeterminate relationship if neither of the related fields is a primary key and neither has a unique index. You cannot establish referential integrity in this case.

As covered earlier in the chapter, referential integrity consists of a series of rules that the Access Database Engine applies to ensure that it properly maintains the relationships between tables. At the most basic level, referential integrity rules prevent the creation of orphan records in the table on the many side of the one-to-many relationship. After a relationship is established between a Customers table and an Orders table, for example, all orders in the Orders table must be related to a particular customer in the Customers table. Before you can establish referential integrity between two tables, the following conditions must be met:

  • The matching field on the one side of the relationship must be a Primary Key field or must have a unique index.
  • The matching fields must have the same data types (for linking purposes, AutoNumber fields match Long Integer fields). With the exception of Text fields, they also must have the same size. Number fields on both sides of the relationship must have the same size (Long Integer, for example).
  • Both tables must be part of the same Access database.
  • Both tables must be stored in the proprietary Access file (.ACCDB) format. (They cannot be external tables from other sources.)
  • The database containing the two tables must be open.
  • Existing data within the two tables cannot violate referential integrity rules. All orders in the Orders table must relate to existing customers in the Customers table, for example.

After you establish referential integrity between two tables, the Access Database Engine applies the following rules:

  • You cannot enter a value in the foreign key of the related table that does not exist in the primary key of the primary table. For example, you cannot enter a value in the CustomerID field of the Orders table that does not exist in the CustomerID field of the Customers table.
  • You cannot delete a record from the primary table if corresponding records exist in the related table. For example, you cannot delete a customer from the Customers table if related records exist in the Orders table (records with the same value in the CustomerID field).
  • You cannot change the value of a primary key on the one side of a relationship if corresponding records exist in the related table. For example, you cannot change the value in the CustomerID field of the Customers table if corresponding orders exist in the Orders table.

If you attempt to violate any of the preceding three rules and you have enforced referential integrity between the tables, Access displays an appropriate error message, as shown in Figure 3.8.

Figure 3.8

Figure 3.8 An error message when attempting to add an order for a customer who doesn't exist.

The Access Database Engine's default behavior is to prohibit the deletion of parent records that have associated child records and to prohibit the change of a primary key value of a parent record when that parent has associated child records. You can override these restrictions by using the three check boxes available in the Edit Relationships dialog box when you establish or modify a relationship.

The following example enforces referential integrity between the tblCustomers table and the tblOrders table. It illustrates how this affects the process of adding and deleting records:

  1. To open the Relationships window, click to select the Database Tools tab and then click the Relationships tool in the Show/Hide group. Double-click the join line between tblCustomers and tblOrders. Enable the Enforce Referential Integrity check box. Click OK. Repeat the process for the relationship between tblOrders and tblOrderDetails.
  2. Go into tblCustomers and add a couple of records. Take note of the customer IDs. Go into tblOrders. Add a couple of records, taking care to assign customer IDs of customers who exist in the tblCustomers table. Now try to add an order for a customer whose customer ID does not exist in tblCustomers. You should get an error message.
  3. Attempt to delete a customer from tblCustomers who does not have any orders. You should get a warning message, but Access should allow you to complete the process. Now try to delete a customer who does have orders. The Access Database Engine should prohibit you from deleting the customer. Attempt to change the customer ID of a customer who has orders. You should not be able to do this.

Cascade Update Related Fields

The Cascade Update Related Fields option is available only if you have established referential integrity between the tables. With this option selected, the user can change the primary key value of the record on the one side of the relationship. When the user tries to modify the field joining the two tables on the one side of the relationship, the Access Database Engine cascades the change down to the foreign key field on the many side of the relationship. This technique is useful if the primary key field is modifiable. For example, a purchase number on a purchase order master record might be updatable.

If the user modifies the purchase order number of the parent record, you would want to cascade the change to the associated detail records in the purchase order detail table.

Figure 3.9

Figure 3.9 An orphan record with Null in the foreign key field.

Cascade Delete Related Records

The Cascade Delete Related Records option is available only if you have established referential integrity between the tables. With this option selected, the user can delete a record on the one side of a one-to-many relationship, even if related records exist in the table on the many side of the relationship. A user can delete a customer even if the customer has existing orders, for example. The Access Database Engine maintains referential integrity between the tables because it automatically deletes all related records in the child table.

If you attempt to delete a record from the table on the one side of a one-to-many relationship and no related records exist in the table on the many side of the relationship, you get the usual warning message, as shown in Figure 3.10. On the other hand, if you attempt to delete a record from the table on the one side of a one-to-many relationship and related records exist in the child table, Access warns you that you are about to delete the record from the parent table, as well as any related records in the child table (see Figure 3.11).

Figure 3.10

Figure 3.10 A message that appears after the user attempts to delete a parent record without related child records.

Figure 3.11

Figure 3.11 A message that appears after the user attempts to delete a parent record with related child records.

With the Cascade Update feature enabled, you are able to update the primary key value of a record that has associated child records. With the Cascade Delete feature enabled, you can delete a parent record that has associated child records. This exercise illustrates the use of Cascade Update and Cascade Delete:

  1. Modify the relationship between tblCustomers and tblOrders. Enable the Cascade Update Related Fields check box. Modify the relationship between tblOrders and tblOrderDetails. Enable the Cascade Delete Related Records check box. You do not need to enable Cascade Update Related Fields because the OrderID field in tblOrders is an AutoNumber field.
  2. Attempt to delete a customer who has orders. The Access Database Engine should still prohibit you from doing deleting because you did not enable Cascade Delete Related Records. Change the customer ID in tblCustomers of a customer who has orders. The Access Database Engine should allow this change. Take a look at the tblOrders table. The Access Database Engine should have updated the customer ID of all corresponding records in the table to reflect the change in the parent record.
  3. Add some order details to the tblOrderDetails table. Try to delete any order that has details within the tblOrderDetails table. You should receive a warning, but the Access Database Engine should allow you to complete the process.
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