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Welcome to the World of SQL

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This lesson provides the reader with a simplified definition, history, and synopsis of Structured Query Language as it applies to today's data processing needs. It also provides a broad overview of all of the major features of SQL.

"Sams Teach Yourself SQL in 24 Hours" is an excellent starting point for any newcomer to SQL and relational database technology. This book is written so that it is easy to digest the material one step at a time. In the beginning you will be introduced to SQL and the relational database, and by the end you will be able to confidently write SQL code that allows you to communicate effectively with a relational database. "Sams Teach Yourself SQL in 24 Hours" is a hands-on book, relying on interaction from the reader in each chapter to maximize the learning experience.

SQL is the standard language used to communicate with relational database management systems, including Oracle, Microsoft SQL Server, Sybase, Informix, and even Microsoft Access. With SQL, you can build databases, enter data into the database, manipulate data, and query the database data that is often used to make intelligent personal or business decisions. SQL is a simple, English-like language that is relatively easy to learn and use by any level of database user.

"Sams Teach Yourself SQL in 24 Hours" was written by Ryan Stephens and Ron Plew, two professional consultants and instructors specializing in SQL and databases. Ryan and Ron saw a great need for SQL training, and integrated much of their training material and techniques into this book. As Ryan and Ron worked with students and readers and learned what best enabled an optimal learning experience, new material and approaches were integrated into each subsequent edition of this book. We feel this book is now a complete kit that anyone, regardless of experience, can use to learn SQL.

—Ryan Stephens

This chapter is from the book

Welcome to the world of SQL and the vast, growing database technologies of today's businesses all over the world. By reading this book, you have begun accepting the knowledge that will soon be required for survival in today's world of relational databases and data management. Unfortunately, because it is first necessary to provide the background of SQL and cover some preliminary concepts that you need to know, the majority of this hour is text in paragraph format. Bear with the book; this will be exciting, and the "boring stuff" in this hour definitely pays off.

The highlights of this hour include

  • An introduction to and brief history of SQL

  • An introduction to database management systems

  • An overview of some basic terms and concepts

  • An introduction to the database used in this book

SQL Definition and History

Every business has data, which requires some organized method or mechanism for maintaining the data. This mechanism is referred to as a database management system (DBMS). Database management systems have been around for years, many of which started out as flat-file systems on a mainframe. With today's technologies, the accepted use of database management systems has begun to flow in other directions, driven by the demands of growing businesses, increased volumes of corporate data, and of course, Internet technologies.

The modern wave of information management is primarily carried out through the use of a relational database management system (RDBMS), derived from the traditional DBMS. Modern databases combined with client/server and Web technologies are typical combinations used by current businesses to successfully manage their data and stay competitive in their appropriate markets. The trend for many businesses is to move from a client/server environment to the Web, where location is not a restriction when users need access to important data. The next few sections discuss SQL and the relational database, the most common DBMS implemented today. A good fundamental understanding of the relational database, and how to apply SQL to managing data in today's information technology world, is important to your understanding of the SQL language.

What Is SQL?

SQL, Structured Query Language, is the standard language used to communicate with a relational database. The prototype was originally developed by IBM using Dr. E.F. Codd's paper ("A Relational Model of Data for Large Shared Data Banks") as a model. In 1979, not long after IBM's prototype, the first SQL product, ORACLE, was released by Relational Software, Incorporated (it was later renamed Oracle Corporation). It is, today, one of the distinguished leaders in relational database technologies. SQL is pronounced either of two ways: as the letters S-Q-L, or as "sequel"; both pronunciations are acceptable. However, most experienced SQL users tend to use the latter pronunciation.

If you travel to a foreign country, you may be required to know that country's language to get around. For example, you may have trouble ordering from a menu via your native tongue if the waiter speaks only his country's language. Look at a database as a foreign land in which you seek information. SQL is the language you use to express your needs to the database. Just as you would order a meal from a menu in another country, you can request specific information from within a database in the form of a query using SQL.


The American National Standards Institute (ANSI) is an organization that approves certain standards in many different industries. SQL has been deemed the standard language in relational database communication, originally approved in 1986 based on IBM's implementation. In 1987, the ANSI SQL standard was accepted as the international standard by the International Standards Organization (ISO). The standard was revised again in 1992 and was called SQL-92. The newest standard is now called SQL-99; it's also referred to as SQL3.

The New Standard: SQL-99

SQL-99 has five interrelated documents and other documents may be added in the near future. The five interrelated parts are as follows:

  • Part 1—SQL/Framework—Specifies the general requirements for conformance and defines the fundamental concepts of SQL.

  • Part 2—SQL/Foundation— Defines the syntax and operations of SQL.

  • Part 3—SQL/Call-Level Interface— Defines the interface for application programming to SQL.

  • Part 4—SQL/Persistent Stored Modules—Defines the control structures that then define SQL routines. Part 4 also defines the modules that contain SQL routines.

  • Part 5—SQL/Host Language Bindings—Defines how to embed SQL statements in application programs that are written in a standard programming language.

The new ANSI standard (SQL-99) has two levels of minimal compliance that a DBMS may claim: Core SQL Support and Enhanced SQL Support.

ANSI stands for American National Standards Institute, an organization that is responsible for devising standards for various products and concepts.

With any standard comes numerous, obvious advantages, as well as some disadvantages. Foremost, a standard steers vendors in the appropriate industry direction for development. In the case of SQL, a standard provides a basic skeleton of necessary fundamentals, which as an end result, allows consistency between various implementations and better serves increased portability (not only for database programs, but databases in general and individuals who manage databases).

Some may argue that a standard is not so good, limiting the flexibility and possible capabilities of a particular implementation. However, most vendors who comply with the standard have added product-specific enhancements to standard SQL to fill in these gaps.

A standard is good, considering the advantages and disadvantages. The expected standard demands features that should be available in any complete SQL implementation and outlines basic concepts that not only force consistency between all competitive SQL implementations, but also increase the value of a SQL programmer.

A SQL implementation is a particular vendor's SQL product, or relational database management system. It is important to note, as you will hear numerous times in this book, that implementations of SQL vary widely. There is no one implementation that follows the standard completely, although some are mostly ANSI-compliant.

What Is a Database?

In very simple terms, a database is a collection of data. Some like to think of a database as an organized mechanism that has the capability of storing information, through which a user can retrieve stored information in an effective and efficient manner.

People use databases every day without realizing it. A phone book is a database. The data contained consists of individuals' names, addresses, and telephone numbers. The listings are alphabetized or indexed, which allows the user to reference a particular local resident with ease. Ultimately, this data is stored in a database somewhere on a computer. After all, each page of a phone book is not manually typed each year a new edition is released.

The database has to be maintained. As people move to different cities or states, entries may have to be added or removed from the phone book. Likewise, entries will have to be modified for people changing names, addresses, or telephone numbers, and so on. Figure 1.1 illustrates a simple database.

Figure 1.1 The database.

An Introduction to the Relational Database

A relational database is a database divided into logical units called tables, where tables are related to one another within the database. A relational database allows data to be broken down into logical, smaller, manageable units, allowing for easier maintenance and providing more optimal database performance according to the level of organization. In Figure 1.2, you can see that tables are related to one another through a common key (data value) in a relational database.

Again, tables are related in a relational database, allowing adequate data to be retrieved in a single query (although the desired data may exist in more than one table). By having common keys, or fields, among relational database tables, data from multiple tables can be joined to form one large result set. As you venture deeper into this book, you see more of a relational database's advantages, including overall performance and easy data access.

Figure 1.2 The relational database.

A relational database is a database composed of related objects, primarily tables. A table is the most basic means of storage for data in a database.

An Introduction to Client/Server Technology

In the past, the computer industry was predominately ruled by mainframe computers; large, powerful systems capable of high storage capacity and high data processing capabilities. Users communicated with the mainframe through dumb terminals—terminals that did not think on their own, but relied solely on the mainframe's CPU, storage, and memory. Each terminal had a data line attached to the mainframe. The mainframe environment definitely served its purpose, and does today in many businesses, but a greater technology was soon to be introduced: the client/server model.

In the client/server system, the main computer, called the server, is accessible from a network—typically a local area network (LAN) or a wide area network (WAN). The server is normally accessed by personal computers (PCs) or by other servers, instead of dumb terminals. Each PC, called a client, is provided access to the network, allowing communication between the client and the server, thus explaining the name client/server. The main difference between client/server and mainframe environments is that the user's PC in a client/server environment is capable of thinking on its own, capable of running its own processes using its own CPU and memory, but readily accessible to a server computer through a network. In most cases, a client/server system is much more flexible for today's overall business needs and is much preferred.

Modern database systems reside on various types of computer systems with various operating systems. The most common types of operating systems are Windows-based systems and common line systems such as UNIX. Databases reside mainly in client/server and Web environments. A lack of training and experience is the main reason for failed implementations of database systems. Nevertheless, an understanding of the client/server model and Web-based systems is imperative with the rising (and sometimes unreasonable) demands placed on today's businesses as well as the development of Internet technologies and network computing. Figure 1.3 illustrates the concept of client/server technology.

Figure 1.3 The client/server model.

An Introduction to Web-Based Database Systems

Business information systems are moving toward Web integration. Databases are now accessible through the Internet, meaning that customers' access to an organization's information is enabled through an internet browser such as Internet Explorer or Netscape. Customers (users of data) are able to order merchandise, check on inventories, check on the status of orders, make administrative changes to accounts, transfer money from one account to another, and so forth.

A customer simply invokes an Internet browser, goes to the organization's Web site, logs in (if required by the organization), and uses an application built into the organization's Web page to access data. Most organizations require users to register with them, and will issue a login and password to the customer.

Of course, there are many things that occur behind the scenes when a database is being accessed via a Web browser. SQL, for instance, can be executed by the Web application. This executed SQL is used to access the organization's database, return data to the Web server, and then return that data to the customer's Internet browser.

The basic structure of a Web-based database system is similar to that of a client server system from a user's standpoint. Refer to Figure 1.3. Each user has a client machine, which has a connection to the Internet and contains a Web browser. The network in Figure 1.3 (in the case of a Web-based database) just happens to be the Internet, as opposed to a local network. For the most part, a client is still accessing a server for information. It doesn't matter that the server may exist in another state, or even another country. The main point of Web-based database systems is to expand the potential customer base of a database system that knows no physical location bounds, thus increasing data availability and an organization's customer base.

Some Popular Relational Database Vendors

Some of the most predominant database vendors include Oracle, Microsoft, Informix, Sybase, and IBM. These vendors distribute various versions of the relational database for a significant cost. There are many other vendors who supply an open source version of an SQL database (relational database). Some of these vendors include MySQL, PostgresSQL, and SAP. Although there are many more vendors than those mentioned, this list includes names that you may have recognized on the bookshelf, in the newspaper, in magazines, on the stock market, or on the World Wide Web.

Differences Between Implementations

As each individual in this world is unique in both features and nature, so is each vendor-specific implementation of SQL. A database server is a product, like any other product on the market, manufactured by a widespread number of vendors. It is to the benefit of the vendor to ensure that its implementation is compliant with the current ANSI standard for portability and user convenience. For instance, if a company is migrating from one database server to another, it would be rather discouraging for the database users to have to learn another language to maintain functionality with the new system.

With each vendor's SQL implementation, however, you find that there are enhancements that serve the purpose for each database server. These enhancements, or extensions, are additional commands and options that are simply a bonus to the standard SQL package and available with a specific implementation.

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