This article overviews strategies for assigning primary
keys to a table within a relational database. In particular, it
focuses on the issue of when to use natural keys and when to use
surrogate keys. Some people will tell you that you should always
use natural keys and others will tell you that you should always use
surrogate keys. These people invariably prove to be wrong,
typically they're doing little more than sharing the prejudices of their
"data religion" with you. The reality is that natural and
surrogate keys each have their advantages and disadvantages, and that no
strategy is perfect for all situations. In other words, you need
to know what you're doing if you want to get it right. This
Let's start by describing some common terminology pertaining to
keys and then work through an example. These terms are:
Figure 1 presents a
model (PDM) for a physical address using the
notation. In Figure 1 the Customer
table has the CustomerNumber column as
its primary key and SocialSecurityNumber
as an alternate key. This indicates
that the preferred way to access customer information is through the value of a
person's customer number although your software can get at the same
information if it has the person's social security number.
The CustomerHasAddress table
has a composite primary key, the combination of CustomerNumber and AddressID.
A foreign key is one or more attributes in an entity type that represents
a key, either primary or secondary, in another entity type.
Foreign keys are used to maintain relationships between rows.
For example, the relationships between rows in the CustomerHasAddress table and the Customer table is maintained by the CustomerNumber column within the CustomerHasAddress table. The
interesting thing about the CustomerNumber
column is the fact that it is part of the primary key for CustomerHasAddress as well as the foreign key to the Customer
table. Similarly, the AddressID column is part of the primary key of CustomerHasAddress as well as a foreign key to the Address
table to maintain the relationship with rows of Address.
A simple PDM modeling Customer and Address.
key is one or more data attributes that uniquely identify an entity.
In a physical database a
key would be formed of one or more table columns whose value(s) uniquely
identifies a row within a relational table.
Composite key. A key that is composed of two or
Natural key. A key that is formed of attributes
that already exist in the real world.
example, U.S. citizens are issued a Social Security Number (SSN)
that is unique to them (this
isn't guaranteed to be true, but it's pretty darn close in practice).
SSN could be used as a natural key, assuming privacy laws allow it, for a
Person entity (assuming the scope of your organization is limited to the U.S.).
Surrogate key. A key with no business meaning.
Candidate key. An entity type in a logical data model will have zero or more
keys, also referred to simply as unique identifiers
(note: some people don't believe in identifying candidate keys in LDMs, so
there's no hard and fast rules). For example, if we only interact with American citizens then
SSN is one candidate key for the Person entity type and the combination
of name and phone number (assuming the combination is unique) is potentially a
second candidate key. Both of these
keys are called candidate keys because they are candidates to be chosen as the primary
key, an alternate key or
perhaps not even a key at all within a physical data model.
Primary key. The preferred key for an entity type.
Alternate key. Also known as a secondary key, is
another unique identifier of a row within a table.
Foreign key. One or more attributes in an entity type
that represents a key, either primary or secondary, in another entity type.
There are two strategies for assigning keys to tables:
The advantage of natural keys is that they exist
already, you don't need to introduce a new "unnatural" value to your data
schema. However, the disadvantage of natural keys is that because they
have business meaning they are effectively coupled to your business: you may need to
rework your key when your
business requirements change. For
example, if your users decide to make CustomerNumber
alphanumeric instead of numeric then in addition to updating the schema for the Customer
table (which is unavoidable) you would have to change every single table where CustomerNumber is used as a foreign key.
A natural key is one or more existing data
attributes that are unique to the business concept.
For the Customer table there was two candidate keys, in this case
Surrogate key. Introduce a new column, called a surrogate key,
which is a key that has no business
meaning. An example of which is the AddressID
column of the Address table in
1. Addresses don't have an
"easy" natural key because you would need to use all of the columns of the
Address table to form a key for itself (you might be able to get
away with just the combination of Street and ZipCode depending on
your problem domain), therefore introducing a
surrogate key is a much better option in this case.
The fundamental issue is that keys
are a significant source of coupling within a relational schema, and as a result
they are difficult to change. The implication is that you generally want to
avoid keys with business meaning because business meaning changes. Having
said that, I have a tendency to use natural keys for lookup/reference tables,
particularly when I suspect that the key values won't change any time soon, as I
describe below. Fundamentally, there is no clear answer as to whether or not you
should prefer natural keys over surrogate keys, regardless of what the zealots
on either side of this religious argument may claim, and that your best strategy
is be prepared to apply one strategy or the other whenever it makes sense.
There are several common options for implementing surrogate keys:
||There are several advantages to surrogate keys. First, they
aren't coupled to your business and therefore will be easier to maintain
(assuming you pick a good implementation
strategy). For example, if the Customer
table instead used a surrogate key then the change would have been localized to
just the Customer table itself (CustomerNumber
in this case would just be a non-key column of the table).
Of course, if you needed to make a similar change to your surrogate key
strategy, perhaps adding a couple of extra digits to your key values because
you've run out of values, then you would have the exact same problem. Second,
a common key strategy across most, or better yet all, tables can reduce the
amount of source code that you need to write, reducing the total cost of
ownership (TCO) of the systems that you build. The fundamental
disadvantage of surrogate keys is that they're often not "human readable",
making them difficult for end users to work with. The implication is that
you might still need to implement alternate keys for searching, editing, and so
Key values assigned by the database.
Most of the leading database vendors - companies such as Oracle,
Sybase, and Informix - implement a surrogate key strategy called
incremental keys. The basic
idea is that they maintain a counter within the database server, writing the
current value to a hidden system table to maintain consistency, which they
use to assign a value to newly created table rows.
Every time a row is created the counter is incremented and
that value is assigned as the key value for that row.
The implementation strategies vary from vendor to vendor,
sometimes the values assigned are unique across all tables whereas sometimes
values are unique only within a single table, but the general concept is the
MAX() + 1.
A common strategy is to use an integer column, start the value for
the first record at 1, then for a new row set the value to the maximum value
in this column plus one using the SQL MAX function.
Although this approach is simple it suffers from performance problems
with large tables and only guarantees a unique key value within the table.
Universally unique identifiers (UUIDs).
UUIDs are 128-bit values that are created from a hash of the ID of
your Ethernet card, or an equivalent software representation, and the
current datetime of your computer system.
The algorithm for doing this is defined by the Open Software
Globally unique identifiers (GUIDs).
GUIDs are a
Microsoft standard that extend UUIDs, following the same strategy if an
Ethernet card exists and if not then they hash a software ID and the current
datetime to produce a value that is guaranteed unique to the machine that
The basic idea is that your key value, often called a persistent
object identifier (POID) or simply an object identified (OID), is in two
logical parts: A unique HIGH value that you obtain from a defined source and
an N-digit LOW value that your application assigns itself.
Each time that a HIGH value is obtained the LOW value will be
set to zero. For example, if
the application that you're running requests a value for HIGH it will be
assigned the value 1701. Assuming
that N, the number of digits for LOW, is four then all persistent object
identifiers that the application assigns to objects will be combination of
17010000,17010001, 17010002, and so on until 17019999.
At this point a new value for HIGH is obtained, LOW is reset to zero,
and you continue again. If
another application requests a value for HIGH immediately after you it will
given the value of 1702, and the OIDs that will be assigned to objects that
it creates will be 17020000, 17020001, and so on.
As you can see, as long as HIGH is unique then all POID values will
The fundamental issue is that keys are a significant
source of coupling within a relational schema, and as a result they
prove difficult to
implication is that you want to avoid keys with business meaning because
business meaning changes. However,
at the same time you need to remember that some data is commonly
accessed by unique identifiers, for example customer via their customer
number and American employees via their Social Security Number (SSN).
In these cases you may want to use the natural key instead of a
surrogate key such as a UUID or POID.
How can you be effective at assigning keys?
Consider the following tips:
Avoid "smart" keys.
A "smart" key is one
that contains one or more subparts which provide meaning.
For example the first two digits of an U.S. zip code indicate
the state that the zip code is in. The
first problem with smart keys is that have business meaning.
The second problem is that their use often becomes convoluted over
time. For example some large
states have several codes, California has zip codes beginning with 90 and
91, making queries based on state codes more complex.
Third, they often increase the chance that the strategy will need to
Considering that zip codes are nine digits in length (the
following four digits are used at the discretion of owners of buildings
uniquely identified by zip codes) it's far less likely that you'd run
out of nine-digit numbers before running out of two digit codes assigned to
Consider assigning natural keys for simple "look
up" tables. A "look up" table is one that is used to relate codes
to detailed information. For
example, you might have a look up table listing color codes to the names of
colors. For example the code
127 represents "Tulip Yellow". Simple
look up tables typically consist of a code column and a description/name
column whereas complex look up tables consist of a code column and several
Natural keys don't always work for "look up"
tables. Another example of a look up table is one that contains a row
for each state, province, or territory in North America.
For example there would be a row for California, a US state, and for
Ontario, a Canadian province. The
primary goal of this table is to provide an official list of these
geographical entities, a list that is reasonably static over time (the last
change to it would have been in the late 1990s when the Northwest
Territories, a territory of Canada, was split into Nunavut and Northwest
Territories). A valid natural
key for this table would be the state code, a unique two character code -
e.g. CA for California and ON for Ontario.
Unfortunately this approach doesn't work because Canadian
government decided to keep the same state code, NW, for the two territories.
Your applications must still support "natural key
searches". If you choose
to take a surrogate key approach to your database design you mustn't
forget that your applications must still support searches on the domain
columns that still uniquely identify rows.
For example, your Customer table may have a Customer_POID
column used as a surrogate key as well as a Customer_Number column
and a Social_Security_Number column.
You would likely need to support searches based on both the customer
number and the social security number.
Searching is discussed in detail in
Objects from a Relational Database.
Don't naturalize surrogate keys. As soon
as you display the value of a surrogate key to your end users, or worse yet
allow them to work with the value (perhaps to search), you have effectively
given the key business meaning. This in effect naturalizes the key and
thereby negates some of the advantages of surrogate keys.
First of all, don't worry about this: You're only human, and no matter how
good you are at database design you're going to make mistakes. The good
news is that as I show in
of Database Refactoring it is possible, albeit it may require a bit of work,
to replace a natural key with a surrogate key (or vice versa). To replace
a natural key with a surrogate you would apply the
Introduce Surrogate Key refactoring, as you see depicted in
Figure 2 to replace the key of the Order table. To
replace a surrogate key with a natural key you would apply the
Replace Surrogate Key with Natural Key refactoring, as you see in
Figure 3 to replace the key of the State table.
Figure 2. Replacing the natural key of the Order
Figure 3. Replacing the surrogate key within the State