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Understanding and evaluating table relationships

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In the first section of this tutorial, we covered what a Referential Database is and how data is organized within it. Tables in a database are not islands, however; they can be related to each other in different ways.

When we’re assessing the relationship between two given tables, we’re trying to understand how many possible occurrences in one table could belong to an entity in another, and vice versa. Let's use a users table and an orders table as an example. In this case, we want to know how many orders a given user has placed and how many possible users an order could belong to.

If you’re a little confused, don’t worry - we’ll break it down for you. Understanding relationships is vital to maintaining data integrity, as it impacts the accuracy of your calculated columns and dimensions. In this article, we’ll cover relationship types and how to evaluate the tables in your Data Warehouse.

Relationship Types

There are three types of relationships that can exist between two tables:

One-to-One

In a one-to-one relationship, a record in Table B belongs to one and only one record in Table A. And a record in Table A belongs to one and only one record in Table B. 

For example, in the relationship between people and driver's license numbers, a person can have one and only one driver's license number, and a driver's license number belongs to one and only person.

One-to-Many

In a one-to-many relationship, a record in Table A can potentially belong to several records in Table B. Think about the relationship between orders and items - an order can contain many items, but an item belongs to a single order. In this case, the orders table is the one side and the items table is the many side.

Many-to-Many

In a many-to-many relationship, a record in Table B can potentially belong to several records in Table A. And vice versa, a record in Table A can potentially belong to several records in Table B.

Think about the relationship between products and categories: a product can belong to many categories, and a category can contain many products.

Evaluating Your Tables

Now that we’ve covered the types of relationships that exist between tables, lets delve into how to evaluate the tables in your data warehouse. As these relationships shape how multi-table calculated columns are defined, it’s important that you understand how to identify table relationships and what ‘side’ - one or many - the table belongs to.

There are two methods you can use to evaluate the relationships of a given pair of tables within your Data Warehouse. The first method employs a conceptual framework that considers how the table’s entities interact with each other. The second method utilizes the table's schema.

Using the Conceptual Framework

This method uses of a conceptual framework to describe how entities in the two tables are capable of interacting with each other. It is important to understand that this framework assesses what is possible, given the relationship.

For example, when thinking about users and orders consider all that is possible in the relationship. A registered user may place no orders, only one or multiple orders within their lifetime. If you have just launched your business and no orders have been placed yet, it is still possible that a given user can place up to many orders in their lifetime and the tables are built to accommodate this.

To use this method:

  1. Identify the entity being described in each table. Hint: it’s usually a noun. For example, the tables users and orders are explicitly describing users and orders.
  2. Identify the verb(s) that describes how these entities interact. For example, when comparing users to orders, users “place” orders. Going the other direction, orders “belong” to users.

This type of framework can be applied to any pairing of tables in your Data Warehouse, allowing you to easily identify the type of relationship as well as which table is a one side and which table is a many side.

Once you have identified the terminology that describes how the two tables interact, frame the interaction in both directions by considering how one given instance of the first entity relates to the second. Here are some examples of each relationship:

One-to-One

“One given person can have one and only one driver's license number. One given driver's license number belongs to one and only person.”

This is a one-to-one relationship where each table is a one side.

One-to-Many

“One given order can possibly contain many items. One given item belongs to one and only one order.”

This is a one-to-many relationship where the orders table is the one side and the items table is the many side.

Many-to-Many

“One given product can possibly belong to many categories. One given category can possibly contain many products.”

This is a many-to-many relationship where each table is a many side.

Using the Table's Schema

The second method leverages the table schema. When we discussed what a database is, we also went over primary and reference keys and how they can be used to link tables together. The usage of these columns can also help determine relationship types.

Once you identify the columns that link two tables together, use the column types to evaluate the table relationship. Here are some examples:

One-to-one

If the tables are linked via the primary key of both tables, then the same unique entity is being described in each table and the relationship is one-to-one. In this relationship, each table is a one side.

For example, a users table may capture most user attributes (such as name) while a supplemental user_source table captures user registration sources. In each table, a row represents one user.

One-to-many

Do you accept guest orders?

Check out this article to learn how guest orders can impact your table relationships.

When tables are linked via a reference key pointing to a primary key, this setup describes a one-to-many relationship. The one side will be the table containing the primary key and the many side will be the table containing the reference key.

Many-to-many

If either of the following is true, the relationship is many-to-many:

  • Non-primary key columns are being used to link two tables


  • Part of a composite primary key is used to link two tables

I get it! What's next?

Correctly assessing table relationships is crucial to accurately modeling your data. Now that you understand how tables are related to each other, we'll explore what you can do with the Data Warehouse Manager.

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