The goals of this article are to overview fundamental
data modeling skills that all developers should have, skills that can be applied
on both traditional projects that take a serial approach to agile projects that
take an evolutionary approach. My
personal philosophy is that every IT professional should have a basic
understanding of data modeling. They
don’t need to be experts at data modeling, but they should be prepared to be
involved in the creation of such a model, be able to read an existing data
model, understand when and when not to create a data model, and appreciate
fundamental data design techniques. This
article is a brief introduction to these skills.
The primary audience for this article is application developers who need
to gain an understanding of some of the critical activities performed by an
Agile DBA. This understanding
should lead to an appreciation of what Agile DBAs do and why they do them, and
it should help to bridge the communication gap between these two roles.
Table of Contents
- What is data modeling?
- How to model data
- Evolutionary/agile data modeling
to become better at modeling data
Data modeling is the act of exploring data-oriented
structures. Like other modeling
artifacts data models can be used for a variety of purposes, from high-level
conceptual models to physical data models.
From the point of view of an object-oriented developer data modeling is
conceptually similar to class modeling. With data modeling you identify entity types
whereas with class modeling you identify classes. Data attributes are assigned to entity types just as you
would assign attributes and operations to classes.
There are associations between entities, similar to the associations
between classes – relationships, inheritance, composition, and aggregation are
all applicable concepts in data modeling.
Traditional data modeling is different from class modeling because it focuses solely on
data – class models allow you to explore both the behavior and data aspects of
your domain, with a data model you can only explore data issues.
Because of this focus data modelers have a tendency to be much better at
getting the data “right" than object modelers. However, some people will
model database methods (stored procedures, stored functions, and triggers) when
they are physical data modeling. It depends on the situation of course,
but I personally think that this is a good idea and promote the concept in my
modeling profile (more on this later).
Although the focus of this article is data modeling, there are often
alternatives to data-oriented artifacts (never forget Agile Modeling’s Multiple
Models principle). For
example, when it comes to conceptual modeling
ORM diagrams aren’t your only
option – In addition to LDMs it is quite common for people to create
diagrams and even
Class Responsibility Collaborator (CRC) cards instead.
In fact, my experience is that CRC cards are superior to ORM diagrams
because it is very easy to get
project stakeholders actively involved in the
creation of the model. Instead of a traditional,
analyst-led drawing session you can
instead facilitate stakeholders through the creation of
Although methodology issues are covered later, we need to discuss how data models can be used in practice to
better understand them. You
are likely to see three basic styles of data model:
Although LDMs and PDMs sound very similar, and they in fact
are, the level of detail that they model can be significantly different. This is because the goals for each diagram is different
– you can use an LDM to explore domain concepts with your stakeholders and the
PDM to define your database design. Figure 1 presents a simple LDM and Figure
2 a simple PDM, both modeling the concept of customers and addresses as
well as the relationship between them.
diagrams apply the
Barker notation, summarized below.
Notice how the PDM shows greater detail, including an associative table
required to implement the association as well as the keys needed to maintain the
relationships. More on these
concepts later. PDMs should also
reflect your organization’s database naming standards, in this case an
abbreviation of the entity name is appended to each column name and an
abbreviation for “Number" was consistently introduced.
A PDM should also indicate the data types for the columns, such as
integer and char(5). Although
Figure 2 does not show them, lookup tables (also
called reference tables or description tables) for how the address is used as well
as for states and countries are implied by the attributes ADDR_USAGE_CODE,
STATE_CODE, and COUNTRY_CODE.
Figure 1. A simple
logical data model.
Figure 2. A simple
physical data model.
An important observation about Figures 1
and 2 is that I’m not slavishly following
Barker’s approach to naming relationships.
For example, between Customer and Address there really
should be two names “Each CUSTOMER may be located in one or more ADDRESSES"
and “Each ADDRESS may be the site of one or more CUSTOMERS".
Although these names explicitly define the relationship I personally
think that they’re visual noise that clutter the diagram.
I prefer simple names such as “has" and then trust my readers to
interpret the name in each direction. I’ll
only add more information where it’s needed, in this case I think that it
isn’t. However, a significant
advantage of describing the names the way that Barker suggests is that it’s a
good test to see if you actually understand the relationship – if you can’t
name it then you likely don’t understand it.
Data models can be used effectively at both the enterprise
level and on projects. Enterprise
architects will often create one or more high-level LDMs that depict the data
structures that support your enterprise, models typically referred to as
enterprise data models or enterprise information models.
An enterprise data model is one of several views that your
may choose to maintain and support – other views
may explore your network/hardware infrastructure, your organization structure,
your software infrastructure, and your business processes (to name a few).
Enterprise data models provide information that a project team can use
both as a set of constraints as well as important insights into the structure of
Project teams will typically create LDMs as a primary
analysis artifact when their implementation environment is predominantly
procedural in nature, for example they are using structured COBOL as an
implementation language. LDMs are
also a good choice when a project is data-oriented in nature, perhaps a
warehouse or reporting system is being developed (having said that,
experience seems to show that usage-centered approaches appear to work even
However LDMs are often a poor choice when a project team is using
object-oriented or component-based technologies because the developers would
rather work with UML diagrams or when the project is not
data-oriented in nature. As
the right artifact(s) for the
job. Or, as your grandfather likely advised you, use the
right tool for the job. It's important to note that traditional approaches
Master Data Management (MDM) will often motivate the creation
and maintenance of detailed LDMs, an effort that is rarely justifiable in
practice when you consider the total cost of ownership (TCO) when calculating
the return on investment (ROI) of those sorts of efforts.
relational database is used for data storage project
teams are best advised to create a PDMs to model its internal schema.
My experience is that a PDM is often one of the critical design artifacts
for business application development projects.
Conceptual data models. These models, sometimes called domain models, are typically used to
explore domain concepts with project stakeholders.
On Agile teams high-level conceptual models are often created as part of
initial requirements envisioning efforts as they are used to explore the
high-level static business structures and concepts. On traditional
teams conceptual data models are often created as the precursor to LDMs or
as alternatives to LDMs.
Logical data models (LDMs).
LDMs are used to explore the domain concepts, and their
relationships, of your problem domain.
This could be done for the scope of a single project or for your
entire enterprise. LDMs depict
the logical entity types, typically referred to simply as entity types, the
data attributes describing those entities, and the relationships between the
entities. LDMs are rarely used on Agile projects although often are on
traditional projects (where they rarely seem to add much value in practice).
Physical data models (PDMs). PDMs are used to design the internal schema of a database,
depicting the data tables, the data columns of those tables, and the
relationships between the tables. PDMs often prove to be useful on both
Agile and traditional projects and as a result the focus of this article is on physical modeling.
(2001) points out that many data professionals prefer to create an
Model (ORM), an example is depicted in Figure
3, instead of an LDM for a conceptual model.
The advantage is that the notation is very simple, something your project
stakeholders can quickly grasp, although the disadvantage is that the models
become large very quickly. ORMs
enable you to first explore actual data examples instead of simply jumping to a
potentially incorrect abstraction – for example Figure
3 examines the relationship between customers and addresses in detail.
For more information about ORM, visit www.orm.net.
3. A simple Object-Role Model.
|My experience is that people will capture information
in the best place that they know. As
a result I typically discard ORMs after I’m finished with them.
I sometimes user ORMs to explore the domain with project stakeholders but
later replace them with a more traditional artifact such as an LDM, a class
diagram, or even a PDM. As a
generalizing specialist, someone with one or more specialties who also strives to gain
general skills and knowledge, this is an easy decision for me to make; I know
that this information that I’ve just “discarded" will be captured in
another artifact – a model, the tests, or even the code – that I understand.
A specialist who only understands a limited number of artifacts and
therefore “hands-off" their work to other specialists doesn’t have this as
an option. Not only are they
tempted to keep the artifacts that they create but also to invest even more time
to enhance the artifacts. Generalizing specialists are more likely than specialists to
2.3. Common Data Modeling Notations
Figure 4 presents a
summary of the syntax of four common data modeling notations: Information
Engineering (IE), Barker, IDEF1X, and the
Unified Modeling Language (UML).
This diagram isn’t meant to be comprehensive, instead its goal is to provide a
basic overview. Furthermore, for the sake of brevity I wasn’t able to depict
the highly-detailed approach to relationship naming that Barker suggests. Although I provide a brief description of each notation in Table
1 I highly suggest David Hay’s paper A
Comparison of Data Modeling Techniques as he goes into greater detail
than I do.
Figure 4. Comparing the
syntax of common data modeling notations.
Table 1. Discussing common data
It is critical for an application developer to have a grasp
of the fundamentals of data modeling so they can not only read data models but
also work effectively with Agile DBAs who are responsible for the
data-oriented aspects of your project. Your
goal reading this section is not to learn how to become a data modeler, instead
it is simply to gain an appreciation of what is involved.
An entity type, also simply called entity (not exactly
accurate terminology, but very common in practice), is similar
conceptually to object-orientation’s concept of a class – an entity type represents a collection of similar objects.
An entity type could represent a collection of people, places, things, events,
or concepts. Examples of entities
in an order entry system would include Customer, Address, Order,
Item, and Tax. If you
were class modeling you would expect to discover classes with the exact same
names. However, the difference
between a class and an entity type is that classes have both data and behavior
whereas entity types just have data.
Ideally an entity should be normal, the data modeling
world’s version of cohesive. A
normal entity depicts one concept, just like a cohesive class models one
concept. For example, customer and
order are clearly two different concepts; therefore it makes sense to model them
as separate entities.
Each entity type will have one or more data attributes.
For example, in Figure 1 you saw that the Customer entity has
attributes such as First Name and Surname and in Figure 2 that the
TCUSTOMER table had corresponding data columns CUST_FIRST_NAME and
CUST_SURNAME (a column is the implementation of a data attribute within a
Attributes should also be cohesive from the point of view
of your domain, something that is often a judgment call. – in Figure 1 we
decided that we wanted to model the fact that people had both first and last
names instead of just a name (e.g. “Scott" and “Ambler" vs. “Scott
Ambler") whereas we did not distinguish between the sections of an American
zip code (e.g. 90210-1234-5678). Getting
the level of detail right can have a significant impact on your development and
maintenance efforts. Refactoring a
single data column into several columns can be difficult, database
refactoring is described in detail in Database
Refactoring, although over-specifying an attribute (e.g. having three attributes for zip code when you only
needed one) can result in overbuilding your system and hence you incur greater
development and maintenance costs than you actually needed.
Your organization should have standards and guidelines
applicable to data modeling, something you should be able to obtain from your
enterprise administrators (if they don’t exist you should lobby to have some
put in place). These guidelines
should include naming conventions for both logical and physical modeling, the
logical naming conventions should be focused on human readability whereas the
physical naming conventions will reflect technical considerations.
You can clearly see that different naming conventions were
applied in Figures 1 and
As you saw in
to Agile Modeling, AM includes the
Modeling Standards practice. The
basic idea is that developers should agree to and follow a common set of
modeling standards on a software project. Just like there is value in following
common coding conventions, clean code that follows your chosen coding guidelines
is easier to understand and evolve than code that doesn't, there is similar
value in following common modeling conventions.
In the real world entities have relationships with other entities.
For example, customers PLACE orders, customers LIVE AT addresses, and
line items ARE PART OF orders. Place,
live at, and are part of are all terms that define relationships between
The relationships between entities are conceptually identical
to the relationships (associations) between objects.
Figure 5 depicts a
partial LDM for an online ordering system.
The first thing to notice is the various styles applied to relationship
names and roles – different relationships require different approaches.
For example the relationship between Customer and Order has
two names, places and is placed by, whereas the relationship
between Customer and Address has one.
In this example having a second name on the relationship, the idea being
that you want to specify how to read the relationship in each direction, is
redundant – you’re better off to find a clear wording for a single
relationship name, decreasing the clutter on your diagram.
Similarly you will often find that by specifying the roles that an entity
plays in a relationship will often negate the need to give the relationship a
name (although some
CASE tools may inadvertently force you to do this).
For example the role of billing address and the label billed to
are clearly redundant, you really only need one.
For example the role part of that Line Item has in its
relationship with Order is sufficiently obvious without a relationship
Figure 5. A
logical data model (Information Engineering notation).
IE notation (Finkelstein 1989) is simple and easy to
read, and is well suited for high-level logical and enterprise data
modeling. The only drawback
of this notation, arguably an advantage, is that it does not support the
identification of attributes of an entity. The assumption is that the attributes will be modeled
with another diagram or simply described in the supporting documentation.
Barker notation is one of the more popular ones,
it is supported by Oracle’s toolset, and is well suited for all types of
data models. It’s approach
to subtyping can become clunky with hierarchies that go several levels
This notation is overly complex.
It was originally intended for physical modeling but
has been misapplied for logical modeling as well. Although popular within some U.S. government agencies, particularly
the Department of Defense (DoD), this notation has been all but abandoned
by everyone else. Avoid it if
This is not an official data modeling notation (yet).
Although several suggestions for a
data modeling profile for the
UML exist, none are complete and more importantly are not “official" UML
yet. However, the Object Management Group (OMG) in December 2005
announced an RFP for data-oriented models.
You also need to identify the cardinality and optionality of a
relationship (the UML combines the concepts of optionality and cardinality into
the single concept of multiplicity). Cardinality
represents the concept of “how many" whereas optionality represents the
concept of “whether you must have something." For example, it is not enough
to know that customers place orders.
How many orders can a customer place?
None, one, or several? Furthermore,
relationships are two-way streets: not only do customers place orders, but
orders are placed by customers.
This leads to questions like: how many customers can be
enrolled in any given order and is it possible to have an order with no customer
5 shows that customers place zero or more orders and that any given order is
placed by one customer and one customer only.
It also shows that a customer lives at one or more addresses and that any
given address has zero or more customers living at it.
Although the UML distinguishes between different types of
relationships – associations, inheritance, aggregation, composition, and
dependency – data modelers often aren’t as concerned with this issue as much
as object modelers are. Subtyping,
one application of inheritance, is often found in data models, an example of
which is the is a relationship between Item and it’s two “sub
entities" Service and Product.
Aggregation and composition are much less common and typically must be
implied from the data model, as you see with the part of role that Line
Item takes with Order. UML
dependencies are typically a software construct and therefore wouldn’t appear
on a data model, unless of course it was a very highly detailed physical model
that showed how views, triggers, or stored procedures depended on other aspects
of the database schema.
There are two fundamental strategies for assigning keys to tables.
First, you could assign a natural key which is one or more existing data
attributes that are unique to the business concept.
The Customer table of Figure 6 there was two candidate keys, in this case
and SocialSecurityNumber. Second,
you could introduce a new column, called a surrogate key,
which is a key that has no business
meaning. An example of which is the AddressID
column of the Address table in
6. Addresses don’t have an
“easy" natural key because you would need to use all of the columns of the
Address table to form a key for itself (you might be able to get
away with just the combination of Street and ZipCode depending on
your problem domain), therefore introducing a
surrogate key is a much better option in this case.
Customer and Address revisited (UML
|Some data modelers will apply common data model
patterns, David Hay’s book
Model Patterns is the best reference on the subject, just as
object-oriented developers will apply analysis patterns (Fowler 1997;
design patterns (Gamma et al. 1995).
Data model patterns are conceptually closest to analysis patterns
because they describe solutions to common domain issues.
Hay’s book is a very good reference for anyone involved in
analysis-level modeling, even when you’re taking an object approach
instead of a data approach because his patterns model business
structures from a wide variety of business domains.
Let's consider Figure 6
in more detail. Figure 6 presents an
alternative design to that presented in Figure 2,
a different naming convention was adopted and the model itself is more
extensive. In Figure 6 the Customer
table has the CustomerNumber column as
its primary key and SocialSecurityNumber
as an alternate key. This indicates
that the preferred way to access customer information is through the value of a
person’s customer number although your software can get at the same
information if it has the person’s social security number.
The CustomerHasAddress table
has a composite primary key, the combination of CustomerNumber and AddressID.
A foreign key is one or more attributes in an entity type that represents
a key, either primary or secondary, in another entity type.
Foreign keys are used to maintain relationships between rows.
For example, the relationships between rows in the CustomerHasAddress table and the Customer table is maintained by the CustomerNumber column within the CustomerHasAddress table. The
interesting thing about the CustomerNumber
column is the fact that it is part of the primary key for CustomerHasAddress as well as the foreign key to the Customer
table. Similarly, the AddressID column is part of the primary key of CustomerHasAddress as well as a foreign key to the Address
table to maintain the relationship with rows of Address.
Although the "natural vs. surrogate" debate is one of the great religious
issues within the data community, the fact is that neither strategy is perfect
and you'll discover that in practice (as we see in
) sometimes it makes sense to use natural keys and sometimes it makes sense
to use surrogate keys. In
Choosing a Primary Key:
Natural or Surrogate? I describe the relevant issues in detail.
to Reduce Data Redundancy
Table 2. Data
|Data normalization is a process in which data attributes within a
data model are organized to increase the cohesion of entity types.
In other words, the goal of data normalization is to reduce and even
eliminate data redundancy, an important consideration for application developers because
it is incredibly difficult to stores objects in a relational database that
maintains the same information in several places.
Table 2 summarizes the three
most common normalization rules describing how to put entity types into a
series of increasing levels of normalization. Higher levels of data
normalization (Date 2000) are beyond the scope of this book.
With respect to terminology, a data schema is considered to be at the
level of normalization of its least normalized entity type.
For example, if all of your entity types are at second normal form (2NF)
or higher then we say that your data schema is at 2NF.
7 depicts a database schema in ONF whereas
Figure 8 depicts a normalized schema in 3NF. Read the
Data Normalization essay for details.
Why data normalization?
The advantage of having a highly normalized data schema is that
information is stored in one place and one place only, reducing the possibility
of inconsistent data. Furthermore,
highly-normalized data schemas in general are closer conceptually to
object-oriented schemas because the object-oriented goals of promoting high
cohesion and loose coupling between classes results in similar solutions (at
least from a data point of view). This
generally makes it easier to
map your objects to your data schema.
Unfortunately, normalization usually comes at a performance cost.
With the data schema of Figure 7 all the
data for a single order is stored in one row (assuming orders of up to nine
order items), making it very easy to access.
With the data schema of Figure 7 you could
quickly determine the total amount of an order by reading the single row from
the Order0NF table.
To do so with the data schema of Figure
8 you would need to read data from a row in the Order
table, data from all the rows from the OrderItem
table for that order and data from the corresponding rows in the Item
table for each order item. For this
query, the data schema of Figure 7 very likely
provides better performance.
Figure 7. An Initial Data
Schema for Order (UML
Figure 8. A normalized
schema in 3NF (UML
In class modeling, there is a similar concept called
Normalization although that is beyond the scope of this article.
First normal form (1NF)
An entity type is in 1NF when it contains no repeating groups
Second normal form (2NF)
An entity type is in 2NF when it is in 1NF and when all of
its non-key attributes are fully dependent on its primary key.
Third normal form (3NF)
An entity type is in 3NF when it is in 2NF and when all of
its attributes are directly dependent on the primary key.
3.8 Denormalize to Improve Performance
Normalized data schemas, when put into production, often
suffer from performance problems. This
makes sense – the rules of data normalization focus on reducing data
redundancy, not on improving performance of data access.
An important part of data modeling is to denormalize portions of your
data schema to improve database access times.
For example, the data model of Figure
9 looks nothing like the normalized schema of
8. To understand why the
differences between the schemas exist you must consider the performance needs of
the application. The primary goal
of this system is to process new orders from online customers as quickly as
possible. To do this customers need
to be able to search for items and add them to their order quickly, remove items
from their order if need be, then have their final order totaled and recorded
quickly. The secondary goal of the
system is to the process, ship, and bill the orders afterwards.
Figure 9. A Denormalized Order Data Schema (UML
To denormalize the data schema the following decisions were
Note that if your initial, normalized data design meets the
performance needs of your application then it is fine as is.
Denormalization should be resorted to only when performance testing shows
that you have a problem with your objects and subsequent profiling reveals that
you need to improve database access time. As
my grandfather said, if it ain’t broke don’t fix it.
To support quick searching of item information the Item
table was left alone.
To support the addition and removal of order items to
an order the concept of an OrderItem
table was kept, albeit split in two to support outstanding orders and
fulfilled orders. New order
items can easily be inserted into the OutstandingOrderItem
table, or removed from it, as needed.
To support order processing the Order and OrderItem tables
were reworked into pairs to handle outstanding and fulfilled orders
respectively. Basic order
information is first stored in the OutstandingOrder
and OutstandingOrderItem tables
and then when the order has been shipped and paid for the data is then
removed from those tables and copied into the FulfilledOrder
and FulfilledOrderItem tables
respectively. Data access time
to the two tables for outstanding orders is reduced because only the active
orders are being stored there. On
average an order may be outstanding for a couple of days, whereas for
financial reporting reasons may be stored in the fulfilled order tables for
several years until archived. There
is a performance penalty under this scheme because of the need to delete
outstanding orders and then resave them as fulfilled orders, clearly
something that would need to be processed as a transaction.
The contact information for the person(s) the order is
being shipped and billed to was also denormalized back into the Order table, reducing the time it takes to write an order to the
database because there is now one write instead of two or three.
The retrieval and deletion times for that data would also be
Evolutionary data modeling is data modeling performed in an iterative and
incremental manner. The article Evolutionary
Development explores evolutionary software development in greater detail.
Agile data modeling is evolutionary data modeling done in a collaborative
manner. The article
Modeling: From Domain Modeling to Physical Modeling works through a case
study which shows how to take an agile approach to data modeling.
Although you wouldn’t think it, data modeling can be one of the most
challenging tasks that an Agile DBA can be involved with on an agile software
development project. Your approach to data modeling will often be at the
center of any controversy between the agile software developers and the
traditional data professionals within your organization. Agile software
developers will lean towards an evolutionary approach where data modeling is
just one of many activities whereas traditional data professionals will often
lean towards a big design up front (BDUF) approach where data models are
the primary artifacts, if not THE artifacts.
This problem results from a combination of the
impedance mismatch, a misguided need to enforce the
"one truth", and “normal" political maneuvering within your
organization. As a result Agile
DBAs often find that navigating the political waters is an important part of
their data modeling efforts.
How do you improve your data modeling skills?
Practice, practice, practice. Whenever
you get a chance you should work closely with Agile DBAs, volunteer to
model data with them, and ask them questions as the work progresses.
Agile DBAs will be following the AM practice Model With
Others so should welcome the assistance as well as the questions – one of
the best ways to really learn your craft is to have someone as “why are you
doing it that way". You should be
able to learn physical data modeling skills from Agile DBAs, and often
logical data modeling skills as well.
Similarly you should take the opportunity to work with the
enterprise architects within your organization.
As you saw in Agile
Enterprise Architecture they should be taking an active role on your
project, mentoring your project team in the enterprise architecture (if any),
mentoring you in modeling and architectural skills, and aiding in your team’s
modeling and development efforts. Once
again, volunteer to work with them and ask questions when you are doing so.
Enterprise architects will be able to teach you conceptual and logical
data modeling skills as well as instill an appreciation for enterprise issues.
You also need to do some reading.
Although this article is a good start it is only a brief introduction.
The best approach is to simply ask the Agile DBAs that you work with
what they think you should read.
My final word of
advice is that it is critical for application developers to understand and
appreciate the fundamentals of data modeling.
This is a valuable skill to have and has been since the 1970s.
It also provides a common framework within which you can work with Agile DBAs, and may even prove to be the initial skill that enables you to make
a career transition into becoming a full-fledged Agile DBA.