Databases have been a staple of business computing from the very beginning of the digital era. In fact, the relational database was born in 1970 when E.F. Codd, a researcher at IBM, wrote a paper outlining the process. Since then, relational databases have grown in popularity to become the standard.
Originally, databases were flat. This means that the information was stored in one long text file, called a tab delimited file. Each entry in the tab delimited file is separated by a special character, such as a vertical bar (|). Each entry contains multiple pieces of information (fields) about a particular object or person grouped together as a record. The text file makes it difficult to search for specific information or to create reports that include only certain fields from each record. Here's an example of the file created by a flat database:
Lname, FName, Age, Salary|Smith, John, 35, $280|Doe, Jane, 28, $325|Brown, Scott, 41, $265|Howard, Shemp, 48, $359|Taylor, Tom, 22, $250
You can see that you have to search sequentially through the entire file to gather related information, such as age or salary. A relational database allows you to easily find specific information. It also allows you to sort based on any field and generate reports that contain only certain fields from each record. Relational databases use tables to store information. The standard fields and records are represented as columns (fields) and rows (records) in a table.
With a relational database, you can quickly compare information because of the arrangement of data in columns. The relational database model takes advantage of this uniformity to build completely new tables out of required information from existing tables. In other words, it uses the relationship of similar data to increase the speed and versatility of the database.
The "relational" part of the name comes into play because of mathmatical relations. A typical relational database has anywhere from 10 to more than 1,000 tables. Each table contains a column or columns that other tables can key on to gather information from that table.
By storing this information in another table, the database can create a single small table with the locations that can then be used for a variety of purposes by other tables in the database. A typical large database, like the one a big Web site, such as Amazon would have, will contain hundreds or thousands of tables like this all used together to quickly find the exact information needed at any given time.
Relational databases are created using a special computer language, structured query language (SQL), that is the standard for database interoperability. SQL is the foundation for all of the popular database applications available today, from Access to Oracle.
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