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Because the rows of a relational table are unordered, you cannot select a specific row by its position in the table. There is no "first row," "last row," or "thirteenth row" of a table. How then can you specify a particular row, such as the row for the Denver sales office In a well-designed relational database every table has some column or combination of columns whose values uniquely identify each row in the table. This column (or columns) is called the primary key of the table. Look once again at the OFFICES table in Figure 47. At first glance, either the OFFICE column or the CITY column could serve as a primary key for the table. But if the company expands and opens two sales offices in the same city, the CITY column could no longer serve as the primary key. In practice, "ID numbers," such as an office number (OFFICE in the OFFICES table), an employee number (EMPL_NUM in the SALESREPS table), and customer numbers (CUST_NUM in the CUSTOMERS table), are often chosen as primary keys. In the case of the ORDERS table there is no choice the only thing that uniquely identifies an order is its order number (ORDER_NUM). The PRODUCTS table, part of which is shown in Figure 4-8, is an example of a table where the primary key must be a combination of columns. The MFR_ID column identifies the manufacturer of each product in the table, and the PRODUCT_ID column specifies the manufacturer's product number. The PRODUCT_ID column might make a good primary key, but there's nothing to prevent two different manufacturers from using the same number for their products. Therefore, a combination of the MFR_ID and PRODUCT_ID columns must be used as the primary key of the PRODUCTS table. Every product in the table is guaranteed to have a unique combination of data values in these two columns.
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Figure 4-8: A table with a composite primary key
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The primary key has a different unique value for each row in a table, so no two rows of a table with a primary key are exact duplicates of one another. A table where every row is different from all other rows is called a relation in mathematical terms. The name "relational database" comes from this term, because relations (tables with distinct rows) are at the heart of a relational database. Although primary keys are an essential part of the relational data model, early relational database management systems (System/R, DB2, Oracle, and others) did not provide explicit support for primary keys. Database designers usually ensured that all of the tables in their databases had a primary key, but the DBMS itself did not provide a way to identify the primary key of a table. DB2 Version 2, introduced in April 1988, was the first of IBM's commercial SQL products to support primary keys. The ANSI/ISO standard was subsequently expanded to include a definition of primary key support.
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One of the major differences between the relational model and earlier data models is that explicit pointers, such as the parent/child relationships of a hierarchical database, are banned from relational databases. Yet obviously these relationships exist in a relational database. For example, in the sample database, each of the salespeople is assigned to a particular sales office, so there is an obvious relationship between the rows of the OFFICES table and the rows of the SALESREPS table. Doesn't the relational model "lose information" by banning these relationships from the database As shown in Figure 4-9, the answer to the question is "no." The figure shows a close-up of a few rows of the OFFICES and SALESREPS tables. Note that the REP_OFFICE column of the SALESREPS table contains the office number of the sales office where each salesperson works. The domain of this column (the set of legal values it may contain) is precisely the set of office numbers found in the OFFICE column of the OFFICES table. In fact, you can find the sales office where Mary Jones works by finding the value in Mary's REP_OFFICE column (11) and finding the row of the OFFICES table that has a matching value in the OFFICE column (in the row for the New York office). Similarly, to find all the salespeople who work in New York, you could note the OFFICE value for the New York row (11) and then scan down the REP_OFFICE column of the SALESREPS table looking for matching values (in the rows for Mary Jones and Sam Clark).
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