At the Forge - Shoehorning Data into a Database

Databases make the world go round, but sometimes fitting a round data peg into a square database hole is less than ideal. What's a programmer to do?

Relational databases are really great for storing and retrieving data, but sometimes, they aren't quite up to the task. Joe Celko, whose SQL for Smarties books are among my favorites, dedicated an entire volume to the issue of trees and hierarchies. These data structures might be common and useful in most programming languages, but they can be difficult to model as tables, particularly if you care about efficient use of the database. Things become even trickier if you're dealing with a number of related, but distinct, types of entities, such as different types of employees or different types of vehicles.

One way to solve this problem is not to use relational databases. Objects can be quite good at handling trees and arrays, as well as inheritance hierarchies. Furthermore, object databases do exist, and the Python-based Zope application framework has demonstrated that it's even possible to have object databases in production. Gemstone's demonstration of Ruby running on top of its Smalltalk VM, with its accompanying object database, means that Ruby programmers soon might have access to similar technology.

But, object databases still are far from the mainstream. Most Web developers have access to a relational database, and not much else. Is there anything that we can do for these people?

This month, we take a look at two different ways we can handle data that doesn't quite fit into a relational database. These techniques are quite different from one another, and they don't even come close to the full range of possibilities you can get with a relational database. But, they both work and are used in production environments—and if your data doesn't seem to fit into standard database paradigms, you might want to consider one of them.

PostgreSQL's Table Inheritance

Some data-modeling issues are typically even harder to deal with. For example, a classic introduction to the world of object-oriented programming describes a human resources department. The HR department tracks employees, all of whom have some common characteristics. But, some employees are programmers, some are secretaries, and some are managers—and each of the employee types has specific data that needs to be associated with them.

In an object-oriented world, it's easy to model this. You create an employee class, and then create multiple subclasses of programmer, secretary and manager. Subclassing creates an “is-a” relationship, such that a programmer is an employee. This means that programmers have all the attributes of an employee, but also have some additional characteristics that distinguish them from an ordinary employee. With these subclasses in place, we then can create an array (or any other data structure) of people in our company, knowing that although some are programmers and others are secretaries, they're all employees and can be treated as such.

Translating this idea to the world of relational databases can be a bit tricky. One solution is to use inheritance in your database tables. PostgreSQL has done this for years; thus, it's called an object-relational database by many users. You can do the following in PostgreSQL, for example:

CREATE TABLE Employees (
    id            SERIAL,
    first_name    TEXT    NOT NULL,
    last_name     TEXT    NOT NULL,
    email_address TEXT    NOT NULL,

    PRIMARY KEY(id),

CREATE TABLE Programmers (
    main_language    TEXT    NOT NULL
) INHERITS(Employees);

CREATE TABLE Secretaries (
    words_per_minute    INTEGER    NOT NULL
) INHERITS(Employees);

INSERT INTO Employees (first_name, last_name, email_address)
    VALUES ('George', 'Washington', '');

INSERT INTO Programmers (first_name, last_name,
                         email_address, main_language)
    VALUES ('Linus', 'Torvalds', '', 'C');

INSERT INTO Secretaries (first_name, last_name,
                         email_address, words_per_minute)
    VALUES ('Condoleezza', 'Rice', '', 10);

If we ask for all employees in the system, we'll get all three of the people we have entered:

atf=# select * from employees;
 id | first_name | last_name  |     email_address
  1 | George     | Washington |
  2 | Linus      | Torvalds   |
  3 | Condoleezza| Rice       |
(3 rows)

Of course, this query shows only the columns of the Employees table, which are common to that table and to those that inherit from it. If we want to find out how many words per minute someone types, we must address that query specifically to the Secretaries table:

atf=# select * from secretaries;
 id | first_name | last_name | email_address  | words_per_minute
  3 | Condoleezza| Rice      | |               10
(1 row)

Notice that the id column for all three tables, which was defined as SERIAL (that is, a nonrepeating incrementing integer), is unique across all three tables.