Monday, August 28, 2017

The Normal Forms: Second Normal Form

Last time, in The Normal Forms: First Normal Form, I discussed the rules for the basic arrangement of data in a table. If you don't follow those rules, called the First Normal Form (1NF), you don't even have a table. But even if a table is normalized to 1NF, that doesn't mean it's perfect. Figure 1 shows a table normalized to 1NF.

Figure 1: Order Table - 1NF

The problem here is the danger of introducing errors, called data anomalies, into the table. Data anomalies can be introduced by operator error or through programming. Once you have a single data anomaly in your table, all of your data is suspect, so the remaining normal forms work to remove such data anomalies. Figure 2 shows the same table with data anomalies present.

Figure 2: Order Table with Data Anomalies Present

As you can see, Order 112 has two different customer numbers (444 and 445), which is correct? It is impossible to tell. In addition, both product numbers B7G and B7H are identified as a 'saw'. Are these the same product with different product numbers or different products with the same description? Again, I can't know based on the data in the database.

The root cause of these data anomalies is redundant data, that is, data that is repeated in multiple rows. So we need to minimize this redundant data as much as possible.

Now wait a second! Didn't I just say in the last post that I HAD to repeat the values? Yes I did. But that was to comply with 1NF, which is not the end of the story.


So let's look at the definition of Second Normal Form (2NF). A table is said to be in 2NF if:

  1. It is in 1NF.
  2. Every field is functionally dependant on the entire primary key, that is, it depends on the entire primary key for its value.

Functional Dependency

Before I can continue, I have to talk a bit about functional dependencies, because all of the remaining normal forms rely on this concept. Functional dependency speaks to the relationship that fields in a table have to each other. It is perhaps best explained by example.

Suppose there is an Employee table, and I am an entity in that table. There is a row that represents all the information about Roger Carlson with Social Security Number (SSN) acting as the primary key. Since all the fields in my row are information about me, and I am represented by the SSN, we can say that each field depends on SSN for its value. Another way to say it is that SSN implies the value of each of the other fields in my record.

If a different row is selected, with a different SSN, the values of all the other fields will change to represent that entity.


Second Normal Form says that all of the fields in a table must depend on the ENTIRE primary key. When there is a single primary key (like SSN), it is pretty simple. Each field must be a fact about the record. But when there is a compound primary key, it's possible that some fields may depend on just part of the primary key.

Going back to our Order Table example, Figure 3 shows these partial dependencies.

Figure 3: 1NF Orders Table showing dependencies

In order to uniquely identify the record, the primary key of this table is a combination of OrderNum and ProductNum (or Item, but a number is a better choice).

2NF says that each field must depend on the ENTIRE primary key. This is true for some fields: Quantity depends on both the OrderNum and ProductNum, so does Item. However, some fields do not.

Order 112 will be for customer 444 regardless of the product selected. The order date does not change when the product number changes either. These fields depend ONLY on the OrderNum field.

Since some fields do not depend on the entire primary key, it is not in Second Normal Form. So what do I do about it?


The solution is to remove those records, which do not depend on the entire primary key, to a separate table where they do. In the process, I remove the redundant or repeated data so there is just a single record for each. Figure 4 shows the process of decomposing the table into two tables.

Figure 4: 1NF Orders table Decomposed to 2NF

This corrects the data anomaly with the two different customers for the same order. However, I still have the problem of the product number and the item description. It's still possible for the same product to have different descriptions or different items sharing the same ProductNum, as Figure 5 illustrates.

Figure 5: Remaining data anomalies.

Product A7S is either a wrench or a nail, and a saw is either product number B7G or B7H.

To correct these problems, I need to add yet another normal form: Third Normal Form. I'll talk about that next.


Wednesday, August 16, 2017

The Normal Forms: First Normal Form (1NF)

In Normal Forms: Introduction, I introduced the topic of the Normal Forms, the theory behind the arrangement of fields into tables. Since it is usually best to start at the beginning, I'll begin with the First Normal Form.

The First Normal Form, or 1NF, is the very lowest, basic arrangement of fields in a table. If your table is not in 1NF, then it isn't really a table. Sadly, many novice databases are not even in 1NF.

A table is said to be in First Normal Form if:
1) there is no row or column order
2) each row (record) is unique
3) each row by column value (field) contains exactly one value
4) there are no repeating columns

What does this mean?

First of all, the operation of the table will be unaffected by the order the rows are in or the order the fields are within the row. It means that each record must be complete unto itself without referencing another row positionally, for example, the row above. Likewise the position of the fields is irrelevant.

Since each record is unique, it means there are no duplicate records. This uniqueness is defined by a field or combination of fields whose value will never be duplicated. This is called the primary key. In order to assure uniqueness, no part of a primary key may be NULL.

Because a field must have a single value, it cannot contain a list or compound value. One over looked consequence of this rule is that each field MUST have at least one value. If the value of the field is not known, it is said to be NULL. (There is some debate over whether NULL is actually a value. I maintain it is, but the discussion is largely semantic.)

Lastly, there are no repeating columns. Repeating columns are columns that store essentially the same information. They may be columns like Product1, Product2, Product3; or multiple Yes/No columns that represent the same information like each product having its own column (Saw, Hammer, Nails).


Let's take a look at how these rules are implemented and what they mean for table design.

Suppose I want a simple Order table with OrderNum, CustomerNum, OrderDate, Quantity, Item, and ProductNum. Although the definition of 1NF is fairly simple, it precludes a wide range of data arrangements. Let's take a look at some of these arrangements.

Figure 1 shows one way such data can be arranged.

Figure 1: Records with Missing Values

To make each record unique, the primary key would have to be OrderNum and Item. However, since no part of the primary key may be Null, this arrangement won't work. All the values of the primary key must be filled in.

But even more than this, the record is not "complete" unto itself. That is, it refers to other records for information. It's not that the values of OrderNum, CustomerNum, or OrderDate are unknown and therefore NULL. I do know the value, but I'm attempting to represent that data positionally. This, of course, violates the first rule (order is irrelevant) and rule 3 (each field must have a value).

This arrangement is common in spreadsheets and reports, but it is not sufficient for storing data.
Figure 2 shows another way the data can be arranged.

Figure 2: Information Stored In Lists

This violates rule 3. Each field must hold one and only one piece of information and not a list. It would be a nightmare to do anything with the date in the Item field other than simply display it because the database management system is designed to treat fields as indivisible.

While Figure 2 is an extreme example that mixes multiple fields in addition to multiple field values, believe it or not, I have also seen database designed like Figure 3:

Figure 3: Data stored in multiple lists

While this is better than Figure 2 (at least it does not mix fields), it is still not atomic and you'd have difficultly associating a quantity with a particular product.

Compound Values:
1NF also precludes compound values, things like full names in a single field or multi-part identification numbers.

Full Names

Why not store a full name? Roger J. Carlson is certainly pertinent information about me. However, it is not indivisible. It is made up of a first name, middle initial, and last name. Because I may want to access just pieces of it (using the first name in the salutation of a letter or sorting by last name), the information should be stored in separate fields.

Multi-part Numbers

Often, a database requirement is to have an identification number that is composed of different, meaningful parts. A serial number may have a four-digit product code, followed by the manufacture date (8 digits), and ended with the facility ID. It might look like this COMP02222008BMH. While this may be a useful arrangement for humans, it is useless in a database. Each value should be stored in a separate field. When the serial number is needed, it can be concatenated easily enough in a query, form, or report.

Figure 4 shows data that is stored in repeated columns.

Figure 4: Data Stored in Repeated Columns

This arrangement is common for people who use spreadsheets a lot. In fact, this is so common it is called "committing spreadsheet". The problem, in addition to having multiple columns, is that in order to associate a quantity with a product, you would have to do it positionally, breaking rule 1.

Lastly, another version of the Repeated Columns error is multiple Yes/No columns. Figure 5 illustrates that.

Figure 5: Data Stored in Yes/No Columns

At first blush, this does not seem to have the same problem, but all I've done is replace generic field names (Product1, Product2, etc) with specific ones (wench, saw, etc). It would be extremely easy to check a second field in any row and they you would have no idea which was correct.


As we've seen, First Normal Form precludes a lot of possible data arrangements. So what's left? There's really only one possibility left. Figure 6 shows it.

Figure 6: 1NF Correct with Repeated Rows

Each row has a unique identifier and there are no duplicates. Each field contains a single value. The position of the row and field is irrelevant, and lastly there are no repeating columns.

It's perfect. Right? Well, no. While this table does conform to 1NF, it is still has some problems; problems that 1NF is not equipped to handle. For those, I need to look at the Second Normal Form (2NF), which is what I'll do next time.


Tuesday, August 1, 2017

The Normal Forms: Introduction

Normalization is a methodology for minimizing redundancy in a database without losing information. It is the theory behind the arrangement of attributes into relations. The rules which govern these arrangements are called Normal Forms.

In What Is Normalization: Parts I, II, III, IV and V, I discussed the decomposition method of normalization, where you put all your fields into a single table and break the them down into smaller, normalized tables.

In Entity-Relationship Diagramming: Parts I, II, III, and IV, I discussed an alternate method which works from the bottom up. It takes the individual pieces of information (Attributes) and group them into logical groupings (Entities).

However, in neither case did I formally define or explain the Normal Forms. And that's for good reason. I find that only after people get a working understanding of normalization do they really understand the Normal Forms and what they imply. Therefore I usually leave them until last. If you haven't read the above mentioned serie, it would be worth your while to do so.

Normalization was first developed by E. F. Codd, the father of Relational Database theory. He created a series of "Normal Forms", which mathematically defined the rules for normalization. Each normal form is "stronger" than the previous, that is, they build upon the previous normal forms. Second Normal Form (2NF) encompasses all the rules of First Normal Form (1NF) plus adding its own rules. Third Normal Form encompasses all of 1NF and 2NF, and so on.

Figure 1: Each Normal Form Encompasses the Previous

In order, the normal forms are: First Normal Form (1NF), Second Normal Form (2NF), Third Normal Form (3NF), Boyce-Codd Normal Form (BCNF), Fourth Normal Form (BCNF), Fifth Normal Form (5NF), and Domain Key Normal Form (DKNF). BCNF comes between 3NF and 4NF because it was developed later, but because of its "strength" belonged between 3NF and 4NF.

Since each normal form encompasses all previous forms, in theory, the higher the normal form, the "better" the database.

In practice, however, normalizing to the first three normals form will avoid the vast majority of database design problems. So it is generally agreed that to be properly normalized, most databases must be in 3NF.

Beyond 3NF, the normal forms become increasingly specialized. Boyce-Codd Normal form and Fourth Normal Form were created to handle special situations. Fifth Normal Form and Domain-Key Normal Form are largely of theoretical intererst and little used in practical design.

So what I'm going to do for this series is limit myself to the first three normal forms, giving their definitions, implications for data, and how to implement them.

In my next post, I'll start with the First Normal Form.