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Engineering LibreTexts

9.1: Data and Databases

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  • Learning Objectives

    Upon successful completion of this chapter, you will be able to:

    • Describe the differences between data, information, and knowledge
    • Describe Database, Database Management System, and Database Types
    • Characterize the contribution of databases to websites
    • Identify relational database elements
    • Identify Fields, Records, and Tables
    • Recognize that tables can have relationships
    • Identify Data Warehouse and Data Mining
    • Recognize Meta Data and their use
    • Recognize the need for database security


    You have already been introduced to hardware and software. However, those two components by themselves do not make a computer useful. Imagine if you turned on a computer, started the word processor, but could not save a document. Imagine if you opened a music player but there was no music to play. Imagine opening a web browser but there were no web pages. Without data, hardware and software are not very useful! Data is the third component of an information system.

    Data, Information, and Knowledge

    Data are the raw bits and pieces of information with no context. If I told you, “15, 23, 14, 85,” you would not have learned anything. But I would have given you data.

    Data can be quantitative or qualitative. Quantitative data is numeric, the result of a measurement, count, or some other mathematical calculation. Qualitative data is descriptive. “Ruby Red,” the color of a 2013 Ford Focus, is an example of qualitative data. A number can be qualitative too: if I tell you my favorite number is 5, that is qualitative data because it is descriptive, not the result of a measurement or mathematical calculation.

    By itself, data is not that useful. To be useful, it needs to be given context. Returning to the example above, if I told you that “15, 23, 14, and 85″ are the numbers of students that had registered for upcoming classes, that would be information. By adding the context – that the numbers represent the count of students registering for specific classes – I have converted data into information.

    Once we have put our data into context, aggregated and analyzed it, we can use it to make decisions for our organization. We can say that this consumption of information produces knowledge. This knowledge can be used to make decisions, set policies, and even spark innovation.

    The final step up the information ladder is the step from knowledge (knowing a lot about a topic) to wisdom. We can say that someone has wisdom when they can combine their knowledge and experience to produce a deeper understanding of a topic. It often takes many years to develop wisdom on a particular topic, and requires patience.

    Examples of Data

    Almost all software programs require data to do anything useful. For example, if you are editing a document in a word processor such as Microsoft Word, the document you are working on is the data. The word-processing software can manipulate the data: create a new document, duplicate a document, or modify a document. Some other examples of data are: an MP3 music file, a video file, a spreadsheet, a web page, and an e-book. In some cases, such as with an e-book, you may only have the ability to read the data.


    The goal of many information systems is to transform data into information in order to generate knowledge that can be used for decision making. In order to do this, the system must be able to take data, put the data into context, and provide tools for aggregation and analysis. A database is designed for just such a purpose.

    A database is an organized collection of related information. It is an organized collection, because in a database, all data is described and associated with other data. All information in a database should be related as well; separate databases should be created to manage unrelated information. For example, a database that contains information about students should not also hold information about company stock prices. Databases are not always digital – a filing cabinet, for instance, might be considered a form of a database. For the purposes of this text, we will only consider digital databases.

    Database Types

    While there are a number of databases available for use like MySQL, node.js, and Access, there is an additional list of the types of database structures each of these belongs to. These types each represent a different organizational method of storing the information and denoting how elements within the data relate to each other. We will look at the three you are most likely to come across in the web development world, but this is still not an exhaustive representation of every approach available.


    Flat File

    Edit section

    Flat files are flat in that the entire database is stored in one file, usually separating data by one or more delimiters, or separating markers, that identify where elements and records start and end. If you have ever used Excel or another spreadsheet program, then you have already interacted with a flat-file database. This structure is useful for smaller amounts of data; such are spreadsheets and personal collections of movies. Typically these are comma-separated value files, .csv being a common extension. This refers to the fact that values in the file are separated by commas to identify where they start and end, with records marked by terminating characters like a new line, or by a different symbol like a colon or semi-colon.

    The nature of all data being in one file makes the database easily portable, and somewhat human-readable. However, information that would be repeated in the data would be written out fully in each record. Following our movie example, this could be the producer, studio, or actors. They have what we call a one-to-many relationship with other data in the database that cannot be tracked in this format.

    Structured Query/Relational Database Edit section

    Structured query databases can be viewed similarly to flat files in that the presentation of a section of data can be viewed as its own table, similar to a single spreadsheet. The difference is that instead of one large file, the data is broken up based on user needs and by grouping related data together into different tables. You could picture this as a multi-page spreadsheet, with each page containing different information.

    What we do not have yet is a way to link these elements together. There is also a lot of information we do not want to include because we can determine it from something else. For example, we do not want to store the actors' age, or we would have to update the table every year on their birthday. Since we already have their birth date, we can have the server do the math based on the current date and their birth date to determine how old they are each time it is asked.

    The structured query is a human-readable (relatively) sentence-style language that uses a fixed vocabulary to describe what data we want and how to manipulate it. Part of this comes from adding extra tables.

    While this style can be very fast and efficient in terms of storage size, interacting with the data through queries can be difficult as both one-to-many and many-to-many relationships are best represented through intermediary tables like we described above (one-to-one relationships are typically found within the same table, or as a value in one table directly referencing another table). In order to piece our records together, we need an understanding of the relationships between the data.


    Edit section

    Structured query language databases are a very popular data storage method in web development. MySQL, commonly pronounced as “my seequl” or “my s q l,” is a relational database structure that is an open source implementation of the structured query language. The relational element arises from the file structure, which in this case refers to the fact that data is separated into multiple files based on how the elements of the data relate to one another in order to create a more efficient storage pattern that takes up less space.

    MySQL plays the role of our data server, where we will store information that we want to be able to manipulate based on user interaction. Contents are records, like all the items available in Amazon’s store. User searches and filters affect how much of the data is sent from the database to the web server, allowing the page to change at the user’s request.


    We organize data in MySQL by breaking it into different groups, called tables. Within these tables are rows and columns, in which each row is a record of data and each column identifies the nature of the information in that position. The intersection of a row and column is a cell or one piece of information. Databases are collections of tables that represent a system. You can imagine a database server like a file cabinet. Each drawer represents a database on our server. Inside those drawers are folders that hold files. The folders are like our tables, each of which holds multiple records. In a file cabinet, our folders hold pieces of paper or records, just like the individual rows in a table. While this may seem confusing now, we will see it in action soon; this is the approach we will focus on for this section of the text.


    Unstructured data, typically categorized as qualitative data, cannot be processed and analyzed via conventional data tools and methods. Since unstructured data does not have a predefined data model, it is best managed in non-relational (NoSQL) databases. Another way to manage unstructured data is to use data lakes to preserve it in raw form.

    The importance of unstructured data is rapidly increasing. Recent projections indicate that unstructured data is over 80% of all enterprise data, while 95% of businesses prioritize unstructured data management.


    NoSQL databases represent systems that maintain collections of information that do not specify relationships within or between each other. In reality, a more appropriate name would be NoRel or NoRelation as the focus is on allowing data to be more free form.

    Most NoSQL systems follow a key-value pairing system where each element of data is identified by a label. These labels are used as consistently as possible to establish common points of reference from file to file, but may not be present in each record. Records in these systems can be represented by individual files. In MongoDB, the file structure is a single XML formatted record in each file, or it can be ALL records as a single XML file. Searching for matches in a situation like this involves analyzing each record, or the whole file, for certain values.

    These systems excel when high numbers of static records need to be stored. The more frequently data needs to be changed, the more you may find performance loss here. However, searching these static records can be significantly faster than relational systems, especially when the relational system is not properly normalized. This is actually an older approach to data storage that has been resurrected by modern technology’s ability to capitalize on its benefits, and there are dozens of solutions vying for market dominance in this sector. Unless you are constructing a system with big data considerations or high volumes of static records, relational systems are still the better starting place for most systems.


    Semi-structured data (e.g., JSON, CSV, XML) is the “bridge” between structured and unstructured data. It does not have a predefined data model and is more complex than structured data, yet easier to store than unstructured data.

    Semi-structured data uses “metadata” (e.g., tags and semantic markers) to identify specific data characteristics and scale data into records and preset fields. Metadata ultimately enables semi-structured data to be better cataloged, searched, and analyzed than unstructured data.

    • Example of metadata usage: An online article displays a headline, a snippet, a featured image, image alt-text, slug, etc., which helps differentiate one piece of web content from similar pieces.
    • Example of semi-structured data vs. structured data: A tab-delimited file containing customer data versus a database containing CRM tables.
    • Example of semi-structured data vs. unstructured data: A tab-delimited file versus a list of comments from a customer’s Instagram.

    Before the Advent of Database Systems

    The way in which computers manage data has come a long way over the last few decades. Today’s users take for granted the many benefits found in a database system. However, it wasn’t that long ago that computers relied on a much less elegant and costly approach to data management called the file-based system.

    File-based System

    One way to keep information on a computer is to store it in permanent files. A company system has a number of application programs; each of them is designed to manipulate data files. These application programs have been written at the request of the users in the organization. New applications are added to the system as the need arises. The system just described is called the file-based system.

    Consider a traditional banking system that uses the file-based system to manage the organization’s data shown in Figure 1.1. As we can see, there are different departments in the bank. Each has its own applications that manage and manipulate different data files. For banking systems, the programs may be used to debit or credit an account, find the balance of an account, add a new mortgage loan, and generate monthly statements.

    Diagram with three coloured drawings: one of a woman and two men sitting and talking; the second shows a man shaking hands with a woman, both are standing and holding briefcases; the third is of a woman sitting. There are also drawings of labelled files, such as Employees, Checking Accounts and Mortgage Loans.

    Figure 1.1. Example of a file-based system used by banks to manage data.

    Disadvantages of the file-based approach

    Using the file-based system to keep organizational information has a number of disadvantages. Listed below are five examples.

    Data redundancy

    Often, within an organization, files and applications are created by different programmers from various departments over long periods of time. This can lead to data redundancy, a situation that occurs in a database when a field needs to be updated in more than one table. This practice can lead to several problems such as:

    • Inconsistency in data format
    • The same information being kept in several different places (files)
    • Data inconsistency, a situation where various copies of the same data are conflicting, wastes storage space and duplicates effort
    Data isolation

    Data isolation is a property that determines when and how changes made by one operation become visible to other concurrent users and systems. This issue occurs in a concurrency situation. This is a problem because:

    • It is difficult for new applications to retrieve the appropriate data, which might be stored in various files.
    Integrity problems

    Problems with data integrity is another disadvantage of using a file-based system. It refers to the maintenance and assurance that the data in a database are correct and consistent. Factors to consider when addressing this issue are:

    • Data values must satisfy certain consistency constraints that are specified in the application programs.
    • It is difficult to make changes to the application programs in order to enforce new constraints.
    Security problems

    Security can be a problem with a file-based approach because:

    • There are constraints regarding accessing privileges.
    • Application requirements are added to the system in an ad-hoc manner so it is difficult to enforce constraints.
    Concurrency access

    Concurrency is the ability of the database to allow multiple users access to the same record without adversely affecting transaction processing. A file-based system must manage, or prevent, concurrency by the application programs. Typically, in a file-based system, when an application opens a file, that file is locked. This means that no one else has access to the file at the same time.

    In database systems, concurrency is managed thus allowing multiple users access to the same record. This is an important difference between database and file-based systems.

    Database Approach

    The difficulties that arise from using the file-based system have prompted the development of a new approach in managing large amounts of organizational information called the database approach.

    Databases and database technology play an important role in most areas where computers are used, including business, education and medicine. To understand the fundamentals of database systems, we will start by introducing some basic concepts in this area.

    Role of databases in business

    Everybody uses a database in some way, even if it is just to store information about their friends and family. That data might be written down or stored in a computer by using a word-processing program or it could be saved in a spreadsheet. However, the best way to store data is by using database management software. This is a powerful software tool that allows you to store, manipulate and retrieve data in a variety of different ways.

    Most companies keep track of customer information by storing it in a database. This data may include customers, employees, products, orders or anything else that assists the business with its operations.

    The meaning of data

    Data are factual information such as measurements or statistics about objects and concepts. We use data for discussions or as part of a calculation. Data can be a person, a place, an event, an action or any one of a number of things. A single fact is an element of data, or a data element.

    If data are information and information is what we are in the business of working with, you can start to see where you might be storing it. Data can be stored in:

    • Filing cabinets
    • Spreadsheets
    • Folders
    • Ledgers
    • Lists
    • Piles of papers on your desk

    All of these items store information, and so too does a database. Because of the mechanical nature of databases, they have terrific power to manage and process the information they hold. This can make the information they house much more useful for your work.

    With this understanding of data, we can start to see how a tool with the capacity to store a collection of data and organize it, conduct a rapid search, retrieve and process, might make a difference to how we can use data. This book and the chapters that follow are all about managing information.

    Key Terms

    concurrency: the ability of the database to allow multiple users access to the same record without adversely affecting transaction processing

    data element: a single fact or piece of information

    data inconsistency: a situation where various copies of the same data are conflicting

    data isolation: a property that determines when and how changes made by one operation become visible to other concurrent users and systems

    data integrity: refers to the maintenance and assurance that the data in a database are correct and consistent

    data redundancy: a situation that occurs in a database when a field needs to be updated in more than one table

    database approach: allows the management of large amounts of organizational information

    database management software: a powerful software tool that allows you to store, manipulate and retrieve data in a variety of ways

    file-based system: an application program designed to manipulate data files


    1. Discuss each of the following terms:
      1. data
      2. Information
      3. Knowledge
      4. field
      5. record
      6. file
    2. What is data redundancy?
    3. Discuss the disadvantages of file-based systems.
    4. Explain the difference between data and information.
    5. Use Figure 1.2 (below) to answer the following questions.
      1. In the table, how many records does the file contain?
      2. How many fields are there per record?
      3. What problem would you encounter if you wanted to produce a listing by city?
      4. How would you solve this problem by altering the file structure?

    A table listing project codes, names of project managers, phone numbers, addresses and bid prices.

    Figure 1.2. Table for exercise #5, by A. Watt.

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