Table Keys


The last step in table construction is to specify the keys attached to the table, the columns that make up each key, and the priority of each column within the key. Keys are also assigned priorities, but this is only relevant for certain types (see Rules for Keys). The order in which keys and key columns are designated determines their priorities.

Keys are used to provide access to records in the table. Autounique and unique keys ensure that no two records in a given table will have identical values in the columns making up these keys.

The Autounique Key

The autounique key is similar to the identity column in MSSQL or sequence in Oracle. It allows you to create a column that will automatically distinguish between all records in the table. This column automatically receives a unique integer each time a record is added.

Example: The autounique key comprised of the CUST column assigns a unique internal number to each customer. This is distinguished from the user-assigned customer number (CUSTNAME) that appears in the forms.

The autounique key is an effective means of joining tables in a form. For example, the customer number appears both in the Customers form and the Orders form. Rather than joining the CUSTOMERS and ORDERS tables through the customer number, they are joined through the CUST column. The advantage is twofold: First, the unique value of the CUST column, which joins the tables, always remains constant, while the customer number, which is only stored in a single table (CUSTOMERS), may be changed at will. Thus, if at some stage, a decision is made to add a “P” to the numbers of preferred customers, the revision will only be made in the records of the CUSTOMERS table. The ORDERS table will not be affected at all.

Similarly, a decision to modify the width of the CUSTNAME column would only require a change in the CUSTOMERS table. Had the join been made through the CUSTNAME column, then any changes would have to be made in all the appropriate records in the ORDERS table, as well as in the CUSTOMERS table.

Of course, the situation is aggravated manifold, as customer data are imported into other tables as well.

A parallel example concerns the one-to-many relationship between the ORDERS and the ORDERITEMS table (the latter stores details regarding the ordered parts). It is better to join these tables via the internal order number (the autounique key) than the user-designated order number. In that way, the user can update the order number where needed, without having to update each of the order items as well.

An autounique key should be included in any tables which contain basic elements. The reference is to data which remain relatively constant and which are likely to be imported into other tables (e.g., customers, parts, warehouses). Hence, it is included in the CUSTOMERS, PART and WAREHOUSES tables.

Furthermore, an autounique key should be assigned to tables whose records have a one-to-many relationship with the records of another table.

Example: As there are several order items for each order, there is an autounique key in the ORDERS tables.

Unique Keys

A unique key allows for rapid data retrieval via the columns that make up the key. Moreover, it ensures that no two records in a given table will have identical values in those columns. Every table must include at least one unique key.

Example: If a unique key includes FIRSTNAME and LASTNAME columns, then there will only be one record in the EMPLOYEES table for John Smith, although there can also be a record for John Doe or Jane Smith.

It should be emphasized that the modification of unique keys can be problematic if care is not taken. There are three danger zones: adding a unique key, deleting a column from a unique key and reducing the width of a column in the unique key. In all three cases, records can be deleted inadvertently from the database.

Before adding a unique key, ensure that values have been specified for the columns which comprise it; otherwise, all existing records will have the same value in the columns comprising the unique key. As this is not permitted, all but one of the records will automatically be erased!

A similar situation may arise from the deletion of a column from a unique key. If the deletion causes more than one record to contain the same values in its unique key (which is now made up of one less column), all but one of the records in question will be deleted from the database.

Example: If the unique key contains the columns FIRSTNAME and LASTNAME, then the record for Samuel Brown is distinguished from the record for Samuel Black. If you delete the LASTNAME column from the key, both records will have the same value (“Samuel”) in the key, and one will be deleted.

Finally, you may lose records by reducing the width of one of the columns that make up the unique key.

Example: The CUSTDES column, which is part of a unique key, was originally assigned a width of 12 and you reduce this to 8. If there is already data in this column, then the customers “North Stars” and “North Street” will both become “North St”. Consequently, these two records would have the same unique key, and one of them would be deleted.

Nonunique Key

The nonunique key is used to provide rapid access to data in the table. It should include columns which are frequently used to retrieve data and which contain highly diversified data.

Consider the difference between the following two columns in the ORDERS table: CUST, which stores a wide variety of internal customer numbers, and ORDTYPE, which classifies orders by type of sale. Obviously, the internal customer number distinguishes between records much better than the sale type. Moreover, it is much more likely that data will be retrieved by customer number than by sale type. In fact, you might design a query form (a sub-level of the Customers form, linked to it by the customer’s internal number) which displays all orders for each customer. Entrance into that form would be extremely slow if CUST were not a nonunique key.

Note that the header of any key is automatically treated as a nonunique key by the system. In this context, “header” is defined as a group of consecutive key columns starting from the first key column. This is true of unique and nonunique keys alike. This can be understood by considering the example of a phone book. Assuming that (1) entries are sorted first by last names and then by first names, (2) no person listed has more than one entry, and (3) no two persons listed share the same last and first names, then the unique key is comprised of two columns: LASTNAME and FIRSTNAME. So, if you know both a person’s last name and first name, you can find the telephone number rapidly by skipping forward and backward. However, if you only know the last name (the header of the unique key) and the address, you can skip to this last name and then move through all entries until you find the correct address. Moreover, you can stop checking when you have finished scanning the entries with this last name. On the other hand, if you only know the person’s first name and address, you would have no means of finding his or her telephone number without checking every single entry! Hence, the header of the key (LASTNAME in the above example) is helpful in accessing data, whereas the rest of the key, without the header, is of little use.

For a table with a unique key comprised of: internal order number (ORD), internal part number (PART) and date (CURDATE), both the ORD column and the pair ORD/PART would be considered nonunique. Another example is one of the nonunique keys of the ORDERS table, which is comprised of two columns: CUST and CLOSED. In this case, the CUST column is also treated as a nonunique key in its own right.

Rules for Keys

  • There may only be one autounique key per table. It must comprise a single column of INT type which does not appear in any other of the table’s keys, and it must be of first priority.
  • A table must have at least one unique key.
  • If there is an autounique key, it must be the first key (1) in the table and a unique key must be second. If there is no autounique key, one of the unique keys must have first priority.
  • The order in which key columns are designated determines their priorities.
  • The column to be included in the key must be included in the table to which the key is assigned.
  • If you add a column to a key without specifying column priority, it will automatically be assigned the last available priority (e.g., if the key includes two columns, the added column will receive a priority of 3).
  • Changing a key column’s priority will affect the priority of the other columns in the key.

Note: You can check the consequences of assigning key column priority by means of the SQL optimizer (see Executing SQL Statements).

Example: In a key comprised of the columns FIRSTNAME and LASTNAME in an EMPLOYEES table, you would give highest priority to LASTNAME and second priority to FIRSTNAME.
This would allow for rapid retrieval by LASTNAME:

Unique and Autounique keys also determine how record links are generated in forms that are based on them:

  • If the table has an autounique key and a single unique key, the record link will be based on the unique key column.
  • If the table has an autounique key and more than one unique key, and the autounique key column is displayed in the form, the record link will be based on the autounique key column.

Example: In the Sales Orders form (based on ORDERS), the link is based on the contents of ORDNAME, which is the unique key for the table. However, in the Contacts form (based on PHONEBOOK), the link is based on the autounique PHONE column.

Further Reading