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Structured Query Language (SQL): a Practical Introduction

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Let's start from basics. What is a database? In very general terms, a database is a collection of related data. Notice the word related, this implies that the collection of letters on this page do not by themselves constitute a database. But if we think of them as a collection of letters arranged to form words, then they can be conceptualised as data in a database. Using similar reasoning, we can also say that a tome such as a telephone directory is also a database. It is a database first, because it is a collection of letters that form words and second, because it is an alphabetical listing of people's names, their addresses and their telephone numbers. How we think of a database depends on what use we want to make of the information that it contains.

So far, we have talked about a database in it's broadest sense. This very general definition is not what most people mean when they talk about a database. In this electronic age, the word database has become synonymous with the term "computerised database". Collins English Dictionary describes a database as "A store of a large amount of information, esp. in a form that can be handled by a computer." In this book, we will be dealing only with computerised databases. In keeping with popular trend though, we will be using the word database to refer to a computerised database.

A database (computerised database remember) by itself, is not much use. The data is stored electronically on the computer's disk in a format which we humans cannot read or understand directly. What we need is some way of accessing this data and converting it into a form which we do understand. This is the job of the database management system or DBMS for short. A DBMS is essentially a suite of programs that act as the interface between the human operator and the data held in the database. Using the DBMS, it is possible to retrieve useful information, update or delete obsolete information and add new information to the database. As well as data entry and retrieval, the DBMS plays an important role in maintaining the overall integrity of the data in the database. The simplest example of is ensuring that the values entered into the database conform to the data types that are specified. For example, in the telephone book database, the DBMS might have to ensure that each phone number entered conforms to a set format of XXX-XXXXXXX where X represents an integer.
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