A series of posts in response to Tim Ford’s #EntryLevel Challenge.

Part I: Getting started with Oracle Database

Part II: What is a Database?

Part III: What is a Relational Database?

Part IV: What is a Database Management System?

Part V: What makes a Database Management System relational?

What Is a Database Management System?

Database management systems such as Oracle are the interface between users and databases. Database management systems differ in the range of features they provide, but all of them offer certain core features such as transaction management, data integrity, and security. And, of course, they offer the ability to create databases and to define their structure, as well as to store, retrieve, update, and delete the data in the databases.

Transaction Management

A transaction is a unit of work that may involve several small steps, all of which are necessary in order not to compromise the integrity of the database. For example, a logical operation such as inserting a row into a table may involve several physical operations such as index updates, trigger operations, and recursive operations. A transaction may also involve multiple logical operations. For example, transferring money from one bank account to another may require that two separate rows be updated. A DBMS needs to ensure that transactions are atomic, consistent, isolated, and durable.

The Atomicity Property of Transactions

It’s always possible for a transaction to fail at any intermediate step. For example, users may lose their connection to the database, or the database may run out of space and may not be able to accommodate new data that a user is trying to store. If a failure occurs, the database management system performs automatic rollback of the work that has been performed so far. Transactions are therefore atomic or indivisible from a logical perspective. The end of a transaction is indicated by an explicit instruction such as COMMIT.

The Consistency Property of Transactions

Transactions also have the consistency property. That is, they don’t compromise the integrity of the database. However, it’s easy to see that a database may be temporarily inconsistent during the operation of the transaction. In the previous example, the database is in an inconsistent state when money has been subtracted from the balance in the first account but has not yet been added to the balance in the second account.

The Isolation Property of Transactions

Transactions also have the isolation property; that is, concurrently occurring transactions must not interact in ways that produce incorrect results. A database management system must be capable of ensuring that the results produced by concurrently executing transactions are serializable: the outcome must be the same as if the transactions were executed in serial fashion instead of concurrently.

For example, suppose that one transaction is withdrawing money from a bank customer’s checking account, and another transaction is simultaneously withdrawing money from the same customer’s savings account. Let’s assume that negative balances are permitted as long as the sum of the balances in the two accounts isn’t negative. Suppose that the operation of the two transactions proceeds in such a way that each transaction determines the balances in both accounts before either of them has had an opportunity to update either balance. Unless the database management system does something to prevent it, this can potentially result in a negative sum.

The Durability Property of Transactions

Transactions also have the durability property. This means once all the steps in a transaction have been successfully completed and the user notified, the results must be considered permanent even if there is a subsequent computer failure, such as a damaged disk. I return to this topic in the chapters on database backups and recovery; for now, note that the end of a transaction is indicated by an explicit command such as COMMIT.

Data Integrity 

Data loses its value if it can’t be trusted to be correct. A database management system provides the ability to define and enforce what are called integrity constraints. These are rules you define, with which data in the database must comply. For example, you can require that employees not be hired without being given a salary or an hourly pay rate.

The database management system rejects any attempt to violate the integrity constraints when inserting, updating, or deleting data records and typically displays an appropriate error code and message. In fact, the very first Oracle error code, ORA-00001, relates to attempts to violate an integrity constraint. It’s possible to enforce arbitrary constraints using trigger operations; these can include checks that are as complex as necessary, but the more common types of constraints are check constraints, uniqueness constraints, and referential constraints. These work as follows:

  • Check constraints: Check constraints are usually simple checks on the value of a data item. For example, a price quote must not be less than $0.00.
  • Uniqueness constraints: A uniqueness constraint requires that some part of a record be unique. For example, two employees may not have the same employee number. A unique part of a record is called a candidate key, and one of the candidate keys is designated as the primary key. Intuitively, you expect every record to have at least one candidate key; otherwise, you would have no way of specifying which records you needed. Note that the candidate key can consist of a single item from the data record, a combination of items, or even all the items.
  • Referential constraints: Consider an employee database in which all payments to employees are recorded in a table called SALARY. The employee number in a salary record must obviously correspond to the employee number in some employee record; this is an example of a referential constraint.

Data Security

A database management system gives the owners of the data a lot of control over their data—they can delegate limited rights to others if they choose to. It also gives the database administrator the ability to restrict and monitor the actions of users. For example, the database administrator can disable the password of an employee who leaves the company, to prevent them from gaining access to the database. Relational database management systems use techniques such as views (virtual tables defined in terms of other tables) and query modification to give individual users access to just those portions of data they’re authorized to use.

Oracle also offers extensive query-modification capabilities under the heading Virtual Private Database (VPD). Additional query restrictions can be silently and transparently appended to the query by policy functions associated with the tables in the query. For example, the policy functions may generate additional query restrictions that allow employees to retrieve information only about themselves and their direct reports between the hours of 9 a.m. and 5 p.m. on weekdays only.

Part I: Getting started with Oracle Database

Part II: What is a Database?

Part III: What is a Relational Database?

Part IV: What is a Database Management System?

Part V: What makes a Database Management System relational?

Excerpted from Beginning Oracle Database 12c Administration