Relational database systems underpin the majority of the managed data storage in computer systems. This course presents an overview of the development life cycle for a database system and highlights how the database development differs from traditional software development.

After studying this course, you should be able to:

  • describe the key points of the waterfall model applied to database development

  • appreciate the roles of various development artefacts, such as the data requirements document, conceptual data model and such like used to communicate between activities in the database development life cycle

  • communicate effectively about aspects of the development of databases.



In this course we look at an outline of the stages involved in the development of a database. We consider the broader issue of how to decide what should be in a database and how to structure the tables that should be included. Our aim is to give you a basic development method so that you can see how a basic database system is developed. We don't argue that this specific method is the most applicable to any given situation – however, we do consider that this method is straightforward and will allow you to contextualise or, by comparison, consider a range of database development techniques.

Before we consider the development method in more detail let's discuss why we need to take a formal approach to database development. After all, it is quite simple to use structured query language (SQL) CREATE TABLE statements to define tables, or to use the facilities of a database tool to define them for you. Once developed, the tables can be manipulated and displayed in many different ways, again using SQL statements, a database tool or an application development tool. However, uncontrolled ad hoc creation of tables by end users leads to an unmanageable and unusable database environment, and can result in the inclusion of multiple copies of potentially inconsistent data. In effect, this can create islands of data within which the end users cannot find the data that they require.

SQL is a special kind of computer language used for relational databases. These initials originated from 'structured query language'. Although this phrase is no longer used the initials SQL still are. SQL is an essential part of the practical understanding of relational databases, but we are only concerned that you appreciate its role in defining and accessing a database.

To recognise why methodical development is an issue, let's look at a very simple example. A hotel provides its clients with accommodation, food and drink and wants to record what each client spends for each cost category so that, as they leave, each client is presented with an itemised bill for all they have spent.

The problem is that there is not just one way in which we can choose tables for this purpose. We can suggest three alternative ways of satisfying the basic requirement of being able to record the data that the hotel has specified. Occurrences of data for two example clients (arbitrarily identified by a code) for each method are shown in  3. The billing data for both the clients are the same in all three figures, but represented differently.

Figure 1
Figure 1 First hotel example table

In Figure 1  there is one table, Bill, which has a row for each client and a column for each cost category. When a client does not spend any money for a category, there is simply no entry.

Figure 2
Figure 2 Second hotel example tables

In Figure 2  there are three tables, Accommodation, Food and Drink, corresponding to each of the three cost categories, and each table has a row for a client only if they have spent money in that billing category.

Figure 3
Figure 3 Third hotel example table

In Figure 3  there is one table, Cost, which has a row for each item of cost, with an associated column describing the category of that cost.

We are not going to say which is the best option to choose, mainly because this decision really involves a lot more understanding of the user's requirements than we have presented here. In particular, it is important to know whether the data may be used for some other purpose (such as monitoring regular clients) and whether there may be a requirement to include additional data at some time (such as the cost of telephone calls).

Exercise 1

For the three options given for the hotel example, describe how each one would allow for the inclusion of data about the cost of telephone calls.

You can see from Solution 1 that any additional data can have a different impact on each alternative data-recording technique. Databases may be expected to change, so you need to appreciate that making the right choice of tables is important for the long-term success of the database implementation.

The message from this simple example then is that a relational database is not just a collection of tables created at the whim of a user but should be seen as a coordinated set of tables designed to satisfy some specified requirements. What is needed is a way of developing and designing a database to allow the requirements to be identified clearly and taken into account.