The Relational Model

The relational model was introduced in 1970 by E. F. Codd (of IBM) in his landmark paper “A Relational Model of Data for Large Shared Databanks” (Communications of the ACM, June 1970, pp. 377−387). The relational model represented a major breakthrough for both users and designers. To use an analogy, the relational model produced an “automatic transmission” database to replace the “standard transmission” databases that preceded it. Its conceptual simplicity set the stage for a genuine database revolution.

The relational model foundation is a mathematical concept known as a relation. To avoid the complexity of abstract mathematical theory, you can think of a relation (sometimes called a table) as a matrix composed of intersecting rows and columns. Each row in a relation is called a tuple. Each column represents an attribute. The relational model also describes a precise set of data manipulation constructs based on advanced mathematical concepts

The relational data model is implemented through a very sophisticated relational database management system (RDBMS). The RDBMS performs the same basic functions provided by the hierarchical and network DBMS systems, in addition to a host of other functions that make the relational data model easier to understand and implement


A relational table stores a collection of related entities. In this respect, the relational database table resembles a file. But there is one crucial difference between a table and a file: A table yields complete data and structural independence because it is a purely logical structure. How the data are physically stored in the database is of no concern to the user or the designer; the perception is what counts. And this property of the relational data model, explored in depth in the next chapter, became the source of a real database revolution.

From an end-user perspective, any SQL-based relational database application involves three parts: a user interface, a set of tables stored in the database, and the SQL “engine.” Each of these parts is explained below.

  • The end-user interface. Basically, the interface allows the end user to interact with the data (by auto-generating SQL code). Each interface is a product of the software vendor’s idea of meaningful interaction with the data. You can also design your own customized interface with the help of application generators that are now standard fare in the database software arena
  • A collection of tables stored in the database. In a relational database, all data are perceived to be stored in tables. The tables simply “present” the data to the end user in a way that is easy to understand. Each table is independent. Rows in different tables are related by common values in common attributes.
  • SQL engine. Largely hidden from the end user, the SQL engine executes all queries, or data requests. Keep in mind that the SQL engine is part of the DBMS software. The end user uses SQL to create table structures and to perform data access and table maintenance. The SQL engine processes all user requests—largely behind the scenes and without the end user’s knowledge. Hence, it’s said that SQL is a declarative language that tells what must be done but not how it must be done

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