Database normalizationis the process of organizing the fields and tables of a relational database to minimize redundancy. Normalization usually involves dividing large tables into smaller (and less redundant) tables and defining relationships between them. The objective is to isolate data so that additions, deletions, and modifications of a field can be made in just one table and then propagated through the rest of the database using the defined relationships.
Edgar F. Codd, the inventor of the relational model, introduced the concept of normalization and what we now know as the First Normal Form (1NF) in 1970. Codd went on to define the Second Normal Form (2NF) and Third Normal Form (3NF) in 1971, and Codd and Raymond F. Boyce defined the Boyce-Codd Normal Form (BCNF) in 1974. Informally, a relational database table is often described as "normalized" if it is in the Third Normal Form. Most 3NF tables are free of insertion, update, and deletion anomalies.
A basic objective of the first normal form defined by Edgar Frank "Ted" Codd in 1970 was to permit data to be queried and manipulated using a "universal data sub-language" grounded in first-order logic. (SQL is an example of such a data sub-language, albeit one that Codd regarded as seriously flawed.)
The objectives of normalization beyond 1NF (First Normal Form) were stated as follows by Codd:
1. To free the collection of relations from undesirable insertion, update and deletion dependencies;
2. To reduce the need for restructuring the collection of relations, as new types of data are introduced, and thus increase the life span of application programs;
3. To make the relational model more informative to users;
4. To make the collection of relations neutral to the query statistics, where these statistics are liable to change as time goes by.
— E.F. Codd, "Further Normalization of the Data Base Relational Model"
The sections below give details of each of these objectives.
Free the database of modification anomalies
- The same information can be expressed on multiple rows; therefore updates to the table may result in logical inconsistencies. For example, each record in an "Employees' Skills" table might contain an Employee ID, Employee Address, and Skill; thus a change of address for a particular employee will potentially need to be applied to multiple records (one for each skill). If the update is not carried through successfully—if, that is, the employee's address is updated on some records but not others—then the table is left in an inconsistent state. Specifically, the table provides conflicting answers to the question of what this particular employee's address is. This phenomenon is known as an update anomaly.
An update anomaly. Employee 519 is shown as having different addresses on different records.
- There are circumstances in which certain facts cannot be recorded at all. For example, each record in a "Faculty and Their Courses" table might contain a Faculty ID, Faculty Name, Faculty Hire Date, and Course Code—thus we can record the details of any faculty member who teaches at least one course, but we cannot record the details of a newly hired faculty member who has not yet been assigned to teach any courses except by setting the Course Code to null. This phenomenon is known as an insertion anomaly.
An insertion anomaly. Until the new faculty member, Dr. Newsome, is assigned to teach at least one course, his details cannot be recorded.
- Under certain circumstances, deletion of data representing certain facts necessitates deletion of data representing completely different facts. The "Faculty and Their Courses" table described in the previous example suffers from this type of anomaly, for if a faculty member temporarily ceases to be assigned to any courses, we must delete the last of the records on which that faculty member appears, effectively also deleting the faculty member. This phenomenon is known as a deletion anomaly.
A deletion anomaly. All information about Dr. Giddens is lost if he temporarily ceases to be assigned to any courses.
Minimize redesign when extending the database structure
When a fully normalized database structure is extended to allow it to accommodate new types of data, the pre-existing aspects of the database structure can remain largely or entirely unchanged. As a result, applications interacting with the database are minimally affected. It is very useful in table creation.
Make the data model more informative to users
Normalized tables, and the relationship between one normalized table and another, mirror real-world concepts and their interrelationships.
Avoid bias towards any particular pattern of querying
Normalized tables are suitable for general-purpose querying. This means any queries against these tables, including future queries whose details cannot be anticipated, are supported. In contrast, tables that are not normalized lend themselves to some types of queries, but not others.
For example, consider an online bookseller whose customers maintain wishlists of books they'd like to have. For the obvious, anticipated query—what books does this customer want?—it's enough to store the customer's wishlist in the table as, say, a homogeneous string of authors and titles.
With this design, though, the database can answer only that one single query. It cannot by itself answer interesting but unanticipated queries: What is the most-wished-for book? Which customers are interested in WWII espionage? How does Lord Byron stack up against his contemporary poets? Answers to these questions must come from special adaptive tools completely separate from the database. One tool might be software written especially to handle such queries. This special adaptive software has just one single purpose: in effect to normalize the non-normalized field.
Unforeseen queries can be answered trivially, and entirely within the database framework, with a normalized table.
Querying and manipulating the data within a data structure which is not normalized, such as the following non-1NF representation of customers' credit card transactions, involves more complexity than is really necessary:
To each customer corresponds a repeating group of transactions. The automated evaluation of any query relating to customers' transactions therefore would broadly involve two stages:
- Unpacking one or more customers' groups of transactions allowing the individual transactions in a group to be examined, and
- Deriving a query result based on the results of the first stage
For example, in order to find out the monetary sum of all transactions that occurred in October 2003 for all customers, the system would have to know that it must first unpack the Transactions group of each customer, then sum the Amounts of all transactions thus obtained where the Date of the transaction falls in October 2003.
One of Codd's important insights was that this structural complexity could always be removed completely, leading to much greater power and flexibility in the way queries could be formulated (by users and applications) and evaluated (by the DBMS). The normalized equivalent of the structure above would look like this:
Now each row represents an individual credit card transaction, and the DBMS can obtain the answer of interest, simply by finding all rows with a Date falling in October, and summing their Amounts. The data structure places all of the values on an equal footing, exposing each to the DBMS directly, so each can potentially participate directly in queries; whereas in the previous situation some values were embedded in lower-level structures that had to be handled specially. Accordingly, the normalized design lends itself to general-purpose query processing, whereas the unnormalized design does not.