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SQL Fundamentals: Storing Information in Tables

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In relational databases, all the data is stored in tables and all the results are expressed in tables. In this chapter, we examine tables in detail.
This chapter is from the book

This chapter is from the book



  • 1-1 What is SQL?


  • 1-2 What is a relational database and why would you use one?


  • 1-3 Why learn SQL?


  • 1-4 What is in this book?


The Parts of a Table


  • 1-5 Data is stored in tables


  • 1-6 A row represents an object and the information about it


  • 1-7 A column represents one type of information


  • 1-8 A cell is the smallest part of a table


  • 1-9 Each cell should express just one thing


  • 1-10 Primary key columns identify each row


  • 1-11 Most tables are tall and thin


Examples of Tables


  • 1-12 An example of a table in Oracle and Access


  • 1-13 Some design decisions in the l_employees table


  • 1-14 The Lunches database


Key Points



1-1 What is SQL?

The name SQL stands for Structured Query Language. It is pronounced “S-Q-L” and can also be pronounced “sequel.”

SQL is a computer language designed to get information from data that is stored in a relational database. In a moment, I discuss what a relational database is. For now, you can think of it as one method of organizing a large amount of data on a computer. SQL allows you to find the information you want from a vast collection of data. The purpose of this book is to show you how to get the information you want from a database.

SQL is different from most other computer languages. With SQL, you describe the type of information you want. The computer then determines the best procedure to use to obtain it and runs that procedure. This is called a declarative computer language because the focus is on the result: You specify what the result should look like. The computer is allowed to use any method of processing as long as it obtains the correct result.

Most other computer languages are procedural. These are languages like C, Cobol, Java, Assembler, Fortran, Visual Basic, and others. In these languages, you describe the procedure that will be applied to the data; you do not describe the result. The result is whatever emerges from applying the procedure to the data.

Let me use an analogy to compare these two approaches. Suppose I go to a coffee shop in the morning. With the declarative approach, used by SQL, I can say what I want: “I would like a cup of coffee and a donut.” With the procedural approach, I cannot say that. I have to say how the result can be obtained and give a specific procedure for it. That is, I have to say how to make a cup of coffee and how to make a donut. So, for the coffee, I have to say, “Grind up some roasted coffee beans, add boiling water to them, allow the coffee to brew, pour it into a cup, and give it to me.” For the donut, I will have to read from a cookbook. Clearly, the declarative approach is much closer to the way we usually speak and it is much easier for most people to use.

The fact that SQL is easy to use, relative to most other computer languages, is the main reason it is so popular and important. The claim is often made that anyone can learn SQL in a day or two. I think that claim is more a wish than a reality. After all, SQL is a computer language, and computers are not as easy to use as telephones — at least not yet.

Nonetheless, SQL is easy to use. With one day of training, most people can learn to obtain much useful information. That includes people who are not programmers. People throughout an organization, from secretaries to vice presidents, can use SQL to obtain the information they need to make business decisions. That is the hope and, to a large extent, it has been proven true.

Information is not powerful by itself. It only becomes powerful when it is available to people throughout an organization when they need to use it. SQL is a tool for delivering that information.

Notes about SQL

  • SQL is the designated language for getting information from a relational database.
  • SQL says what information to get, rather than how to get it.
  • Basic SQL is easy to learn.
  • SQL empowers people by giving them control over information.
  • SQL allows people to handle information in new ways.
  • SQL makes information powerful by bringing it to people when they need it.

1-2 What is a relational database and why would you use one?

A relational database is one way to organize data in a computer. There are other ways to organize it, but in this book, we do not discuss these other ways, except to say that each method has some strengths and some drawbacks. For now, we look only at the advantages a relational database has to offer.

SQL is one of the main reasons to organize data into a relational database. Using SQL, information can be obtained from the data fairly easily by people throughout the organization. That is very important.

Another reason is that data in a relational database can be used by many people at the same time. Sometimes hundreds or thousands of people can all share the data in a database. All the people can see the data and change the data (if they have the authority to do so). From a business perspective, this provides a way to coordinate all the employees and have everybody working from the same body of information.

A third reason is that a relational database is designed with the expectation that your information requirements may change over time. You might need to reorganize the information you have or add new pieces of information to it. Relational databases are designed to make this type of change easy. Most other computer systems are difficult to change. They assume that you know what all the requirements will be before you start to construct them. My experience is that people are not very good at predicting the future, even when they say they can, but here I am showing my own bias toward relational databases.

From the perspective of a computer programmer, the flexibility of a relational database and the availability of SQL make it possible to develop new computer applications much more rapidly than with traditional techniques. Some organizations take advantage of this; others do not.

The idea of a relational database was first developed in the early 1970s to handle very large amounts of data — millions of records. At first, the relational database was thought of as a back-end processor that would provide information to a computer application written in a procedural language such as C or Cobol. Even now, relational databases bear some of the traits of that heritage.

Today, however, the ideas have been so successful that entire information systems are often constructed as relational databases, without much need for procedural code (except to support input forms). That is, the ideas that were originally developed to play a supporting role for procedural code have now taken center stage. Much of the procedural code is no longer needed.

In relational databases, all the data is kept in tables, which are two-dimensional structures with columns and rows. I describe tables in detail later in this chapter. After you work with them for a while, you will find that tables provide a very useful structure for handling data. They adapt easily to changes, they share data with all users at the same time, and SQL can be run on the data in a table. Many people start thinking of their data in terms of tables. Tables have become the metaphor of choice when working with data.

Today, people use small personal databases to keep their address books, catalog their music, organize their libraries, or track their finances. Business applications are also built as relational databases. Many people prefer to have their data in a database, even if it has only a few records in it.

The beginning of relational databases

  • Relational databases were originally developed in the 1970s to organize large amounts of information in a consistent and coherent manner.
  • They allowed thousands of people to work with the same information at the same time.
  • They kept the information current and consistent at all times.
  • They made information easily available to people at all levels of an organization, from secretaries to vice presidents. They used SQL, forms, standardized reports, and ad-hoc reports to deliver information to people in a timely manner.
  • They were designed to work as an information server back end. This means that most people would not work directly with the database; instead, they would work with another layer of software. This other software would get the information from the database and then adapt it to the needs of each person.
  • They empowered people by making current information available to them when they needed to use it.

Today — How relational databases have changed

  • In addition to the large databases described already, now there are also many smaller databases that handle much smaller amounts of information. These databases can be used by a single person or shared by a few people.
  • Databases have been so successful and are so easy to use that they are now employed for a wider range of applications than they were originally designed for.
  • Many people now work directly with a database instead of through another layer of software.
  • Many people prefer to keep their data in databases. They feel that relational databases provide a useful and efficient framework for handling all types of data.

1-3 Why learn SQL?

SQL is used in more than 100 software products. Once you learn SQL, you will be able to use all of these products. Of course, each one will require a little study of its special features, but you will soon feel at home with it and know how to use it. You can use this one set of skills over and over again.

Major SQL Products

Other SQL Products (and Products Based on SQL)


4th Dimension

Microsoft SQL Server


Microsoft Access



FileMaker PRO

DB2 (IBM Data Server)

Helix Database







Microsoft Visual FoxPro


NonStop SQL









OpenEdge ABL




Adabas D

Greenplum Database





Pervasive PSQL

Gladius DB

Daffodil database


(and many more)

There are reasons SQL is used so much. One reason is that it is easy to learn, relative to many other computer languages. Another reason is that it opens the door to relational databases and the many advantages they offer. Some people say that SQL is the best feature of relational databases and it is what makes them successful. Other people say that relational databases make SQL successful. Most people agree that together they are a winning team.

SQL is the most successful declarative computer language — a language with which you say what you want rather than how to get it. There are some other declarative languages and report-generation tools, but most of them are much more limited in what they can do. SQL is more powerful and can be applied in more situations.

SQL can help you get information from a database that may not be available to people who do not know SQL. It can help you learn and understand the many products that are based on it.

Finally (don’t tell your boss), learning SQL can be enjoyable and fun. It can stretch your mind and give you new tools with which to think. You might start to view some things from a new perspective.

1-4 What is in this book?

The subject of this book

This book shows you how to use SQL to get information from a relational database. It begins with simple queries that retrieve selected data from a single table. It progresses step by step to advanced queries that summarize the data, combine it with data from other tables, or display the data in specialized ways. It goes beyond the basics and shows you how to get the information you need from the databases you have.

Who should read this book?

Anyone with an interest in getting information from a database can read this book. It can be a first book about databases for people who are new to the subject. You do not need to be a computer programmer. The discussion begins at the beginning and it does not assume any prior knowledge about databases. The only thing you need is the persistence to work through the examples and a little prior experience working with your own computer.

Professional programmers can also use this book. The techniques shown here can help them find solutions to many problems. Whether you are a novice or a professional, an end user or a manager, the SQL skills you learn will be useful to you over and over again.

Organization of this book

This book discusses the practical realities of getting information from a database. A series of specific tasks are accomplished and discussed. Each concept is presented with an example.

The tasks are designed and arranged to show the most important aspects of the subject. Each topic is discussed thoroughly and in an organized manner. All the major features and surprising aspects of each topic are shown.

Why compare two different implementations of SQL — Oracle and Access?

If a book discusses only the theory of SQL, and no particular product that implements it, the reader will be left with no practical skills. He or she will be able to think about the concepts, but might have difficulty writing code that works.

If a book discusses only one implementation of SQL, it is easy to get distracted by the quirks and special features it has. You also lose sight of the fact that SQL is used in many products, although in slightly different ways.

This book compares Oracle and Access because they are two of the most widely used SQL products and because they both run on a PC. They are somewhat different. You will see them side by side. Oracle is used mostly for larger business applications. Access is used mostly for personal database applications and smaller business applications.

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