Relationships between entities can be optional or compulsory. In our example, we could decide that a person is considered to be a customer only if they have bought a product. On the other hand, we could say that a customer is a person whom we know about and whom we hope might buy something—that is, we can have people listed as customers in our database who never buy a product. In the first case, the customer entity has total participation in the bought relationship (all customers have bought a product, and we can’t have a customer who hasn’t bought a product), while in the second case it has partial participation (a customer can buy a product). These are referred to as the participation constraints of the relationship. In an ER diagram, we indicate total participation with a double line between the entity box and the relationship diamond.
Entity or Attribute?
From time to time, we encounter cases where we wonder whether an item should be an attribute or an entity on its own. For example, an email address could be modeled as an entity in its own right. When in doubt, consider these rules of thumb:
Is the item of direct interest to the database?
Objects of direct interest should be entities, and information that describes them should be stored in attributes. Our inventory and sales database is really interested in customers, and not their email addresses, so the email address would be best modeled as an attribute of the customer entity.
Does the item have components of its own?
If so, we must find a way of representing these components; a separate entity might be the best solution. In the student grades example at the start of the chapter, we stored the course name, year, and semester for each course that a student takes. It would be more compact to treat the course as a separate entity and to create a class ID number to identify each time a course is offered to students (the “offering”).
Can the object have multiple instances?
If so, we must find a way to store data on each instance. The cleanest way to do this is to represent the object as a separate entity. In our sales example, we must ask whether customers are allowed to have more than one email address; if they are, we should model the email address as a separate entity.
Is the object often nonexistent or unknown?
If so, it is effectively an attribute of only some of the entities, and it would be better to model it as a separate entity rather than as an attribute that is often empty. Consider a simple example: to store student grades for different courses, we could have an attribute for the student’s grade in every possible course; this is shown in Figure 4-5 . Because most students will have grades for only a few of these courses, it’s better to represent the grades as a separate entity set, as in Figure 4-6.
Entity or Relationship?
An easy way to decide whether an object should be an entity or a relationship is to map nouns in the requirements to entities, and to map the verbs to relations. For example, in the statement, “A degree program is made up of one or more courses,” we can identify the entities “program” and “course,” and the relationship “is made up of.” Similarly, in the statement, “A student enrolls in one program,” we can identify the entities “student” and “program,” and the relationship “enrolls in.” Of course, we can choose different terms for entities and relationships than those that appear in the relationships, but it’s a good idea not to deviate too far from the naming conventions used in the requirements so that the design can be checked against the requirements. All else being equal, try to keep the design simple, and avoid introducing trivial entities where possible; i.e., there’s no need to have a separate entity for the student’s enrollment when we can model it as a relationship between the existing student and program entities.
Figure 4-5. The ER diagram representation of student grades as attributes of the student entity
Figure 4-6. The ER diagram representation of student grades as a separate entity