Principles, Not Products

It's worth taking a few moments to examine the question of why, as I claimed earlier, you as a database professional need to know the relational model. The reason is that the relational model isn't product-specific; rather, it is concerned with principles. What do I mean by principles? Well, here's a definition (from Chambers Twentieth Century Dictionary):

principle: a source, root, origin: that which is fundamental: essential nature: theoretical basis: a fundamental truth on which others are founded or from which they spring

The point about principles is this: they endure. By contrast, products and technologies (and the SQL language, come to that) change all the time but principles don't. For example, suppose you know Oracle; in fact, suppose you're an expert on Oracle. But if Oracle is all you know, then your knowledge is not necessarily transferable to, say, a DB2 or SQL Server environment (it might even get in the way of your making progress in that new environment). But if you know the underlying principles in other words, if you know the relational model then you have knowledge and skills that will be transferable: knowledge and skills that you'll be able to apply in every environment and that will never be obsolete.

In this book, therefore, we'll be concerned with principles, not products, and foundations, not fads. Of course, I realize that sometimes you do have to make compromises and trade-offs in the real world. For one example, sometimes you might have good pragmatic reasons for not designing the database in the theoretically optimal way (an issue I discuss in Chapter 7). For another, consider SQL once again. Although it's certainly possible to use SQL relationally (for the most part, at any rate), sometimes you'll find because existing implementations are so far from perfect that there are severe performance penalties for doing so . . . in which case you might more or less be forced into doing something not "truly relational" (like writing a query in some weird and unnatural way in order to get the implementation to use an index). However, I believe very firmly that you should always make such compromises and trade-offs from a position of conceptual strength.That is:

  • You should understand what you're doing when you do have to make such a compromise.

  • You should know what the theoretically correct situation is, and you should have very good reasons for departing from it.

  • You should document those reasons, too, so that if they go away at some future time (for example, because a new release of the product you're using does a better job in some respect), then it might be possible to back off from the original compromise.

The following quote which is attributed to Leonardo da Vinci (1452-1519) and is thus some 500 years old! sums up the situation admirably:

Those who are enamored of practice without theory are like a pilot who goes into a ship without rudder or compass and never has any certainty where he is going. Practice should always be based on a sound knowledge of theory.

(OK, I added the italics.)

Database in Depth
Database in Depth: Relational Theory for Practitioners
ISBN: 0596100124
EAN: 2147483647
Year: 2006
Pages: 127
Authors: C.J. Date

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