5 Things Beginners Need to Know About Databases

Tips to Make Working With Databases Easier

Data organized in a particular format can be considered a database. There are numerous applications for databases and they're used in nearly every program and service that stores or retrieves information.

If you're just getting started with databases, below is a rundown of the top things you need to know before moving forward. These facts are guaranteed to make it easier to work with databases and increase productivity.

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You can't avoid it: the Structured Query Language forms the core of all relational databases. It provides a uniform interface to Oracle, SQL Server, Microsoft Access, and other relational databases, and is a "must learn" for all aspiring database users.

Take an introductory SQL course before you even attempt to learn any specific database software. The time investment will help you build a proper foundation and get started on the correct foot in the world of databases.

W3Schools.com is a great starting place for beginners interested in SQL. More »

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Selecting Primary Keys Is an Extremely Important Decision

The selection of a primary key is one of the most critical decisions you’ll make in the design of a new database. The most important constraint is that you must ensure that the selected key is unique.

If it’s possible that two records (past, present, or future) might share the same value for an attribute, it’s a poor choice for a primary key. When evaluating this constraint, you should think creatively.

You'll also need to avoid sensitive values that raise privacy concerns, like Social Security Numbers.

For more information on selecting a strong primary key, see Choosing a Primary Key.

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NULL Is Not Zero or the Empty String

NULL is a very special value in the world of databases, but it's something that beginners often confuse.

When you see a NULL value, interpret it as "unknown." If a quantity is NULL, that doesn't necessarily mean that it's zero. Similarly, if a text field holds a NULL value, it doesn't mean that there isn't an appropriate value - it's simply unknown.

For example, consider a database containing information about children who attend a particular school. If the person entering the record doesn't know a student's age, a NULL value is used to indicate the "unknown" placeholder. The student certainly has an age - it's just not present in the database.

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Converting Spreadsheets to Databases Saves Time

If you already have tons of data stored in a Microsoft Excel or other spreadsheet format, you can save yourself mountains of time by converting those spreadsheets into database tables.

Read our tutorial on Converting Excel Spreadsheets to Access Databases to get started.

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All Database Platforms Are NOT Created Equal

There are many different databases out there, all of which offer a variety of unique features at different price points.

Some are full-featured enterprise databases designed to host huge data warehouses serving multinational enterprises. Others are ​desktop databases better suited to tracking inventory for a small store with one or two users.

Your business requirements will dictate the appropriate database platform for your needs. See Database Software Options for more information, as well as our list of the Best Free Online Database Creators.