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3 Types of Data Modeling: Analyzing Data Modeling Examples

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Data models serve as the blueprint for organizing and structuring data in database systems and information management, and if well-designed, they can facilitate the efficient storage, retrieval, and manipulation of information. Businesses and professionals working with data need a thorough understanding of the three main data model types—the relational data model, hierarchical data model, and network data model—as well as their characteristics, applications, and the unique manner in which each handles data relationships.

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Relational Data Modeling

Like physical structures, data structures require proper planning and architecture in order to withstand the test of time and everyday use. The relational data model, introduced by Edgar Codd in 1970, revolutionized the way databases were conceived and implemented and still forms the backbone of modern relational database management systems (RDBMS). An RDBMS consists of the following elements:

  • Tables: In the relational model, data is organized into tables, with each table consisting of rows and columns. Each row represents a record, and each column represents an attribute.
  • Primary Keys: Tables in the relational model often have a primary key, a unique identifier for each record. This ensures that each row in a table can be uniquely identified.
  • Foreign Keys: Relationships between tables are established through foreign keys. A foreign key in one table refers to the primary key in another, creating a link between the two tables.

infographic showing the pros and cons of a relational data model

Key Differentiators

Relational data models offer a high degree of data independence, allowing changes in the database structure without affecting the entire system. Additionally, relational data models are closely associated with SQL, the standard language for interacting with databases.

A key benefit of the relational model is its straightforward design approach, which makes RDBMs easy to understand, implement, and change. Updates to a relational database structure can be accommodated without affecting the entire system. This flexibility and integrity is made possible by the use of primary and foreign keys (i.e., unique identifiers and relationships between tables).

However, the relational model in some cases may face performance issues, especially when dealing with complex queries. Scaling relational databases can be challenging, particularly when dealing with large amounts of data.

When to Use Relational Models

Relational models are widely used in business applications and enterprise use cases (managing customer data, inventory, and financial records, for example). Most software as a service (SaaS) offerings and web applications rely on relational databases to a certain degree for storing and retrieving information dynamically.

Relational Modeling Spotlight: MySQL

MySQL is a popular open-source relational database management system renowned for its efficiency, reliability, and scalability. Currently maintained by Oracle, MySQL is tailored to handle relational data, adhering to the principles of the relational model proposed by Edgar Codd.

Its fundamental architecture revolves around the concept of tables in which data is organized into rows and columns, creating a structured and easily understandable format. A crucial MySQL strength lies in its ability to support transactions, ensuring the integrity of the database by either executing all operations in a transaction or none at all, contributing to data consistency and reliability.

MySQL also provides a comprehensive suite of features essential to managing relational databases, including robust support for SQL (Structured Query Language), a powerful language for querying and manipulating databases. Furthermore, MySQL supports standard RDBMS constructs like stored procedures, triggers, and views, enabling developers to encapsulate complex logic within the database itself.

A view of relational tables in MySQL Workbench.
A view of relational tables in MySQL Workbench. Source: https://www.mysql.com/common/images/products/MySQL_Workbench_Visual_Design_Mac.png

Relational Modeling Spotlight: Oracle RDBMS

Oracle is the leading enterprise relational database on the market, renowned for its enterprise robustness, scalability, and extensive feature set for decades. Oracle databases excel in handling large volumes of data, making it a preferred choice for mission-critical applications in industries such as finance, telecommunications, and healthcare, to name a few.

Oracle also offers some uniquely advanced capabilities, including support for complex transactions, high availability, sophisticated security features, as well as its own SQL implementation known as Procedural Language/Structured Query Language (PL/SQL) that extends standard SQL functionality. Additionally, Oracle’s comprehensive suite of tools for database administration, monitoring, and performance tuning make it an ideal solution for large enterprises with demanding database requirements.

Data modeling using Oracle’s Data Modeler.
Data modeling using Oracle’s Data Modeler. Source: https://docs.oracle.com/en/database/oracle/sql-developer-data-modeler/19.4/dmdug/data-modeler-concepts-usage.html#GUID-66D94559-FCE1-4F56-BD58-FE4AE0292A2A

Hierarchical Data Modeling

Hierarchical data models were prevalent in the early days of database management systems, with the IBM Information Management System (IMS) serving as the most notable example. While less common today, hierarchical database systems are still relevant in specific applications and environments.

Hierarchical data modeling incorporates the following elements:

  • Tree-like Structures: In a hierarchical model, data is organized in a tree-like structure, with a single root representing the top-level entity. Each entity can have multiple child entities, creating a hierarchical relationship.
  • Parent-Child Relationships: Each entity (except the root) has a parent, and entities can have multiple children. This structure reflects real-world hierarchical relationships.
  • One-to-Many Relationships: Hierarchical models naturally represent one-to-many relationships, as each parent can have multiple children, but each child has only one parent.

infographic showing the pros and cons of a hierarchical data model

Key Differentiators

Hierarchical models are ideal for representing data with clear parent-child relationships, such as organizational structures or file systems with clear hierarchy. Also, the simple nature of hierarchical models makes for straightforward data retrieval, especially when navigating down the hierarchy from the root to specific nodes.

When to Use Hierarchical Models

Hierarchical models excel in representing specific data structures with clear hierarchies. The design of hierarchical databases is also simpler compared to other models. That said, hierarchical structures may not be appropriate for data that does not fit neatly into a tree-like hierarchy. For example, many-to-many relationships can be difficult to implement using hierarchical models—but top-down structures like organizational charts and file systems are ideal.

Hierarchical Modeling Spotlight: IBM IMS

IBM Information Management System (IMS) is an early and influential hierarchical database management system with a pivotal role in the evolution of information management. Released by IBM in the 1960s, IMS was designed to efficiently handle hierarchical data structures and support applications where data relationships follow a clear parent-child hierarchy.

In IMS, data is organized in a tree-like structure, with each record having a parent and potentially multiple children, reflecting real-world hierarchical relationships. This inherent structure makes IMS particularly adept at managing data scenarios such as organizational structures, where entities have distinct levels of authority or precedence.

IMS’s key strength lies in its efficiency in handling one-to-many relationships, a common characteristic of hierarchical structures. Each IMS record type is defined by a hierarchical schema, allowing for a clear representation of relationships and dependencies between different data entities.

An IBM IMS hierarchical data model.
An IBM IMS hierarchical data model. Source: https://www.ibmmainframer.com/imsdb-tutorial/ims-terminology/

Hierarchical Modeling Spotlight: Windows Registry

You don’t have to look far to find a common hierarchical database implementation—the Windows Registry is a hierarchical database used by the Microsoft Windows operating system for storing system configuration and user settings. The Windows Registry organizes information in a tree-like structure, mirroring the structure of directories and files; within this hierarchical framework, keys represent nodes, and values encapsulate data associated with specific settings.

The Windows Registry is instrumental to the proper functioning of Windows, acting as the centralized repository for application configuration data, user preferences, hardware settings, and system parameters. Its hierarchical nature allows for the efficient retrieval of information, with each key serving as a distinct category and containing subkeys that further refine and specify configurations.

Hierarchical data model structure in Windows Registry.
Hierarchical data model structure in Windows Registry. Source: https://learn.microsoft.com/en-us/windows/win32/sysinfo/structure-of-the-registry.

Network Data Model

The network data model emerged as an evolution of the hierarchical model, addressing some of its predecessor’s limitations. Network data modeling introduced the concept of a network structure, allowing more flexibility in representing complex relationships.

Primary Network Data Modeling Elements

Network data models are composed of the following elements:

  • Graph-like Structure: The network model represents data as a graph, with nodes representing entities and edges representing relationships. Unlike the hierarchical model, nodes can have multiple parents or children.
  • Records and Sets: In a network model, records are similar to entities in the hierarchical model, and sets are similar to relationships. Records can be members of multiple sets, enabling more complex relationships.
  • Many-to-Many Relationships: The network model supports many-to-many relationships, providing greater flexibility than the hierarchical model.

infographic showing the pros and cons of a network data model

Key Differentiators

The network model’s affinity for representing complex relationships makes it suitable for scenarios where entities have multiple connections and flexibility in relationships is required. Network models use graph-like data structures that enable efficient data retrieval and navigation of data relationships that are not strictly hierarchical. However, this flexibility comes at a price of increased complexity in design and implementation. Additionally, network databases are not as widely adopted as relational databases.

When to Use Network Models

Network models are often used in scientific research to represent complex relationships in fields such as biology, chemistry, and social sciences. Also, network modeling is common in telecommunications and telephony, where network models can represent intricate network topologies in telecommunications systems.

Network Modeling Spotlight: TurboIMAGE

Developed by HP in the 1970s, TurboIMAGE is a network database management system specifically designed to handle complex data relationships in business applications. The database utilizes a network model where data is organized into sets and records, creating a structure that supports intricate relationships between different entities. Unlike traditional relational databases, TurboIMAGE excels in representing many-to-many relationships, enabling a more flexible and expressive data model.

Though newer database technologies have emerged since TurboIMAGE’s inception, it still has a reasonable footprint in environments where historical data systems remain crucial. Network databases are still ideal and the most performant for specific use cases where capturing and navigating intricate relationships within data is essential.

A TurboIMAGE data model.
A TurboIMAGE data model. Source: https://www.hpe.com/psnow/doc/c01710973

Network Modeling Spotlight: Raima Database Manager

Raima Database Manager (RDM) is a powerful database management system that operates on the principles of a network database, offering a robust solution for applications that demand efficient handling of intricate relationships between data entities.

RDM’s network data model employs a graph-like structure, where records are interconnected through relationships, allowing for a flexible and expressive representation of complex data connections. This design facilitates the creation of sophisticated and interlinked data structures, making RDM particularly suitable for scenarios where understanding and navigating intricate relationships is a requirement.

RDM is known for its ability to deliver high-performance data access and retrieval in environments with stringent real-time requirements, as well as its support for various programming languages and platforms.

A data model in Raima Database Manager.
A data model in Raima Database Manager. Source: https://docs.raima.com/rdm/15_2/ug/basics/_ddl/BookshopDatabase.htm.

Bottom Line: Using Data Models to Add Impact 

Of all your data management activities, few will have as significant an impact on how your information is organized, stored, and retrieved as your choice of data model. Armed with a firm understanding of the key differentiators, pros and cons, and real-world examples of relational, hierarchical, and network data models, you’ll be empowered to make the best-informed database architecture decisions based on your organization’s specific requirements and environments.

Read Top 7 Data Modeling Tools You Need to Know to learn about the software enterprises use when designing and working with data models.

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