Data Model Basic Building Blocks

The basic building blocks of all data models are entities, attributes, relationships, and constraints. An entity is anything (a person, a place, a thing, or an event) about which data are to be collected and stored. An entity represents a particular type of object in the real world. Because an entity represents a particular type of object, entities are “distinguishable”—that is, each entity occurrence is unique and distinct. For example, a CUSTOMER entity would have many distinguishable customer occurrences, such as John Smith, Pedro Dinamita, Tom Strickland, etc. Entities may be physical objects, such as customers or products, but entities may also be abstractions, such as flight routes or musical concerts


An attribute is a characteristic of an entity. For example, a CUSTOMER entity would be described by attributes such as customer last name, customer first name, customer phone, customer address, and customer credit limit. Attributes are the equivalent of fields in file systems


A relationship describes an association among entities. For example, a relationship exists between customers and agents that can be described as follows: an agent can serve many customers, and each customer may be served by one agent. Data models use three types of relationships: one-to-many, many-to-many, and one-to-one. Database designers usually use the shorthand notations 1:M or 1..*, M:N or *..*, and 1:1 or 1..1, respectively. (Although the M:N notation is a standard label for the many-to-many relationship, the label M:M may also be used.) The following examples illustrate the distinctions among the three.

One-to-many (1:M or 1..*) relationship

A painter paints many different paintings, but each one of them is painted by only one painter. Thus, the painter (the “one”) is related to the paintings (the “many”). Therefore, database designers label the relationship “PAINTER paints PAINTING” as 1:M. (Note that entity names are often capitalized as a convention, so they are easily identified.) Similarly, a customer (the “one”) may generate many invoices, but each invoice (the “many”) is generated by only a single customer. The “CUSTOMER generates INVOICE” relationship would also be labeled 1:M

Many-to-many (M:N or ..) relationship

An employee may learn many job skills, and each job skill may be learned by many employees. Database designers label the relationship “EMPLOYEE learns SKILL” as M:N. Similarly, a student can take many classes and each class can be taken by many students, thus yielding the M:N relationship label for the relationship expressed by “STUDENT takes CLASS.”

One-to-one (1:1 or 1..1) relationship

A retail company’s management structure may require that each of its stores be managed by a single employee. In turn, each store manager, who is an employee, manages only a single store. Therefore, the relationship “EMPLOYEE manages STORE” is labeled 1:1

The preceding discussion identified each relationship in both directions; that is, relationships are bidirectional

  • One CUSTOMER can generate many INVOICEs.
  • Each of the many INVOICEs is generated by only one CUSTOMER


A constraint is a restriction placed on the data. Constraints are important because they help to ensure data integrity. Constraints are normally expressed in the form of rules. For example:

  • An employee’s salary must have values that are between 6,000 and 350,000
  • A student’s GPA must be between 0.00 and 4.00.
  • Each class must have one and only one teacher

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