UPDATED BY
Matthew Urwin | Aug 24, 2023

A database is simply a structured and systematic way of storing information to be accessed, analyzed, transformed, updated and moved (to other databases). 

To begin understanding databases, consider an Excel notebook or Google sheet. Spreadsheets like these are a basic form of a table. Databases are almost exclusively organized in tables and those tables have rows and columns. So, think of a simple database as a collection of spreadsheets (or tables) joined together in a systematic way.

Database Definition

A database is a way for organizing information, so users can quickly navigate data, spot trends and perform other actions. Although databases may come in different formats, most are stored on computers for greater convenience.

Databases are stored on servers either on-premises at an organization’s office or off-premises at an organization’s data center (or even within their cloud infrastructure). Databases come in many formats in order to do different things with various types of data. 

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Why Do We Use Databases?

Computerized databases were first introduced to the world in the 1960s and have since become the foundation for products, analysis, business processes and more. Many of the services you use online every day (banking, social media, shopping, email) are all built on top of databases.

Today, databases are used for many reasons.

 

Databases Hold Data Efficiently

We use databases because they are an extremely efficient way of holding vast amounts of data and information. Databases around the world store everything from your credit card transactions to every click you make within one of your social media accounts. Given there are nearly eight billion people on the planet, that’s a lot of data

 

Databases Allow Smooth Transactions

Databases allow access to various services which, in turn, allow you to access your accounts and perform transactions all across the internet. For example, your bank’s login page will ping a database to figure out if you’ve entered the right password and username. Your favorite online shop pings your credit card’s database to pull down the funds needed for you to buy that item you’ve been eyeing. 

 

Databases Update Information Quickly

Databases allow for easy information updates on a regular basis. Adding a video to your TikTok account, directly depositing your salary into your bank account or buying a plane ticket for your next vacation are all updates made to a database and displayed back to you almost instantaneously. 

 

Databases Simplify Data Analysis

Databases make research and data analysis much easier because they are highly structured storage areas of data and information. This means businesses and organizations can easily analyze databases once they know how a database is structured. Common structures (e.g. table formats, cell structures like date or currency fields) and common database querying languages (e.g., SQL) make database analysis easy and efficient. 

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What Is a Database Management System?

A database management system (DBMS) is a software package we use to create and manage databases. In other words, a DBMS makes it possible for users to actually interact with the database. In other words, the DBMS is the user interface (UI) that allows us to access, add, modify and delete content from the database. There are several types of database management systems, including relations, non-relational and hierarchical.

 

Evolution of Databases

Storing information is nothing new, but the rise of computers in the 1960s marked a shift toward more digital forms of databases. While working for GE, Charles Bachman created the Integrated Data Store, ushering in a new age of computerized databases. IBM soon followed suit with its Information Management System, a hierarchical database. 

In the 1970s, IBM’s Edgar F. Codd released a paper touting the benefits of relational databases, leading to IBM and the University of California, Berkeley releasing their own models. Relational databases became popular in the following years, with more businesses developing models and using Structured Query Language (SQL). Even though object-oriented databases became an alternative in the 1980s, relational databases remained the gold standard. 

The invention of the World Wide Web led to greater demand for databases in the 1990s. MySQL and NoSQL databases entered the scene, competing with the commercial databases developed by businesses. Object-oriented databases also began to replace relational databases in popularity.        

During the 2000s and 2010s, organizations began to collect larger volumes of data, and many turned to the scalability offered by NoSQL databases. Distributed databases provided another way to organize this proliferating data, storing it away in multiple locations.  

 

Types of Databases

There are many types of databases used today. Below are some of the more prominent ones.

 

1. Hierarchical Databases 

Hierarchical databases were the earliest form of databases. You can think of these databases like a simplified family tree. There’s a singular parent object (like a table) that has child objects (or tables) under it. A parent can have one or many child objects but a child object only has one parent. The benefit of these databases are that they’re incredibly fast and efficient plus there’s a clear, threaded relationship from one object to another. The downside to hierarchical databases is that they’re very rigid and highly structured. 

 

2. Relational Databases 

Relational databases are perhaps the most popular type of database. Relational databases are set up to connect their objects (like tables) to each other with keys. For example, there might be one table with user information (name, username, date of birth, customer number) and another table with purchase information (customer number, item purchased, price paid). In this example, the key that creates a relationship between the tables is the customer number. 

 

3. Non-Relational or NoSQL Databases 

Non-relational databases were invented more recently than relational databases and hierarchical databases in response to the growing complexity of web applications. Non-relational databases are any database that doesn’t use a relational model. You might also see them referred to as NoSQL databases. Non-relational databases store data in different ways such as unstructured data, structured document format or as a graph. Relational databases are based on a rigid structure whereas non-relational databases are more flexible.

 

4. Cloud Databases

Cloud databases refer to information that’s accessible in a hybrid or cloud environment. All users need is an internet connection to reach their files and manipulate them like any other database. A convenience of cloud databases is that they don’t require extra hardware to create more storage space. Users can either build a cloud database themselves or pay for a service to get started.

 

5. Centralized Databases

Centralized databases are contained within a single computer or another physical system. Although users may access data through devices connected within a network, the database itself operates from one location. This approach may work best for larger companies or organizations that want to prioritize data security and efficiency.

 

6. Distributed Databases

Distributed databases run on more than one device. That can be as simple as operating several computers on the same site, or a network that connects to many devices. An advantage of this method is that if one computer goes down, the other computers and devices keep functioning.  

 

7. Object-Oriented Databases 

Object-oriented databases perceive data as objects and classes. Objects are specific data — like names and videos — while classes are groups of objects. Storing data as objects means users don’t have to distribute data across tables. This makes it easier to determine the relationships between variables and analyze the data. 

 

8. Graph Databases

Graph databases highlight the relationships between various data points. While users may have to do extra work to determine trends in other types of databases, graph databases store relationships right next to the data itself. Users can then immediately see how various data points are connected to each other.  

 

What Are the Components of a Database?

The components of a database vary slightly depending on whether the database is hierarchical, relational or non-relational. However, here’s a list of database components you might expect to be associated with any database.

 

Schema

The database schema is essentially the design of the database. A schema is developed at the early conceptual stages of building a database. It’s also a valuable source of ongoing information for those wanting to understand the database’s design. 

 

Constraints and Rules

Databases use constraints to determine what types of tables can (and cannot) be stored and what types of data can live in the columns or rows of the database tables, for example. These constraints are important because they ensure data is structured, less corruptible by unsanctioned data structures and that the database is regulated so users know what to expect. These constraints are also the reason why databases are considered rigid.

 

Metadata

Metadata is essentially the data about the data. Each database or object has metadata, which the database software reads in order to understand what’s in the database. You can think of metadata as the database schema design and constraints combined together so a machine knows what kind of database it is and what actions can (or can’t) be performed within the database. 

 

Query Language

Each database can be queried. In this case, “queried” means people or services can access the database. That querying is done by way of a particular language or code snippet. The most common querying language is SQL (Structured Query Language) but there are also many other languages and even SQL variations like MySQL, Presto and Hive.

 

Objects

Each database is a collection of objects. There are a few different types of objects stored within databases such as tables, views, indexes, sequences and synonyms. The most well known of these are tables, like spreadsheets, that store data in rows and columns. You may also hear the term “object instance,” which is simply an instance or element of an object. For example, a table called “Transactions” in a database is an instance of the object-type table.

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Database Advantages

The structured nature of databases offers a range of benefits for professional and casual users alike. Below are some of the more prominent advantages:  

  • Improved data sharing and handling
  • Improved data storage capacity
  • Improved data integrity and data security
  • Reduced data inconsistency 
  • Quick data access
  • Increased productivity
  • Improved data-driven decision making  

 

Database Disadvantages

Although databases can be helpful for many, there are some limitations to consider before investing in a database: 

  • High cost
  • High complexity
  • Required dedicated database management staff
  • Risk of database failure​

 

Applications of Databases

When used correctly, databases can be a helpful tool for organizations in various industries looking to better arrange their information. Common use cases include:

  • Healthcare: storing massive amounts of patient data.
  • Logistics: monitoring and analyzing route information and delivery statuses.
  • Insurance: storing customer data like addresses, policy details and driver history.
  • Finance: handling account details, invoices, stock information and other assets.
  • E-commerce: compiling and arranging data on products and customer behavior.
  • Transportation: storing passengers’ names, scheduled flights and check-in status.
  • Manufacturing: keeping track of machinery status and production goals.
  • Marketing: collecting data on demographics, purchasing habits and website visits.
  • Education: tracking student grades, course schedules and more.
  • Human resources: organizing personnel info, benefits and tax information.

 

Future of Databases

As organizations handle increasing amounts of data, future databases must be able to keep up. Users will expect databases to be accessible across the globe and able to deal with limitless volumes of data. As a result, it’s likely that more companies will migrate their data to cloud environments. The percent of data stored in the cloud doubled between 2015 and 2022, and there’s reason to believe this percentage will only grow in the years to come. 

With the increase in data has also come a spike in cybersecurity threats, so organizations can be expected to complement their cloud environments with reinforced security measures. Databases will become more easily accessible only for authorized personnel while companies adopt tools and best practices for keeping their data out of the wrong hands.

 

Frequently Asked Questions

What is the difference between a database and a spreadsheet?

Spreadsheets organize data into rows and columns, with each individual cell housing the actual data. Databases also employ rows and columns, but each cell contains a record of data gathered from an external table. As a result, databases provide more ways to arrange and structure information as opposed to spreadsheets.

What is the most commonly used database type?

The most commonly used database type is the relational database.

What is the definition of a database?

A database is highly organized information that is designed to be easily accessible and navigable for users. Most databases are stored on computers, making it possible to quickly analyze, transform and manipulate data in other ways.

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