----- Original Message -----
From: "Martijn Tonies" <m.tonies@stripped>
Sent: Wednesday, March 15, 2006 2:53 AM
Subject: Re: Accountability with MySQL
>> >> > Basics of database design: store what you know.
>> >> >
>> >> > Given that NULLs basically means the absence of a value
>> >> > (eg: unknown), you shouldn't be storing NULLs.
>> >> >
>> >> Nonsense!!
>> > That's a bold statement ...
>> >> That's simply wrong. A null means "unknown or not applicable" and is a
>> > Ah, so now things become clear, a NULL actually can mean
>> > two things? So much for clarity then...
>> Come on; that's not fair. "Unknown" and "not applicable" are more like
>> different senses of the same thing, not two opposite things.
> Read the literature on how to design databases. What you do
> is storing "true propositions". That is, each attribute defines a
> certain "true proposition". For example:
> Employee "Martijn" has Employee# 14.
> You should be able to derive these sentences from every row.
> Putting a NULL or N/A in there fails to meet this requirement.
Perhaps my theory is a bit rusty but I have never heard of this "true
propositions" business before. Do you have a citation where I can read about
Frankly, I'm skeptical about your interpretation of this idea. While you
clearly don't want false information in a database, it isn't false to say
that student such-and-such's exam mark or such-and-such an employee's
termination date is unknown or not applicable. It _would_ be false to store
a grade of 0 for a student who didn't take the exam because it implies that
he got every question wrong when in fact he didn't write the test at all;
that would be an example of 0 having two contradicatory meanings. Given a
phobia about nulls, it is a reasonable design to put students who don't take
the test in a separate table but it's not the ONLY way to handle the
situation: a null to indicate a student who didn't take the test is
perfectly reasonable too.
>> >> perfectly valid value to use in many, many situations. Two classic
>> > examples:
>> > Let me first state that there's a difference between storing NULLs
>> > and handling NULLs in your result.
>> Yes, of course there is: so what? You said NULLs should never be
>> that's what I'm responding to. Using NULLs is not very _difficult_
>> just a bit tedious because it is another case to handle.
> There's no point in storing what you don't know.
But you _do_ know something: that the student didn't take the exam. That is
a piece of true knowledge all by itself.
>> > So, let's debunk these two classic examples...
>> Please note that I did not say that you MUST use NULLs, just that they
>> perfectly valid to use in a design.
> Depends on who you're asking ...
> A few years ago, I was working at a company that had developed
> an application with an Oracle database with about 400 tables, nothing
> too large.
> Plenty of tables had NULLs, not because of missing business data,
> but rather used internally in the system.
I'm not sure what you mean by that phrase "used internally in the system".
> The number of problems we had with them, I cannot count on my
> two hands, nor can I count them on the hands of all other developers
> (5) for that project.
How about enumerating a few of them here? I've dealt with relational
databases in several capacities for over 20 years and I've never found nulls
to be a big problem.
> Just last week, I spoke to a guy who used to be my collegue there
> and we discussed the design a bit (he still does database design and
> development for a large company, on Sybase with over 4000
> deployed systems) and we both agreed that using NULLs in most
> cases as part of the initial design was causing us more problems
> then helping us.
Again, how about listing some of these problems?
>> >> 1. You have a table containing test scores. Some students get every
>> > question
>> >> on a given test wrong. Some students don't write the test at all,
>> >> because they were sick. In this scenario, I think the correct thing to
>> > store
>> >> is 0 for the students who got every question wrong and NULL for the
>> > students
>> >> who didn't write the test.
>> > IMO, the better thing to do in this particular case is to NOT store a
>> > result for the students that did not make the test.
>> Okay, that might be acceptable, if it doesn't cause you to lose track of
>> student altogether. But if this table was the only one that even recorded
>> the _existence_ of the student, you'd have a problem;
> Indeed, then I would have a problem, cause you cannot derive from
> the "test results" table that a student exists. This is a rather silly
> If the "test results" table should ALSO store the existence of a student,
> you're design is wrong :-)
>>if someone tried to
>> verify that the student had attended this school, you wouldn't know that
>> they had.
> In your own words: nonsense.
> Each table should store what is was designed to store. If I would
> have to know if a student was enlisted in a certain course or would
> be attending this school, I would not be using the "test results" table.
Look, I agree that this scenario is not particularly likely to happen but it
COULD happen. Suppose you run a small company that runs certification exams:
your only contact with the students is that they show up to take an exam and
you record the mark and send it to whoever awards the certification. In that
case, you likely wouldn't have an elaborate set of tables containing a
variety of student information the way you would if you were a university.
In that case, it's quite reasonable to believe that the only table in the
system is the one that records the test marks. That table may include the
student name, address, test name, score, etc. etc. That table may only be
populated as the student comes in the door: the 'greeter' welcomes the
student to the test center, asks his name and other details, points him to
the exam room, and records the test result when the student hands in the
exam. In that scenario, if student Joe Blow does not show up for the test
because his car broke down, he may never be entered in the system at all and
you have therefore lost sight of the fact that he ever existed. Again, this
is not a very likely scenario but it is not an impossible one and that's the
key point: if it COULD happen, you will have a problem.
>>Or in a more probable case, if that was the only test for that
>> course and the student missed it and then had no row in the table, you
>> not have any way of knowing that they took the course!
> See above.
Dismissing the less probable case does not dismiss this more probable
>>And if they later
>> wanted to write the exam, having recovered from their illness, your query
>> might have the effect of keeping them from taking the second exam: your
>> query would report that they had never taken the first exam so an
>> adminstrator might refuse to let him/her take the second exam because
>> (apparently) had never been scheduled to take the first one.
> Different problem, see above.
Again, you can't dismiss the second scenario by dismissing the first one;
the scenarios are different and the second one is more probable than the
>> Now, you could have a second table to record people who were scheduled to
>> take tests but failed to take them to cover that situation but I think it
> Sounds like a decent design to me.
Not surprisingly since it is the one you suggested as the "correct" way to
handle the situation. But the design that uses nulls is NOT invalid and you
have not demonstrated that it is.
>> would be easier to record all students in one table and then simply store
>> null for any test that they fail to take and a zero for every case where
>> student got every answer wrong. When you compute the class average, the
>> avg() function would ensure that the students who got every question
>> would pull down the class average but that students who failed to write
>> test at all would NOT skew the average because the avg() function ignores
> Ah, an excellent example of why NULLs are tedious: they are ignored
> by some functions, but not by others.
_ALL_ of the column functions ignore nulls: it is NOT inconsistent. In fact,
it is the only logical thing that these functions can do, which you'd
realize if you gave it a bit of open-minded thought.
Suppose you had a table with a primary key of employee number and a column
containing bonuses. Some of the rows contain nulls in the bonus column
because the employee didn't earn a bonus yet. Now, you need to answer these
questions: what is the largest bonus amount? What is the smallest bonus
amount? What is the sum of the bonuses? What is the average bonus? Since a
null, by definition, is unknown, it isn't bigger or smaller or equal to any
other value, including another null so it can't qualify as the biggest value
or the smallest value. A number plus (or minus, or times, or divided by) a
null is undefined so it makes no sense to add it to the sum of the bonuses.
A null is NOT a zero so treating it as a zero in an average would unduly
skew the result. So, in each case, the function does the logical thing and
IGNORES the null.
> Without having the record there in the first place, there would have
> to be no rule of AVG ignoring NULLs. Problem solved.
That is the other way of the solving the problem. But it is NOT the ONLY
>> > Why store a date column if you don't know?
>> > Why not use:
>> > EMPLOYEES
>> > EmployeeID int,
>> > StartingDate Date,
>> > ...
>> > TERMINATED_EMPLOYEES (albeit a bit agressive ;) )
>> > EmployeeID
>> > TerminationDate
>> > Once more: perfectly valid design.
>> Yes, that is also a valid design but it means you have to have yet
>> table that you could have avoided simply by permitting a null in the
>> employee table. Hey, if you really want your tables to proliferate like
>> this, that's up to you.
> It seems you have a fear of creating new tables ;-)
No, I don't. It seems to me that you have an undue fear of nulls.
> This is what database systems are designed to do...
Database systems are designed to accomodate large quantities of tables but
any designer with any real world experience will advise you not to create
tables simply for the sake of creating tables: that is an unnecessary
proliferation of tables. Look at normalization. As you probably know, each
phase of normalization tends to increase the number of tables in the
database. I know for a fact that the theorists have identified at least up
to 17NF (17th Normal Form) but how many levels of normalization do
businesses typically use in their normalizations? Answer: Three.
(Occasionally four). And I think you'll find that the main reason is that
the benefits of normalizing beyond 3NF are outweighed by the increasing
number of tables to manage.
>> The key point is that NULLs _do_ work and are a legitimate design
>> You don't _have_ to use them but they can save you some work and reduce
>> number of tables you need. (They can also be a bit more work on the
>> programming side.)
>> I took your remarks to mean that NULLs were always a bad idea and were a
>> symptom of bad design and I strongly disagree with that.
> So I've noticed.
I'm trying to be gracious here and accept that I may just have misunderstood
the emphasis in what you are saying.
> The message I'm trying to get across is that:
> 1 - according to (proper) design literature, you should not use NULLs
> if you don't have to
Perhaps you can cite some of this "proper" literature. I'm interested in
seeing their definition of what an appropriate time to use nulls is.
> 2 - NULLs can cause you more problems than you can think of
I'd like to hear what these problems are. I've never had any big problems
because of nulls.
> 3 - its sometimes much easier to avoid storing NULLs AND to be
> able to refactor your database because of it
I agree that nulls can frequently be avoided and that avoiding them will
simplify _some_ situations.
> 4 - the meaning of NULL can change, so why store it in the first place
Simple: because it happens to be true when it is stored. In the case of the
hypothetical employee, I store a null termination date when I hire him
because I don't know when he is going to leave. If he laters gives his
notice, then I know when he is leaving and can store that date for his
termination date instead of a null; then his row of the table is true again,
based on the new facts.
>> If you are simply saying that you don't like them and prefer to use
>> different designs to avoid them, then I don't have any problem with that.
> I have seen that when I avoid storing NULLs, my applications
> became more clear and easier to understand.
Beauty is in the eye of the beholder as we all know. I have no problem with
having nulls in my tables and consider that a better design than a separate
table for special cases most of the time.
Again, if you are saying that you don't like nulls and prefer to avoid them
in your designs, I have no problem with that; that's just your personal
preference. It's the same as if we sat down to eat a meal and you asked for
chocolate ice cream for dessert and I had vanilla; neither choice is
"wrong", they are just personal preference.
But if you are stating categorically that nulls are always "bad" or "wrong",
I disagree strongly. That's like saying only chocolate ice cream is
acceptable and that all other flavours are evil. That's just wrong.
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