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Database Elaborations

Database Elaborations explores the human side of building and managing databases. The discussion revolves around data modeling as a semantic process, and how normalization only functions within a business rule context. Communication is hard; the meaning of everything is more fluid than we might wish to admit. Large gaps between logical versus physical or theory versus implementation are always worth reflection.



Every few years we hear of one new idea or product that will surely bring death to the relational database, or death to the data warehouse, or death to something. It appears that many prefer to see death or at least they greatly enjoy planning for it. Often these finalities never seem to arrive.

Posted September 07, 2017

There is an old joke that a tourist in New York City is lost while sightseeing and notices a musician leaving a taxi; he walks up to the musician and asks, "How do you get to Carnegie Hall?" The musician responds, "Practice, practice, practice." Obviously, such jokes are doomed to obscurity as people now will simply use the navigation app on their phone. However, the advice itself, in its own way, will always be relevant—practice, practice, practice.

Posted August 09, 2017

For everyone normalizing their designs, just remember: There ain't no such thing as a partial foreign key. When a project pretends that partial foreign keys are a valid concept, the end result is a database model that either lies to viewers, or does not give them the necessary information to readily join tables together.

Posted July 05, 2017

Updating fact rows inside a star schema set of tables is never a best practice. Even so, some organizations travel down this path.

Posted June 01, 2017

Choices are pervasive when designing a database. The data modeler must progress through a series of issues: What ideas are important? Which objects stand out? Which concepts can take a back seat? Adding to all those decisions comes understanding the target structures one is shooting at. A normalized design may lean one way, while a dimensional design may lean another.

Posted May 05, 2017

It often seems that working around things is a full-time task in every area of information technology. When workarounds are conceived and deployed, people are not always in agreement.

Posted April 07, 2017

Many businesses seem to believe that dimension tables and reference tables are indistinguishable objects. Apparently, the only difference worthy of note seems to be altering the object's name from "something reference," or "something xref," to "something dimension." As these organizations build multidimensional data marts, they often place a view on top of their reference table and feel good about how quickly and efficiently they complete their data mart.

Posted March 02, 2017

At one of my very first jobs in the service industry, I had a boss who had a variation on an old adage. He would say, "The customer is not always right. In fact many times the customer is dead wrong; but the customer is always the customer." In a similar way, in data modeling, business users and internal IT users, make the world go around. If they don't use the models that are designed, or worse, if they cannot relate to the designed data models, then what value has been delivered?

Posted February 08, 2017

There was a time when what you saw was what you got. Building up the components of a business intelligence area was very straight-forward. A staging area was a staging area; an operational data store was an operational data store. But like buying a pitcher of beer for $2, or gas for less than a dollar per gallon, those days are gone. The dynamics have changed, things are more federated, and IT must accept more than one standard tool.

Posted January 03, 2017

Terms such as "active," "inactive," and "canceled" may seem mundane and inconsequential, and when folks hear the term,"valid values," their eyes glaze and expectations of interest diminish. But exciting or not, reference values and an understanding of them are important to every organization.

Posted December 01, 2016

Why is there such pervasive abuse and misuse of database views today? Views are a helpful tool in building a business intelligence environment, yet many organizations establish practices that not only rob views of their full usefulness but present patterns that actually confuse issues instead.

Posted November 02, 2016

One symptom of an organization in the middle of a knowledge vacuum is evidenced by SQL that often includes what appears to be extravagant usage of the GROUP BY clause. Writing GROUP BYs here, there, and everywhere becomes a little SQL development dance step, a jitterbug to bypass the issue—moving but not really getting anywhere. Why do these kinds of circumstances exist? Well, maybe the only expert on the involved system has retired and no one else has picked up the torch, so no one is willing to touch the code.

Posted October 07, 2016

Programming is a literal sport. Code does exactly what it is configured to do, no compromises. When the definition of a task is fuzzy, it is up to the developer to do what they believe is correct. Does the code reflect what is desired? That answer is left open to interpretation. Sadly, developers may not have a clear understanding, and even the users requesting the solution may not be sure. The results can be very painful for an organization. Expectations may not align with the delivered solutions. Users will blame IT; IT will blame users.

Posted September 02, 2016

As one works through the normal forms, be it a journey to the placid shores of third normal, or the more arid climes of Boyce-Codd normal form, or even the cloudy peaks of fourth normal and beyond—and before one starts thinking about normalizing the design—the database designer has covered a lot of ground work already. Before thinking of normalizing, one needs to have conceptualized the relations that might be within the solution's scope.

Posted August 04, 2016

In the data warehousing arena, development databases often get short shrift. Frequently, this situation arises because development databases are considered too much work to be done properly. So, instead of embracing the problem and following through on the necessary work, it is ignored or done poorly. One could almost say that ignoring the development database has become the standard practice.

Posted July 12, 2016

Many of the NoSQL tools out there, such as MongoDB, Couchbase, Hadoop, and others, purport to be leading a revolution and breaking the bonds of servitude to the restrictive, inflexible, established, relational market. They claim users need more, users need better … and they are there to help. Of course, when speaking about those relational flaws, the comments always focus on problematic aspects of a DBMS' physical implementation.

Posted June 09, 2016

Not too long ago, IT embraced the pattern language concepts of Christopher Alexander. Being an architect, of the more traditional variety, his ideas were based on creating spaces in which people felt good, even if they didn't comprehend exactly why. Architected spaces need to express multiple qualities that include being alive, whole, comforting, free, exact, egoless, and eternal. The more those qualities were embodied, the better people responded to the desirability of the space.

Posted May 04, 2016

The traditional information engineering approach advocates the placement of as much business logic as possible inside the database management system (DBMS). But, more recently, under the umbrella of service-oriented architecture (SOA), folks are arguing for placement of that business logic in a layer of code outside the DBMS. Occasionally, those who favor locating business logic outside the DBMS have even gone so far as to say that this logic "naturally" belongs in a non-DBMS-supported layer.

Posted March 31, 2016

When it comes to operational, third normal form approaches, too many database models today have very low levels of business veracity. This is because current IT trends work against incorporating too much truth inside the entity-relationship diagram. Instead, development teams center on the finished product and excessively worry about describing a solution rather than describing the actual organization.

Posted March 03, 2016

Many people claim to understand the basics of good data and database hygiene. Often, these same people claim it is all very simple and very obvious. However, when peering into existing code and databases, it doesn't seem that good practices are as obvious as people say. "A2" as the name of a column may sound ridiculous, but it has happened.

Posted February 10, 2016

Data modelers must look at the big picture of an organization's data ecosystem to ensure additions and changes fit in properly. Simultaneously, each data modeler must be focused on the minute details, adhering to naming standards, domain rules, data type practices, still remaining ever vigilant for instilling consistency across everything they do. And while focused on all of the above, their efforts must culminate in a practical model that serves the individual project's requirements while also being implementable, maintainable, and extensible.

Posted January 07, 2016

Our data models, in reflecting a specific business, must accurately portray the essence of each business. The unique reality within each organization drives the shape of every data model. The logical meaning of each data element originates with what is actually done and how it is accomplished within that particular organization.

Posted December 02, 2015

Many neophyte data modelers have trouble distinguishing between logical and physical data models. These novices likely cannot explain why each model exists, or the differences expressed between them. Sadly, such confusion also exists in the realm of the experienced data modeler. Not to say an experienced data modeler can't express the difference between a logical and a physical data model; but across a group of experienced data modelers one would not get a consistent answer.

Posted November 09, 2015

The Agile methodology is great for getting turgid development teams to start working faster and more coherently. With Agile, which focuses on more rapid, incremental deliverables and cross-departmental collaboration, the bureaucratic plaque is flushed from the information technology groups' arteries. But there is a dark side to Agile approaches.

Posted October 07, 2015

Data modelers face a choice when encountering multiple variations of a data item. Designers must focus on the longer term appropriateness of their decisions when choosing how their designs will play out; and going vertical or horizontal does have an impact over time.

Posted September 09, 2015

There are fundamental differences in priorities and approaches in building operational solutions and in constructing analytical supporting solutions. However, these differences can produce a gap in understanding that occasionally results in minor battles and skirmishes between these groups along the path of getting work done. A critical area of conflict is access to production data. When building an operationally focused solution such as a website, the application is supreme.

Posted August 10, 2015

Data governance is a touchy subject. Many organizations have tried to build a practice…and failed. Other organizations feel too daunted to even try. IT in particular has a very conflicted relationship with data governance.

Posted July 08, 2015

Petabytes, and more, of data are meaningless without guides to what it all is. Future data users need to know where it came from, how it was filtered, and how it was transformed. Without some functional level of governance we are headed toward a "datapocalypse"—having lots of content but little of value.

Posted June 09, 2015

The objects and relationships identified within any database design need to match with the very subjective realities considered true within a given organization. An optimal data model must incorporate the semantics of the business and provide for a structural arrangement supporting the necessary corporate instrumentality. And that model should do so, even if in the details things within the model are contrary to what other organizations may consider to be the nature of their reality.

Posted May 14, 2015

How does an organization acknowledge that data is important? An organization does so by enabling and supporting efforts for gathering and persisting information about the organization's data resources.

Posted April 06, 2015

In information services, providing a solution that removes a user's pain can be a great boost to one's psyche. Being the hero, wins trust, and may even enhance job security. However, organizationally, too many sideline heroics create chaos. The day after the crisis has passed, things are left in a less than wonderful state.

Posted March 12, 2015

In the early days of data warehousing, lines were very simple. The data warehouse reflected the business. In providing this reflection, data was summarized, data was cleansed, data was standardized, and data was even drastically reformatted for legibility and reporting usage. But, the big rule of thumb, the never-to-be-crossed line, was that the data warehouse did not create new data.

Posted February 11, 2015

Many designers seem to approach a database design as if there is a single objective reality that circumscribes all truth and that happens to align with exactly how they see the world. Honestly, is it expected that there is an absolute truth for everything? And that single absolute truth goes from the highest level of abstraction to the lowest level of detail?

Posted January 07, 2015

Shunryu Suzuki, in his classic book, Zen Mind, Beginner's Mind, tells us that in the beginner's mind there are many possibilities, but in the expert's mind there are few. Both a beginner's and an expert's perspective have value, but bias toward either an expert or a beginner approach seems to consume an organization far too often.

Posted December 03, 2014

Big data tool vendors try to downplay the notion that data warehouses and data marts still need to exist, even in a big data world. Relational DBMSs are painted as "old-fashioned," "yesterday," and "inadequate." They beckon potential customers to take a dip in the refreshing data lake. The fact that big data, in all of its glory, is only part of a larger business intelligence solution is getting lost in the dialog.

Posted November 12, 2014

It is fair to say that relational theory is the only solid framework for establishing a rational expression of data that falls anywhere inside the boundaries of formal logic. As people continue to laud the "death of relational" by coming up with one or other "new" physical implementations of coding or data engines, from object-oriented, XML, columnar, or anything else one might name, the primary short-coming is that these are physical implementations that avoid having any formalized logic underpinning them.

Posted October 08, 2014

"On occasion, the inmates actually do take over the asylum. Similarly, business personnel can be defeated by their IT peers," writes Todd Schraml. Although some might argue that such an unexpected role reversal cannot happen, it may indeed occur when data architects skilled in their craft can identify the options that help achieve the business goals, versus those alternatives that stifle the business goals. "A good data architect must also be a very good business analyst," he notes.

Posted September 10, 2014

A healthy data warehouse environment can self-correct to accomplish the right things. And that self-correction is crucial, for no process is likely to be perfect from the start.

Posted August 05, 2014

Commitment to the creation of a business intelligence environment means embracing a well-measured and thoughtful allocation of resources with the right skills, the right tools, the right scope, and the right timelines

Posted July 03, 2014

How does one tame the data beast to start making tangible progress toward an organization's business intelligence goals? For any progress to occur on the business intelligence-side, tasks, projects and goals need to be fashioned into small steps along a much larger path.

Posted June 11, 2014

Finding the means to harmonize conflicting processing requirements is where a design comes alive. When done well, providing symmetry to a suite of processes greatly empowers those who develop and maintain those processes; changes and enhancement arise seemingly in the blink of an eye. In ETL, there are three key principles to driving exceptional design.

Posted May 08, 2014

Denormalization of a database design is a legitimate tool, when used appropriately. However, it is simply sad and sometimes even silly to see designs denormalized as a matter of course.

Posted April 04, 2014

Historical content within data structures increases their complexity. Making complexity "easy" for the initial developers and "harder" for the later users is a short-sighted approach.

Posted March 12, 2014

In many organizations, users find it hard to trust their own internal information technology (IT) group, leading them to try any possible option to solve problems own their own. The resulting stealth IT projects can lead to confusion or even complete chaos.

Posted February 10, 2014

Changes and enhancement to solutions are hard, even under the best of circumstances. It is not usual that, as operational changes roll out into production, the business intelligence area is left uninformed, suggesting that data warehouses and business intelligence be categorized according to the view of the old comedian Rodney Dangerfield because they both "get no respect."

Posted January 07, 2014

In the world of database products, trends seem to pop up quickly, like prairie dogs testing the air. However, regardless of the marketing jargon, or platform, vendor-product purchased, or open source utility downloaded, the one thing that remains unaltered is that in order to extract value from data, the data must be understood. The individuals within any organization who actually comprehend the data, the data structures, and all the exceptions to the usual rules are individuals who are considered critical resources.

Posted December 04, 2013

Changes to database structures should be performed in a coordinated fashion as the application processes that support the new functionality are rolled out into production. While the "work" involved in adding a column or a table to a relational database is actually minimal, often there are circumstances where developers and DBAs create additional columns and additional tables in anticipation of future needs. Sadly, this "proactive" effort results in databases littered with half-formed ideas, fits-and-starts, and scattered-about columns and tables that provide no meaningful content.

Posted November 13, 2013

How does one avoid the semantically wishy-washy use of NULL-surrogates and instead, actually design structures wherein NULLs are not necessary?

Posted October 09, 2013

Database management systems support numerous unique date and time functions - and while the date-related functions are many, they do not go far enough. One date-driven circumstance often encountered has to do with objects having a type of date range that needs to be associated with it. While there are some exceptions, this date range need generally ends up implemented via two distinct date columns—one signaling the "start" and the other designating the "end." Maybe, should the creative juices of DBMS builders' flow, such things as numeric-range-datatypes could be created in addition to a date-range data-type. Who knows where things could end up?

Posted September 11, 2013

Data models attempt to express the business rules of an organization. A good data model reflects the semantics used within an organization to such an extent that business people within that organization can relate to and easily agree with what is being expressed. In this regard the data modeler's goal is to properly mirror back the organization's concepts onto those people within the organization. The goal is not to force an organization into a "standard" data model, nor is the goal to abstract everything in the creation of a master model that will never need to change even if the business rules were drastically shifted.

Posted August 07, 2013

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