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Database Design:

In a nutshell...

Database design refers to the way tables in a database are constructed to store data.

NB: A database is not the same as an application although the term is often used inter-changeably. A database is used to store data whereas an application describes the combination of a database and a program (GUI).

The program, or GUI, sits on top of the database and allows users to access the data. It's the combination of a database and a GUI that accurately describes an application.

Tell me more...

When designing your new database, a good way to approach it is to think about how an architect would come up with a design for a new home.

A good architect makes sure that certain rooms face the sun for most of the day. That the drainage takes water away from the house and doesn't create a swimming pool every time it rains. A good design makes sure when you enter your house via the front door at night, you don't have to walk across a dark hall to switch a light on.

A correctly designed database is very similar. It will fulfill the requirements of your business perfectly. It will allow you to store and access your data efficiently, knowing the answers you get from your database are going to be accurate. This will help you to make decisions that will make your business work more efficiently.

Many people are always looking for ways to save money by cutting corners but if there is one part you should never cut back on, it's the design of your database. To use the building analogy again, consider the implications of trying to add a basement room or wine cellar - after a property has been built!

Consider the following as you would the foundations and structure of a new house:

Does it provide all the rooms you are going to need?
It's easy to name the big rooms but did you remember to include an airing cupboard and the built in wardrobes? Ok, they are not what a property agent would call a room but nevertheless they are spaces that serve a function and still need to be considered in the overall plan of a home. Be careful when designing your database that you don't miss import sections.

Will I be able to navigate from room to room easily?
You shouldn't have to walk through the bathroom to get to the kitchen. Databases are the same. The relationship between tables should be logical and practical and conform to standard database design rules that make accessing and using your data easy whilst preserving integrity and efficiency.

Is it possible to add new rooms at a later date?
Many people have ideas of building another bedroom over the garage, only to find when they start digging that the garage footings are not suitable. What if your business grows and you want to provide a new service or product? Make sure that the design of your database can grow and won't hold you back.

What will the gas and electric cost?
Having a living room the size of a small swimming pool may look great but is it cost effective to use? A badly designed database can increase the time and cost it takes to use and retrieve data.

What will it cost to maintain?
A badly designed database will probably mean having to regularly call the developers back to make changes, fix and alter things.

Why a building analogy?

Simply because, just like a house, once it's built it's very difficult to make changes to the structure. Don't like the colour? No problem, just give it another lick of paint. Simple. Want to add a basement for a photographic studio? Although it's possible, it's probably easier to buy a new home with one already there or knock it down and start again.

A lot of the problems I come across from day-to-day are the result of poorly designed databases. Like the foundations in a house, if you get it right at the ground level it will solidly support your business regardless of what you put on top of it to access your data.

Anything else?

Remember that most users will access your data through some sort of GUI but the GUI is separate from the database. If your database has been designed correctly you can always change the GUI at a later date if required.

Also keep in mind that you can test the integrity of a database to see if it works as expected before you invest too much time in your GUI. It's a relatively trivial matter to enter raw data into the actual tables to see if it 'holds water'.

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