Database normalization is the process of organizing the attributes and tables of a relational database to minimize redundancy. Normalization involves refactorizing a table into smaller (and less redundant) tables but without losing information defining foreign keys in the old table referencing the primary keys of the new ones. The objective is to isolate data so that additions, deletions, and modifications of an attribute can be made in just one table and then propagated through the rest of the database using the defined foreign keys.
Edgar F. Codd, the inventor of the relational model, introduced the concept of normalization and what we now know as the First Normal Form (1NF) in 1970. Codd went on to define the Second Normal Form (2NF) and Third Normal Form (3NF) in 1971, and Codd and Raymond F. Boyce defined the Boyce-Codd Normal Form (BCNF) in 1974. Informally, a relational database table is often described as "normalized" if it is in the Third Normal Form. Most 3NF tables are free of insertion, update, and deletion anomalies.
The relational model (abbreviated RM) separates the logical design from the physical design: DBMS performance is a matter of physical designer using indexes, view materialization, big buffers, etc. It is not a matter of changing the logical design.
A typical example of normalization is that an entity's unique ID is stored everywhere in the system but its name is held in only one table. The name can be updated more easily in one row of one table. A typical update in such an example would be the RIM company changing its name to BlackBerry. That update would be done in one place and immediately the correct "BlackBerry" name would be displayed throughout the system.
A basic objective of the first normal form defined by Codd in 1970 was to permit data to be queried and manipulated using a "universal data sub-language" grounded in first-order logic. (SQL is an example of such a data sub-language, albeit one that Codd regarded as seriously flawed.)
The objectives of normalization beyond 1NF (First Normal Form) were stated as follows by Codd:
- 1. To free the collection of relations from undesirable insertion, update and deletion dependencies;
- 2. To reduce the need for restructuring the collection of relations, as new types of data are introduced, and thus increase the life span of application programs;
- 3. To make the relational model more informative to users;
- 4. To make the collection of relations neutral to the query statistics, where these statistics are liable to change as time goes by.
— E.F. Codd, "Further Normalization of the Data Base Relational Model"
The sections below give details of each of these objectives.
Free the database of modification anomalies
When an attempt is made to modify (update, insert into, or delete from) a table, undesired side-effects may follow. Not all tables can suffer from these side-effects; rather, the side-effects can only arise in tables that have not been sufficiently normalized. An insufficiently normalized table might have one or more of the following characteristics:
- The same information can be expressed on multiple rows; therefore updates to the table may result in logical inconsistencies. For example, each record in an "Employees' Skills" table might contain an Employee ID, Employee Address, and Skill; thus a change of address for a particular employee will potentially need to be applied to multiple records (one for each skill). If the update is not carried through successfully—if, that is, the employee's address is updated on some records but not others—then the table is left in an inconsistent state. Specifically, the table provides conflicting answers to the question of what this particular employee's address is. This phenomenon is known as an update anomaly.
- There are circumstances in which certain facts cannot be recorded at all. For example, each record in a "Faculty and Their Courses" table might contain a Faculty ID, Faculty Name, Faculty Hire Date, and Course Code—thus we can record the details of any faculty member who teaches at least one course, but we cannot record the details of a newly hired faculty member who has not yet been assigned to teach any courses except by setting the Course Code to null. This phenomenon is known as an insertion anomaly.
- Under certain circumstances, deletion of data representing certain facts necessitates deletion of data representing completely different facts. The "Faculty and Their Courses" table described in the previous example suffers from this type of anomaly, for if a faculty member temporarily ceases to be assigned to any courses, we must delete the last of the records on which that faculty member appears, effectively also deleting the faculty member, unless we set the Course Code to null in the record itself. This phenomenon is known as a deletion anomaly.
Minimize redesign when extending the database structure
When a fully normalized database structure is extended to allow it to accommodate new types of data, the pre-existing aspects of the database structure can remain largely or entirely unchanged. As a result, applications interacting with the database are minimally affected.
Normalized tables, and the relationship between one normalized table and another, mirror real-world concepts and their interrelationships.
Avoid bias towards any particular pattern of querying
Normalized tables are suitable for general-purpose querying. This means any queries against these tables, including future queries whose details cannot be anticipated, are supported. In contrast, tables that are not normalized lend themselves to some types of queries, but not others.
For example, consider an online bookseller whose customers maintain wishlists of books they'd like to have. For the obvious, anticipated query—what books does this customer want?—it's enough to store the customer's wishlist in the table as, say, a homogeneous string of authors and titles.
With this design, though, the database can answer only that one single query. It cannot by itself answer interesting but unanticipated queries: What is the most-wished-for book? Which customers are interested in WWII espionage? How does Lord Byron stack up against his contemporary poets? Answers to these questions must come from special adaptive tools completely separate from the database. One tool might be software written especially to handle such queries. This special adaptive software has just one single purpose: in effect to normalize the non-normalized attribute.
Unforeseen queries can be answered trivially, and entirely within the database framework, with a normalized table.
Querying and manipulating the data within a data structure which is not normalized, such as the following non-1NF representation of customers' credit card transactions, involves more complexity than is really necessary:
To each customer corresponds a repeating group of transactions. The automated evaluation of any query relating to customers' transactions therefore would broadly involve two stages:
- Unpacking one or more customers' groups of transactions allowing the individual transactions in a group to be examined, and
- Deriving a query result based on the results of the first stage
For example, in order to find out the monetary sum of all transactions that occurred in October 2003 for all customers, the system would have to know that it must first unpack the Transactions group of each customer, then sum the Amounts of all transactions thus obtained where the Date of the transaction falls in October 2003.
One of Codd's important insights was that this structural complexity could always be removed completely, leading to much greater power and flexibility in the way queries could be formulated (by users and applications) and evaluated (by the DBMS). The normalized equivalent of the structure above would look like this:
|Cust. ID||Tr. ID||Date||Amount|
Now each row represents an individual credit card transaction, and the DBMS can obtain the answer of interest, simply by finding all rows with a Date falling in October, and summing their Amounts. The data structure places all of the values on an equal footing, exposing each to the DBMS directly, so each can potentially participate directly in queries; whereas in the previous situation some values were embedded in lower-level structures that had to be handled specially. Accordingly, the normalized design lends itself to general-purpose query processing, whereas the unnormalized design does not. The normalized version also allows the user to change the customer name in one place and guards against errors that arise if the customer name is misspelled on some records.
Notes and references
- Codd, E.F. (June 1970). "A Relational Model of Data for Large Shared Data Banks". Communications of the ACM 13 (6): 377–387. doi:10.1145/362384.362685.
- Codd, E.F. "Further Normalization of the Data Base Relational Model". (Presented at Courant Computer Science Symposia Series 6, "Data Base Systems", New York City, May 24–25, 1971.) IBM Research Report RJ909 (August 31, 1971). Republished in Randall J. Rustin (ed.), Data Base Systems: Courant Computer Science Symposia Series 6. Prentice-Hall, 1972.
- Codd, E. F. "Recent Investigations into Relational Data Base Systems". IBM Research Report RJ1385 (April 23, 1974). Republished in Proc. 1974 Congress (Stockholm, Sweden, 1974). , N.Y.: North-Holland (1974).
- C.J. Date. An Introduction to Database Systems. Addison-Wesley (1999), p. 290
- Reed, B. "RIM changes its name to BlackBerry". BGR.com. Retrieved 2014-06-03.
- "The adoption of a relational model of data ... permits the development of a universal data sub-language based on an applied predicate calculus. A first-order predicate calculus suffices if the collection of relations is in first normal form. Such a language would provide a yardstick of linguistic power for all other proposed data languages, and would itself be a strong candidate for embedding (with appropriate syntactic modification) in a variety of host Ianguages (programming, command- or problem-oriented)." Codd, "A Relational Model of Data for Large Shared Data Banks", p. 381
- Codd, E.F. Chapter 23, "Serious Flaws in SQL", in The Relational Model for Database Management: Version 2. Addison-Wesley (1990), pp. 371–389
- Codd, E.F. "Further Normalization of the Data Base Relational Model", p. 34
- Litt's Tips: Normalization
- Date, C. J. (1999), An Introduction to Database Systems (8th ed.). Addison-Wesley Longman. ISBN 0-321-19784-4.
- Kent, W. (1983) A Simple Guide to Five Normal Forms in Relational Database Theory, Communications of the ACM, vol. 26, pp. 120–125
- H.-J. Schek, P. Pistor Data Structures for an Integrated Data Base Management and Information Retrieval System
- Database Normalization Basics by Mike Chapple (About.com)
- Database Normalization Intro, Part 2
- An Introduction to Database Normalization by Mike Hillyer.
- A tutorial on the first 3 normal forms by Fred Coulson
- DB Normalization Examples
- Description of the database normalization basics by Microsoft
- Database Normalization and Design Techniques by Barry Wise, recommended reading for the Harvard MIS.
- A Simple Guide to Five Normal Forms in Relational Database Theory