Data Modeling, Breaking & Fixing First Normal Form (1NF)

Friday Apr 9th 2004 by James Koopmann
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The inability to conform to the very basics of data modeling principles often causes enormous problems for data modelers, administrators and the development chain. Of those principles, adhering to 1NF is probably the most broken rule. When the model does not follow 1NF, queries are hard to develop and producing usable data from the model is even harder. This article explores some of the common mistakes and their fixes.

It has been my observation that a lot of us lack the basic skills required to model the simplest of database objects. This article will explore some of the common mistakes and fixes to the breaking of 1NF.

1NF Rule

First normal form has two very distinct rules:

  1. There must not be duplicate columns within a row of a table.
  2. There must not be more than one value for any column in a table.

In my years of data design there is one over-glaring mistake that a lot of "newbie" data modelers and database administrators make that cause enormous amounts of problems for themselves and others in the development chain. It is their inability to conform to the very basics of data modeling principles. Of those principles, adhering to 1NF is probably the most broken rule that I have seen. When the model does not follow 1NF, queries are hard to develop and producing usable data from the model is even harder. Typically, the developer will have to put some unusual logic, functions or application code around or within queries just to make the data manageable.

This article will walk you through these common mistakes and how you might begin to start working with those mistakes, if you find yourself in this unfortunate predicament.

Mistake 1, creating another column for a relationship

The first form of breaking 1NF is the creation of another column in a table, which really just duplicates a relationship to a primary key. For this example, let's assume that a distributor wants to keep a relationship for all of the cities in each of the states that they have a presence. Our junior modeler quickly creates a CITY table with two columns, one to hold the state value and the other to hold the city.

CITY

STATE

DENVER

COLORADO

This table is modeled quite well but because of the modelers' inexperience and because he has just learned that there are four other cities in Colorado that are relevant, he quickly adds four more columns to his CITY table. The table now looks like the following:

CITY

STATE

CITY2

CITY3

CITY4

CITY5

DENVER

COLORADO

BOULDER

ASPEN

MONTROSE

PUEBLO

DETROIT

MICHIGAN

LANSING

     

DALLAS

TEXAS

HOUSTON

PARIS

   

Now you may say to yourself that this isn't so bad because we will only ever have 5 cities in the state of Colorado and therefore putting all of these for quick access in one table is quite efficient. While you are correct to some extent the real problem comes into play when you wish to extract the information.

One of the first questions you will get is to list all the cities in each of the states where the company has a distributor. You could easily issue the following SQL in Listing 1. This works just fine but when you try and put the result set into an application or a developer requests that the information be put into a single column output so they do not have to traverse the list of cities, the real problems begin. This request equates to producing output where one city is represented on one line with the state to which it belongs. To do this there, the SQL gets a bit interesting and quickly cumbersome to work with. Listing 2 gives just such an example where we must union together a select statement for each iteration of the cities contained in the row. The reason for the NOT NULL is because we do not want to return an empty row where there is not a city for the individual iteration. In addition, for small tables this is not quite a big deal, but this query will produce multiple table scans and if there are more than a few rows, you will have a performance problem.

Just as you start to pat yourself on the back, the next question you will be asked is if you can provide a query to determine if the company has a distributor in a particular city. Listing 3 gives you a solution to this question. Remember we must build on the prior example since typically, this will be coming from a developer and they would like the output in a single column output. This query can quickly be tailored to answer the question of in which cities in a particular state do we have distributors, or how many cities in a particular state do we have a distributor. This last question is answered in Listing 4.

Listing 1.
Simple method to display cities for states

SQL> Select state, city, city2, city3, city4, city5 from CITY;

STATE      CITY       CITY2      CITY3      CITY4      CITY5
---------- ---------- ---------- ---------- ---------- ----------
TEXAS      DALLAS     HOUSTON    PARIS
COLORADO   DENVER     BOULDER    ASPEN      MONTROSE   PUEBLO
MICHIGAN   DETROIT    LANSING

 

Listing 2.
Display cities for states in a true single column output

SQL> select state,city  city from CITY where city  is not null union
     select state,city2 city from CITY where city2 is not null union
     select state,city3 city from CITY where city3 is not null union
     select state,city4 city from CITY where city4 is not null union
     select state,city5 city from CITY where city5 is not null
      order by state;

STATE      CITY
---------- ----------
COLORADO   ASPEN
COLORADO   BOULDER
COLORADO   DENVER
COLORADO   MONTROSE
COLORADO   PUEBLO
MICHIGAN   DETROIT
MICHIGAN   LANSING
TEXAS      DALLAS
TEXAS      HOUSTON
TEXAS      PARIS

Listing 3.
Do we have a distributor in Denver

SQL> select state,city from (
     select state,city  city from CITY where city is not null union
     select state,city2 city from CITY where city2 is not null union
     select state,city3 city from CITY where city3 is not null union
     select state,city4 city from CITY where city4 is not null union
     select state,city5 city from CITY where city5 is not null)
      where city = 'DENVER';

STATE      CITY
---------- ----------
COLORADO   DENVER

Listing 4.
How many distributors do we have in each state

SQL> select state,count(*) Distributor_Count from (
     select state,city  city from CITY where city is not null union
     select state,city2 city from CITY where city2 is not null union
     select state,city3 city from CITY where city3 is not null union
     select state,city4 city from CITY where city4 is not null union
     select state,city5 city from CITY where city5 is not null)
      group by state;

STATE      DISTRIBUTOR_COUNT
---------- -----------------
COLORADO                   5
MICHIGAN                   2
TEXAS                      3

Mistake 2, internal array element

This second form of breaking 1NF takes the form of creating a column that contains many values of an attribute. Taking from our CITY table example, this mistake makes our CITY table look like the one in Listing 5. This is a much worse form of breaking 1NF than our first mistake. It has the added difficulty of no boundaries for columns in the city except for the comma separator. It is prone to errors in data entry around the comma-separated fields. Sometimes we will encounter spaces before or after the comma that can play havoc on any parsing that we may want to do.

Listing 5
City table with internal array structure

STATE

CITY

COLORADO

DENVER,BOULDER,ASPEN,MONTROSE,PUEBLO

MICHIGAN

DETROIT,LANSING

TEXAS

DALLAS,HOUSTON,PARIS

Since there are no columns and we are not quite sure of the number of cities that any one column may or may not have, our only solution to this problem is to create some logic (application) to extract the information from this column. In Listing 6, there is code to make this mistake behave just like a normal table. In order to accomplish this task we need to do the following.

  1. Rename the CITY table. This is done since we are going to want to keep access to this data through the same object name of CITY.
  2. Create a few abstract data types for manipulating our output.
  3. Create a function that will be called when requesting information from the CITY table
  4. Create a view called CITY.
  5. Now you can just select directly from the CITY view.

Listing 6
Making an internal array listing behave like normal rows

RENAME city TO city_tb
/
CREATE TYPE CITY_TY AS OBJECT
       (STATE  CHAR(10),
        CITY   VARCHAR2(100))
/
CREATE TYPE CITY_TY_TB AS TABLE OF CITY_TY
/
CREATE OR REPLACE FUNCTION CITY_FC
         RETURN CITY_TY_TB PIPELINED IS
         PRAGMA AUTONOMOUS_TRANSACTION; 
TYPE         ref0 IS REF CURSOR;
cur0         ref0;
out_rec      city_ty 
          := city_ty(NULL,NULL);

vcity     VARCHAR2(100);
vstartpos NUMBER;
vendpos   NUMBER;
vlastpos  NUMBER;
BEGIN
OPEN cur0 FOR 'select state,city,instr(city,'','',1),instr(city,'','',-1) from city_tb';
LOOP
  vstartpos := 1;
  FETCH cur0 INTO out_rec.state, vcity, vendpos, vlastpos;
  EXIT WHEN cur0%NOTFOUND;
  IF vlastpos = 0 THEN
    out_rec.city := vcity;
    PIPE ROW(out_rec);
  END IF;
  LOOP
    EXIT WHEN vlastpos = 0;
    select instr(vcity,',',vstartpos) into vendpos from dual;
    IF vendpos = vlastpos THEN
      out_rec.city := substr(vcity,vstartpos,vendpos-vstartpos);
      PIPE ROW(out_rec);
      out_rec.city := substr(vcity,vlastpos+1);
      PIPE ROW(out_rec);
      EXIT;
    END IF;
    out_rec.city := substr(vcity,vstartpos,vendpos-vstartpos);
    PIPE ROW(out_rec);
    vstartpos := vendpos+1;
  END LOOP;
END LOOP;
CLOSE cur0;
RETURN;
END CITY_FC;
/
CREATE OR REPLACE VIEW CITY AS 
  SELECT a.state,a.city
  FROM TABLE(CITY_FC) a
/

The breaking of 1NF can and does cause havoc in all of our lives. Until you have the time and resources to fix the problem within the physical model, you must provide solutions that are easy for everyone to use. My suggestion to you is to come up with a solution that will work and allow you to fix the real problem with the least amount of impact on your user community. If you take an approach to put a view in place of the real table, let your user community select from that view, you will be able to hide the logic behind the scenes and hopefully one day fix the real problem and allow yourself to get rid of the view and underlying logic.

» See All Articles by Columnist James Koopmann

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