Database design comprises the plan, models, specifications, and instructions for creating a structure (database) where data can be stored in a permanent (persistent) manner. Users can extract that data in combinations that answer questions in a particular area (domain). Successful database design requires complete and current understanding of database technologies and methods. Further, designers must understand how people work and the types of questions a database will answer. Because of the wide variety of technical and intellectual skills that come into play, there is an ongoing debate as to whether database design is an art or a science.
Databases store data so users can access it to provide information and insights into how an organization is functioning. Electronic databases, as we currently use the term, date back only to the late 1950s when they were developed for the US Department of Defense. By the 1960s databases were being designed and created for business and academic use.
In the intervening years database design has changed in response to increased computing capabilities and, just as importantly, to the changing needs of organizations and the increasingly sophisticated information expertise of potential users.
Several database design methods have come into favor over the years, resulting from an evolution in how users and designers have looked at data and how it can serve their needs. Organizations’ information requirements have become larger and more complex; how people look at information and its use has also grown more sophisticated.
Variations in database design exist but methodologies generally follow a sequence of steps starting with gathering information and user requirements through choosing the appropriate software and hardware technologies and then iterative development and testing. A six-step process defined by the University of Liverpool's Computer Science Department is typical.
The first step in the Liverpool methodology is the requirements analysis where an organization's information needs are documented. What does the organization need to know? What pieces of data are required to form the picture that the organization requires? How are these data to be organized and relationships defined? The second step, conceptual database design, identifies all of the pieces of data and puts them into a model in which their place and relationships are also defined. At the same time, the business processes that create the data are also modeled. This second step is extremely critical because it requires that the database designers thoroughly understand the customers’ needs and way of working. Often a problem arises at this stage because while database designers are experts at databases they do not always have similar expertise in the organization's business area.
The third step is the choice of hardware and software, including the choice of security programs to protect the database. In some instances, the available options are wide, allowing potential users to get the capabilities they need on an affordable scale.
The final step is planning how the database is actually developed with continual (iterative) testing at every stage until installation and use when it is then usually managed by a company's database administrator.
—Robert N. Stacy, CSS, MA
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