This blog is dedicated to Access related topics. Most of the topics relate to problems I have encountered in the course of database development or questions that people attending my Access training classes may raise from time to time

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Just as a real ice cream parlor needs tables where our patrons can sit and enjoy out products, our database model of ice cream sundaes will need tables in which to store information about our products.

In the previous installment of this series, we fleshed out the list of tables database will need. These are our main tables:

  • ingredients
  • dishes (containers)
  • sizes
  • sundaes
  • flavors

Because we will be combining ingredients in various ways with various container sizes and ingredients actually come in several flavors, we will need some additional tables to help us model the combinations. These tables will include:

  • sundae ingredients
  • ingredient flavors
  • sundae sizes
  • container sizes
  • sundae containers

Now it is time to determine what fields to include in each table. You may be starting to find this list just a little overwhelming. Try not to panic. It is really not all that bad as long as you tackle things a little bit at a time. So we will move ahead, slowly but confidently, one table at a time. For now, let's focus on the five central tables mentioned above.

Table definition refers to identifying the fields that are needed to describe the subject (or domain) of each table. So when I think about a table, I start to think about the kinds of information I need to describe the subject of the table.

We will keep these basic guidelines in mind:

  • each table describes only a single subject (entity)
  • the fields included in each table should describe the subject of the table (attributes).
  • data will be subdivided across multiple tables in order to
    • avoid duplication of data, and
    • avoid repeating groups of columns

I find that, in a database as focused on a single business solution as the ice cream sundae database is, a single table emerges as the central table at the heart of the application. Other tables in the database are needed only because they will have information that pertains to the central table.

So, for us, the central table appears to be the sundaes table. Let's start there. What information do I need to store to describe each sundae? Obviously each sundae needs a name. It will also need ingredients and, since I plan to offer each sundae type in a variety of sizes, it will need size information.

However, storing size and ingredient data in the main sundaes table will lead to immediate design problems. While I might be certain ahead of time exactly how many sizes I will be offering and the maximum number of flavors might be used in a sundae, including that information directly in the sundaes table will break one of our basic guidelines. I would have to have fields like flavor1, flavor2, flavor3, ingredient1, ingredient2, ingredient3. In database terms these would be examples of repeating columns.

So, what's the problem? Although not apparent at the outset of planning, repeating columns make retrieving useful information from stored data, unnecessarily complex. Even more important, repeating columns put serious limits on the future use of the database. No matter how certain you are ahead of time that you are describing how something is now and will ever remain the same, it is just not that easy to predict the future. If I "know" that I will only ever offer three sizes of sundae, small, medium, and large, the database (if I have included three size fields in the sundaes table) would not be able to handle changes I might have to make in order to remain competitive. Say, for example, that upstart competitor down the street starts stealing my customers because she has added a fourth or fifth size.

I have tried to describe the process by which I have determined what fields belong in the sundaes table. The process for deciding what fields to include each of the other main tables is the same. The following table shows the results of this analysis:

sundaes dishes sizes flavors ingredients
Name Name Name Name Name
  Type Type   Type
  Description Description    

You may find that the list of fields in each table is somewhat short. Each table includes a name field. The sundaes and flavors tables don't have any other fields. That's because most of how we describe sundaes, for example, is stored in other tables. Flavor names, on the other hand are pretty much self-descriptive.

The dishes, sizes and ingredients tables have type fields. We will use these fields to categorize dishes, sizes and ingredients, respectively. Dishes may be either edible, disposable (plastic for takeout) or reusable (glass or metal for eat-in.) Sizes may refer, for example to quantity when referring to ingredients, to capacity when referring to dishes, or to the end-product size description (small, medium, large, for example) when referring to sundaes. Ingredients may be principal ingredients, toppings, or garnishes, for example.

Now we have a working definition of our main tables. In the next article we will define the additional tables we will need to flesh out the connections needed between the main tables.