When exploring the many types of databases, it becomes quickly apparent that not all databases were created equally. While reading, I found myself wondering, “What is a relational database and how does it differ from other types of databases?”
In learning about relational databases, I had to learn about all databases. There are many kinds of databases, but relational databases store and provide access to data points that are related to one another. For this reason, it is one of the most popular forms of database and is often used to keep track of inventories, process transactions, and manage fluctuating information.
But how does a relational database differ from other options? I took the books – or rather, the internet – to find the answers. I’d say that I found much more than for what I was initially looking!
What Is A Database?
A database is an organized collection of data which is often stored electronically in a computer. Data is stored in the form of rows and columns within set tables, and most databases use SQL for writing and querying data.
What Is SQL?
Structured query language, known as SQL, is a programming language that is used by most relational databases. It allows the user to look up data, manipulate that data, and control who has access to that data.
Is A Database A Spreadsheet?
In theory, a database is a lot like a spreadsheet. They both store data in the form of columns and rows, and the data in both a database and a spreadsheet can be amended, controlled, and restricted.
However, there are a few critical differences between databases and spreadsheets.
Most importantly, spreadsheets are designed to be used by only one person. Databases are designed to hold vast amounts of information and be accessible to dozens if not hundreds or thousands of people. You could say that spreadsheets are ‘light’ versions of databases.
What Types Of Databases Exist?
Several types of databases currently exist.
- Relational Databases. These are probably the most popular form of database, and have been widely used since the 1980s. This type of database is the most efficient at accessing large amounts of structured information, and it functions using rows and columns.
- Distributed Databases. A distributed database is one which exists in multiple places. It may consist of only a few files that are stored on various computers.
- OLTP Databases. For virtual markets that maintain a high volume of customers and clients, the OLTP database may be the best bet, as it is designed to quickly process a significant number of transactions over a large customer base.
- Object-oriented Databases. These are databases that use objects to represent information.
- NoSQL Databases. As the title infers, these databases do not delineate to the typical SQL structure, but instead, allow unstructured data to be stored and changed quickly.
What Is A Relational Database?
Are you still wondering, “What is a relational database?” Don’t worry; I did my homework!
A relational database, as I stated above, is a database that works with structured information. It stores data in the form of tables which are composed of multiple rows and columns. This data can be manipulated, and access to this data can be significantly controlled.
Relational databases rely on mathematical processes that derive from relational algebra.
Each table within a relational database is known as a relation, and each relation contains data in the form of a column, also known as an attribute. Each row, also known as a record, includes a key – an instance of date – that is defined by the columns. In this way, each column affects each row, and the data contained within this system can be manipulated and changed.
Examples Of Relational Databases
Talking about the theory of relational databases is fine and dandy. But to answer the question, “What is a relational database?”, I decided to find some real-world examples and explore them. Here are three examples of relational databases that are used today:
- Oracle Database
Controlled by the Oracle Company, this an example of a multi-model database. It features network components which allow users to communicate with each other across multiple networks.
MySQL is a database management system which is open source, allowing it to function on nearly all platforms and systems.
- Microsoft SQL Server
Like Oracle Database and MySQL, Microsoft SQL Server is a relational database management system. Microsoft SQL functions mainly to serve the purposes of businesses and corporations. This database is renowned for its transaction processing and information storage and analytics applications.
What Are The Benefits Of A Relational Database?
Relational databases are incredibly useful in collecting any information if that information contains data points which relate to and affect one another. As such, the benefits of using a relational database are simple and straightforward, much like the relational system itself.
- Relational databases allow for secure information storage and querying. For those running a business, or several companies, relational databases provide a way to query previous invoices quickly, keep track of budgetary expenses, and store sensitive employee pay information.
- These databases are accurate and trustworthy. Relational databases have been used since the 1970s but rose to popularity in the 1980s due to their simplicity and reliability. Amazingly, one of the first database systems to gain extensive use is still the most popular form of database, more than 30 years later!
- Relational databases are secure. Relational database management systems limit, monitor, and restrict access to data, often requiring a set username and password to gain entrance.
Nearly 75% of all databases currently in use are relational databases.
How Are Relational Databases Used?
Relational databases are used in a vast array of projects and businesses. They are typically used to store information that needs to be structured, safe from prying eyes, and easy to query. Examples of such forms of data are:
- Employee names, phone numbers, addresses, and shift availability.
- Inventory counts that included losses, gains, and delivery dates and times.
- Invoice receipts that detail items sold, the price the items were sold for, the date, the time, and the method of payment.
- When collecting and storing confidential information that is only accessible to high-ranking members of the military and ensuring that this information is not only secure but well-structured, a relational database reigns supreme.
As you can see, relational databases can be used for nearly any type of task that requires multiple points of data which correlate, that need to be structured and organized, and quickly queried.
How Do Relational Databases Differ from Other Types Of Databases?
If you find yourself still puzzling over the question, “What is a relational database?”, then perhaps a quick comparison to other types of databases will prove to be enlightening for you!
Let’s compare each type of database with relational databases to find how they differ from one another.
While all databases store data in some form or another, not all store data in such a highly structured way as relational databases do.
NoSQL, or non-relational databases, are the antithesis to relational databases. Rather than following strict rules about how and where data is stored, NoSQL databases allow for unstructured and semi-structured data to be saved. This type of database emerged as a response to complex web applications, which required a more immediate and less permanent exchange of data.
Graph databases are also quite different from relational databases. Rather than representing data in a series of tables, rows, and columns, graph databases represent data as a spider web of related objects. Rather than putting importance into the organization, structure, and query-ability of a database, those who choose to work with a graph database are interested in how their points, or nodes, of data, connect. Such databases work well when discovering connections between people, business, and criminal activities, and so are incredibly useful.
The youngest of the databases is the self-driving database. It is a cloud-based database that can automate updates, backups, tuning, and routine tasks. Unlike the traditional relational database, it is far more modern and sophisticated.
What Is The Future Of Relational Databases?
For now, it is still quite wild to think that will abandon relational databases within the next fifty years. People will continue to need to store data in a structured, secure, and manageable way. However, as applications continue to increase in complexity, and more programs and processes begin to rely on the cloud network, we may find ourselves depending on relational databases less and less as technology continues to improve.
The invention of self-driving databases marks the turning point into another, yet unforeseen era where databases are all multi-model and system managers have become obsolete. Who knows what kinds of databases will be invented next!