NULLs Data Model and SQL Smells

Nulls - An SQL Smell?
Nulls – An SQL Smell?

NULLs are a perennial problem. Nobody likes them. They confuse developers and users and many analysts do not really understand them.

The concept of NULL allows us to say that there are things that we do not know.

In his article on SQL Smells, Phil Factor associates several smells with NULLs. In this post I’ll explain how to avoid using NULLs and how to use them properly when they are necessary.

Why do we need NULLs at all? What is the benefit and what is the cost?

NULL has a simple meaning with wide-ranging and surprising consequences. NULL means the value is unknown. And this in turn means that the result of any calculation or concatenation which uses this value must also be unknown!

NULL is a feature of SQL. The benefit of allowing NULL or “three valued logic” (TRUE/FALSE/UNKNOWN) is that it allows a database to record that there are things we do not know. The cost of having them is that any calculation or concatenation which uses this value must also be unknown! This confuses many people.

Reasons for needing NULL

There are many reasons why we might not have data to put into a column. Thinking about why we are considering defining a column as NULLable will encourage us to consider alternatives.

The structural NULL – Permanent sub-types

Customer with Sub-types which may cause NULLs
Customer with Sub-types which may cause NULLs

Sometimes we want to combine two entities into a single “super-type” table. There are attributes of Person will never be used for Business (and vice-versa). These missing values will need NULLs.

The structural NULL – Lifecycle subtypes

Order with Lifecycle sub-types which may cause NULLs
Order with Lifecycle sub-types which may cause NULLs

Something similar can happen if we combine all the steps of a entities lifecycle into a single table. The attributes of the later stages will always be empty (NULL) until that stage is reached. These later steps often contain dates or times.

In both cases involving sub-types it may be possible to splitting the sub-types into separate tables. Consider whether it is worth the effort and make sure you avoid the pitfalls of sub-types in SQL.

Data that will never be there

Attributes and Values for an "Address"
Attributes and Values for an “Address”

Entities like “Address” are frequently modelled with attributes like “AddressLine_”. In many cases there will never be values for the later lines. They will not be mandatory in the user interface, but do they need to be NULL? Consider whether allowing them to default to “spaces” or an empty string, would be better and whether it would have any bad effects.

Things which should never allow NULL

Always decide whether you expect an attribute to have a value. Don’t leave it to chance.

There are some things which should hardly ever allow NULL. This includes all keys and identifiers. Avoid allowing short titles or descriptions to be NULL (For long descriptions allowing NULLs is understandable).

Unavoidable NULLs

Attributes and Values for a "Person" Entity - Sometimes NULL is hard to avoid
Attributes and Values for a “Person” Entity – Sometimes NULL is hard to avoid

There are some attributes where allowing NULL is hard to avoid. Life insurance and pensions companies may need a “date of death” for their customers! Having a column with allows NULL is often the easiest way of handling this.

You should resist the temptation to use “magic dates” or inappropriate data-types in order to avoid allowing NULL. The consequences are far worse than the problem.

Summary

NULLs are a problem, nobody likes them but they are necessary. Many problems with NULLs can be avoided by two rules:

  • Remember that NULL means “unknown value” and this has consequences.
  • Ask “_why_ don’t we have this data?”

In many cases NULLs can be avoided by data modelling – that means the analyst has to do work in the Conceptual or Logical Model.

Where next?

The next article is about another smell: having the same name for different things!

Indexes, Analysts and SQL Smells

SQL Indexes - A Goldilocks problem for analysts or an SQL Smell
SQL Indexes – A Goldilocks problem for analysts or an SQL Smell

Database Indexes are something which a lot of analysts ignore as being “too technical”. This is a pity.

Several SQL Smells in Phil Factor’s article point at possible bad decisions. Thinking in the  Logical Model can improve these decisions.

Choosing the correct indexes is a typical “Goldilocks Problem”: not too few, not too many, just the right number! Bad or inadequate requirements will contribute to designers making bad decisions. Phil Factor describes having the wrong indexes as an SQL Smell!

What is an Index and what does it do for us?

If you are an analyst, you may not know exactly what an index is. In non-technical terms, an index provides a quick way for the database manager to find the rows it needs in a table. There are several sorts of index.

An index is a “thing” in its own right. An index takes up space in the database. Updating an index costs effort. The main benefit of an index is that it makes select or read operations faster.

Types: Unique, Non-Unique, Clustered

There are three main kinds of index: Unique, Non-Unique and Clustered.

Imagine that we have a very simply database consisting of 3 tables:

  • Customer (not shown in the diagram)
  • Order
  • OrderLine
Two tables: Order and OrderLine - Where to put the indexes?
Two tables: Order and OrderLine – Where to put the indexes?

Unique Indexes:

Candidate Unique Indexes on an "Order" SQL table
Candidate Unique Indexes on an “Order” SQL table

In the Order table we can see three columns which might be used to identify the order

If you are not familiar with GUIDs, they are a way of assigning identifiers or “keys”. They are worth finding out about. It would be unusual to expect a human being to type in a GUID. An “OrderNum” (which paradoxically might contain letters!) would be more convenient for the users.

We expect all three: OrderId, GUID and OrderNum, to be unique. Therefore, all three are candidates for Unique Indexes. If an application attempts to create a duplicate value in a column which has a unique index, then the database manager will raise an error and reject the transaction.

Non-Unique Indexes for Foreign Keys

Candidate Indexes on an "OrderLine" SQL table
Candidate Indexes on an “OrderLine” SQL table

In the OrderLine table you can see two columns which identify things in other tables: OrderId and ProductId. These are Foreign Keys. In this case we cannot say they are unique, but they are candidates for non-unique indexes.

We could also have used OrderNum or OrderGUID as Foreign Keys into Order.

It is good practice for the rows in the OrderLine table to have a unique identifier. There are two common ways of doing this.

  • We can assign an OrderLineId (which is unique across the whole table) or
  • we can use the combination of OrderId and OrderLineNum which together would identify a row.

In this example, both OrderLineId and the OrderId and OrderLineNum combination are (seperate) candidate unique indexes.

Clustered Indexes

The order of the rows in an SQL table is specified by the Clustered Index. Each table can have only one clustered index. The clustered index must be unique.

People often make the “primary key” the clustered index, but it is worth considering other options. In the example, OrderLines can be added to an order after it has been created.

Using the OrderId, OrderLineNum index as the clustered index would make the database store all the “lines” for one order together (whenever they were added to the order). That may be more efficient for retrieval. Phil Factor identifies two smells with the choice of clustered indexes.

Non-Unique Indexes for Searching

Candidate Indexes on a "Customer" SQL table - A Non-Unique index on Name would help searches
Candidate Indexes on a “Customer” SQL table – A Non-Unique index on Name would help searches

Columns which will be used for searching should be considered candidates for a non-unique index.

The role of Analysts in choosing Indexes and Index types

Indexes are usually specified in the “Physical Model”. The analyst can help the database designer make the right decisions, by applying a little thought. The analyst should not try to pre-empt the designers decisions. They should aim to assist by identifying relevant “candidates”.

"<yoastmark

Summary

Indexes enforce business rules like uniqueness in an SQL database. They influence database performance. Considering candidate indexes in the Logical Model and even the Conceptual Model will help database designers make better decisions.

Where next?

The next article is about the smell of nothing, or “Nulls”. Nulls present problems for developers and database designers.

Problems with “God Objects” or very wide tables

Wide Tables, Wide SQL Tables
Wide SQL Tables

One of the “SQL smells” Phil Factor identifies in his article is the presence of “God Objects” in your Database or design. I agree with him, except that I would call them “very wide tables”. If you find them, then you may have a problem with the Conceptual Model you are using, or possibly t you should be considering using a different tool. In other words, you have a problem with your requirements. You have a “Requirements Smell”.

How many columns make a “God Object” or wide table?

How many columns can you have in an SQL table?
How many columns can you have in an SQL table?

Let’s start with the obvious question: How many columns make a “God Object” or wide table? The maximum number of columns you are allowed to have in a table varies with database manager. For example:

What the actual numbers are can depend on a lot of technical things. One hundred is still a big number.

Database management software will handle wide tables up to their limits. As with most things, when you approach the limit you will start to encounter difficulties, but that is missing the point. Even 100 columns may indicate a problem.

Why are “God Objects” or wide tables a problem?

Wide tables or "God objects" are a problem which originates in the Conceptual Model

The reasons with “God Objects” or wide tables cause an SQL Smell are technical, practical and what you might term business, or even philosophical problems. I’m a Business Analyst, so I’m going to start from the “Conceptual” end, with the Requirements for the database, and then look at the problems which these tables may cause in Development and then when the system is in operation. Also remember, that if we eliminate problems at the conceptual end, then we’re not going to encounter them further on. Wide tables are most certainly a problem with starts at the “Conceptual Model” stage.

”Conceptual Model” or philosophical problems

Each row in a relational table is supposed to represent something. The “something” may be a concrete object in the real world, or it may be something abstract like a contract or a transaction. Would you be able to explain to the users of your system, or your business owners what a single row represents? If not, you are likely to encounter problems.

Thinking about the columns in this wide table, each column is contains a value. How are you going to present or update those values? 1000 fields would make for a very busy screen. Even some sort of graphical representation is likely to be complex. Do your users really need to see all this data together? While there isn’t a rule which says that the whole of an entity has to be presented on a single screen, or as a single report, it has to represent something. Finally, every column in a row provides one value for one thing at one time. Is that really so in your wide table?

Problems during development

“God objects” or wide tables encourage handling one big lump of data. That in turn is going to encourage the creation of complicated code. Maybe life would be easier for everyone if the data and the process descriptions were much more focused.

If you are in an Analyst role, then think about how you are going to explain what should (and should not) be happening with all these columns.

Remember, SQL tables have no concept of “grouping” of the columns. The columns have an order, but it is not something you should be relying on. If you can form columns into groups, then you should probably consider “normalizing” them into other tables.

Problems in operation

“God objects” or wide tables can cause problems when the system is being used. The volume of data each row contains may cause performance problems when rows are read from the table, when rows are updated and when new rows are created.

Why do we get “God objects”?

Wide tables often start from trying to convert large and complex paper forms or spreadsheets straight into table designs. It seems like a good idea at first, but it can get bogged down in unexpected complexity.

Think about your least favourite paper form, especially if it runs to several pages – maybe it’s a tax return or something similar. Obviously the physical form represents something. If you were specifying a system to work with it, then you would be tempted to have a single table where each row represented a single form, there was a column for every question and each cell contained one person’s answer to a question. It would be just like an enormous spreadsheet. Some early commercial computer systems were like that. They worked but they were inflexible.

One clue that something is going wrong (apart from the number of columns) is the number of columns which need to allow “NULL” values. How many times does “Not Applicable” appear when you are filling in the paper form?

How do we solve the problem of the wide table?

The answer is to think about what all these columns mean and then start applying Data Modelling or normalization techniques to break the data into more manageable and useable chunks. If you can from groups of columns then those groups may be candidate entities and therefore candidate tables.

If you need to use the order of similar columns then maybe you should be considering a different table design like the “Entity Attribute Value” (MVP) Pattern. But beware, because that can give rise to a bad smell too!

Excuses for “God Objects” and wide tables

Nothing in Information Technology is ever clear-cut. There are usually grey areas. One person may regard a table as too wide and another may regard it as OK. There is always room for some discussion. There are times when using a table that is a little wider than we would normally like is acceptable. Here are some of the reasons (or maybe that should be excuses) that you may here for wide tables.

  • It gets all the work done in one place, so that other programs can use the data. I don’t really buy this one. I suspect that someone is guessing what these other programs need. If the guess is wrong then someone is going to have to re-design the big, wide table. I continue to maintain that having discrete data and performing discrete actions is better.
  • Here is a specific case I found where someone wanted to retrieve data from 2000 sensors. This is a case where using something other than a relational database might be better in the first instance. Depending on the details it might also be a case where using the Entity Attribute Value (EAV) model is appropriate as well.
  • We are being given the data in the wide form from another system. This excuse I will accept, because it is really being imposed as an external requirement. But! If you need to do this, then you will need to do the work of working out what all those many columns mean, and you may have to break the wide row down into constituent parts.

Where next?

That’s addressed the “God Object” or “Wide table” smell. I’ve already mentioned the “Entity Attribute Value” (EAV) model a couple of times. I’m going to address why that may be give rise to a bad smell in the next post.

Requirements Smells make SQL Smells!

 

Your SQL smells because your Requirements smell!
Your SQL smells because your Requirements smell!

Recently I read an article by Phil Factor on the subject of “SQL Smells”. Phil (apparently not his real name), identifies a number of “smells” which he thinks indicate that a database design or SQL code needs to be reviewed. He classifies some of these as “Problems with Database Design”. I would go further and say some of them are problems with database requirements! In other words, your SQL smells because your Requirements smell!

“Requirements Smells cause SQL smells!”

I no longer claim to be a “Developer” and I have never claimed to be a DBA (Database Administrator), though I have found myself in the position of being an “accidental DBA”. The thought that Requirements could smell bad concerned me.

This realisation made me think about problems with Requirements in general and problems with databases in particular. It is better to avoid a problem rather than cure it, so I’m writing a series of blog posts on how to recognise problems in Requirements and prevent them from becoming “SQL Smells”.

Database design and SQL smells

Any computer system contains a “model” of the world it works with. This model forms the foundations of the system. If the system does not contain a concept, then it cannot work with it!

A simplified database design process
A simplified database design process

When people start to create a system they have to decide what concepts their system needs. This is the “Conceptual Model”. This model is transformed through a “Logical Model” until it finally becomes the “Physical Model”, which is the design for the database. The Conceptual and Logical models are not just first-cut versions of the Physical Model, different design decisions and compromises are made at each stage.
This is nothing to do with “Waterfall”, “Agile” or anything to do with any specific development process. In fact, this approach is pretty universal, whether formally or not. Some people combine the different stages, but there are risks to doing that.

A simple way of looking at the Conceptual Model is to say that it is concerned with finding out:

  • What the business and system need: at the conceptual stage these are known as “Entities”
  • What we need to know about those things: these are the “Attributes” of the Entities
  • We also need to document “Business Rules”: some of these will be represented as “Relationships”.

During the design and development process:

  • Entities will tend to become table definitions
  • Attributes will become the columns within those tables
  • Business Rules may become so-called “constraints”.
Different Requirements become affect different aspects of the database
Different Requirements become affect different aspects of the database

A poor Conceptual Model or bad design decisions can lead to systems which are difficult to build, maintain and use, and which do not perform well either. Once again,

“Requirements Smells will cause SQL Smells”

The idea of “smells” can help us address potential problems earlier and more cheaply.

Where are these “Requirements smells”?

I’m going to group my bad smells in a slightly different way to Phil Factor. I primarily work as a Business Analyst, so I am going to concentrate on “smells” to look for at the Conceptual and Logical Stages of specifying the Requirements for a database, starting with the smell that Phil describes as “The God Object”!

Will losing constraints set you free?

I’ve been busy with a project, I’ve finally got round to writing this a week later than I intended…
In a recent conversation, someone pointed out that people sometimes remove “constraints” from a database in order to improve performance. This made me ask myself:
Is this a good thing, or a bad thing?
I have to admit that this is a technical change that I have considered in the past. Never-the-less, I have mixed feelings about it.
After some thought, my opinion is:
  • For many situations a constraint is redundant. The fundamental structure of many applications means they are unlikely to create orphan rows.
  • The cost of the constraint is in the extra processing it causes during update operations. This cost is incurred every time a value in the constrained column is updated.
  • The benefit of a constraint is that it absolutely protects the constrained column from rogue values. This may be particularly relevant if the system has components (such as load utilities or interfaces with other systems) which by-pass the normal business transactions.
  • Other benefits of constraints are that they unequivocally state the “intention” of a relationship between tables and they allow diagramming tools which navigate the relationships to “do their thing”. Constraints provide good documentation, which is securely integrated with the database itself.
In short:
  • The costs of constraints are small, but constant and in the immediate term.
  • The benefits of constraints are avoiding a potentially large cost, but all in the future.
It’s the old “insurance” argument. Make the decision honestly based on a proper assessment of the real risk and your attitude to taking risks. Be lucky!

More Detailed Argument

For those who don’t just want to take my word for it. Here is a more detailed argument.
Let’s take the “business data model” of a pretty normal “selling” application.
When we perform the activities “Take Order” (maybe that should be “Take ORDER”), or “Update Order”
  • we create or update the ORDER and ORDER_LINE entities, and
  • in addition we refer to PRODUCT (to get availability and Price) and presumably to the CUSTOMER entity which isn’t shown on the diagram.
When I translate this into a Logical data model, I impose an additional rule “Every ORDER must contain at least 1 ORDER_LINE”. The original business model doesn’t impose this restriction.
Remember some people do allow ORDERs with no ORDER_LINES. They usually do it as part of a “reservation” or “priority process” which we are not going to try and have here.
When the transaction which creates the ORDER and ORDER_LINE makes it’s updates, then it will have read CUSTOMER and ORDER, so it is unlikely to produce orphan records, with or without constraints.
On the other hand, by having the constraints we can document the relationships in the database (so that a diagramming tool can produce the ERD diagram (really I suppose that should be “Table Relationship Diagram”)).
I am left wondering whether it would be possible or desirable to enforce my  “Every ORDER must contain at least 1 ORDER_LINE” rule. I’ll think about that further. (Note to self: Can this be represented as a constraint which does not impose unnecessary and unintended restrictions on creating an ORDER?)
If we don’t have constraints and we have something other than our transaction which is allowed to create ORDERs and/or ORDER_LINEs (As I said, typically this would be an interface with another system or some kind of bulk load), we have no way of knowing how reliably it does it’s checking, and we might be allowing things we really do not want into our system. Constraints would reject faulty records and the errors they created (or “threw”) could be trapped by the interface.