1.7. Keys and constraints

In this chapter, we explore the different ways in which data may be constrained in order to help preserve the correctness of our data.

1.7.1. Tables used in this chapter

Some examples in this chapter will use the books table and related tables (see Appendix A for a full description of these tables). Other examples will use tables created just for the example, then discarded.

1.7.2. Constraints

As data is critical to so many organizations and applications, it is worth doing everything possible to ensure the correctness and consistency of the data in databases. This can be achieved in many ways: application software can do checks to ensure data is entered and maintained correctly, separate programs can test and report on data consistency, and databases can enforce correctness using constraints and triggers. (Triggers are actions the database can perform when certain events, such as an update to a row, occur; in some databases, the actions can even be complete small programs using implementation-specific programming languages. This book does not cover triggers.) We focus in this chapter on database constraints.

Constraints are properties of the database that restrict data in various ways. One of the simplest types of constraints are domain constraints: data entered into a column is constrained to be of the type defined for the column. (Domain constraints are not enforced in SQLite, so we cannot demonstrate using the book’s database.) Below we discuss constraints that enforce data properties for entire tables - primary and foreign key constraints - and those that apply to individual rows: not null, uniqueness, and check constraints.

1.7.3. Primary keys

A primary key is a column or set of columns of a table which are required to contain unique values for each row stored in the table. Controlling for uniqueness ensures that we can associate a specific, single item of data with data in another table by storing the key value in the other table. It also prevents unnecessary duplication of data that could result in incorrect statistics (for example, when taking counts or sums). The id columns discussed in Chapter 1.4 - special columns used specifically to ensure each row can be uniquely identified - are commonly used as primary keys. A table can have only one primary key.

Some examples can be found in our books database. The table authors, for example, has author_id as a primary key. The database will enforce the uniqueness property of the author_id column by preventing any data modification queries which would result in a duplicate primary key. Deleting rows can never violate a primary key constraint, but inserts and updates can. Either of the following queries will result in an error because there already exists a row in the database with author_id = 1:

Because we need to compare primary key values to ensure uniqueness, it is also forbidden to insert NULL values into a primary key column. (SQLite varies from this standard behavior, though. If you insert a NULL into an integer primary key column, SQLite will generate a unique value for you. For other primary key column types, or multi-column primary keys, NULL values are permitted in SQLite.)

An example of a multi-column primary key can be found in the table authors_awards. For this table, the primary key is the pair (author_id, award_id). This does not mean that each column is a primary key, e.g., that each column is independently unique. Instead, it is the pair of values which must be unique. That is, you may not insert the pair (4, 10) twice, but you may insert all of (4, 10), (4, 11), and (5, 10) (assuming none of those pairs is already in the table). Creating a primary key

There are a few ways to create a primary key on a table. It is easiest to create a primary key when creating the table. If the primary key is a single column, then you may simply put the phrase PRIMARY KEY at the end of the column definition:


You can also create the primary key as a separate entry in the table definition; you must use this form when creating a multi-column primary key. The first definition below is equivalent to the one above, while the second creates a multi-column primary key:


  x VARCHAR(10),

  PRIMARY KEY (x, y)

Some database systems also allow the addition of a primary key to an existing table using the ALTER TABLE command, as long as the existing data would conform to the constraint. ALTER TABLE can also be used to remove (drop) constraints from a table. (SQLite does not support this usage.)

1.7.4. Foreign keys

We are also interested in the relationships between data in different tables. For example, every row in the books table has an author_id value which lets us look up author information in the authors table. How can we ensure that the author_id value is valid, that is, that it always has a corresponding row in the authors table? For a relational database, the solution is a foreign key constraint.

A foreign key constraint applies to a column or list of columns in one table (the referencing table), and references a column or list of columns in another table (the referenced table). The constraint requires that one of two things be true:

  • The values in the column or columns in the referencing table exist in the referenced column or columns

  • The values in the column or columns in the referencing table are NULL

The column or columns in the referenced table must be constrained to be unique, either by making them the primary key (the usual case), or through a uniqueness constraint (see below).

Our database defines a foreign key between books and authors. The foreign key constraint is on the author_id column of books and references the author_id column of authors. If we want to add a new book to books, we must add it with an author_id value, which must be a valid author_id from the authors table. The foreign key by itself would allow a NULL author_id value, but we have further constrained the author_id column to not be null (using the NOT NULL constraint defined later on).

For example, the code below will fail due to the foreign key constraint on books referencing authors. (Note that, unlike other database systems, SQLite will not enforce foreign keys unless you specifically tell it to - that is what the line of code below starting with the keyword PRAGMA is doing. The PRAGMA keyword is not part of the SQL standard, and is only needed in SQLite.)

We also cannot do operations which would destroy existing relationships. For example, there exist records in the books table for which the author_id = 1. If we were to delete the author with this id value, we would violate the foreign key constraint on the books table. We would also violate a similar foreign key constraint on authors_awards. This code therefore produces an error:

PRAGMA foreign_keys = ON;

DELETE FROM authors WHERE author_id = 1;

However, if we first remove all books and awards for this author, we can successfully remove the author:

PRAGMA foreign_keys = ON;

DELETE FROM books WHERE author_id = 1;
DELETE FROM authors_awards WHERE author_id = 1;
DELETE FROM authors WHERE author_id = 1;

We similarly cannot drop the authors table without first dropping any referencing tables.

The books and authors examples demonstrate a common pattern, which is that foreign key constraints relate columns that we are likely to want to use in a join query (Chapter 1.4). This does not mean that a foreign key is a necessary condition for a join; one of the strengths of a relational database is that relationships between data do not have to be predetermined. However, the presence of a foreign key is an indication that there exists a natural relationship between the data in the referencing and referenced tables.

Foreign key constraints are also known as referential integrity constraints. Creating a foreign key constraint

As with primary keys, there are multiple ways to create a foreign key constraint. If the foreign key constrains a single column, then we can add it in the column definition for a table using the REFERENCES keyword:


CREATE TABLE referenced (

CREATE TABLE referencing (
  xx INTEGER REFERENCES referenced (x)

Note that although the foreign key constraint only appears in the referencing table definition, the constraint affects both tables. The code above ensures that values in the xx column of referencing are either NULL or contained in the x column of referenced.

(Note for MySQL users: MySQL does not recognize the single column syntax for creating foreign keys. Use instead the explicit constraint syntax below.)

We can also create a foreign key constraint with a separate FOREIGN KEY entry in the table definition. This form must be used for multi-column foreign keys:

DROP TABLE IF EXISTS referencing2;

CREATE TABLE referenced2 (
  a VARCHAR(10),
  b VARCHAR(20),
  PRIMARY KEY (a, b)

CREATE TABLE referencing2 (
  aa VARCHAR(10),
  bb VARCHAR(10),
  FOREIGN KEY (aa, bb) REFERENCES referenced2 (a, b)

In the above example, the pair (aa, bb) in referencing2 must match a corresponding (a, b) pair in referenced2; the columns are not constrained independently.

Note that it is possible (and sometimes useful) to create a foreign key constraint in which the referencing and referenced tables are the same table. For example, a company might have a table of employees that references itself:

CREATE TABLE employees (
  name VARCHAR(100),
  supervisor_id INTEGER REFERENCES employees (id)

As with primary keys, some database systems allow the addition or removal of foreign key constraints using the ALTER TABLE command. (This usage is not supported by SQLite.) Enforcement mechanisms

The default behavior for a foreign key constraint is to reject any attempt to modify data in a way that would violate the constraint. However, SQL provides additional options that can be applied for DELETE or UPDATE queries. Adding the phrase ON DELETE SET NULL to the foreign key constraint indicates that a deletion of a referenced table row should result in setting corresponding referencing key values to NULL (if permitted). The phrase ON DELETE CASCADE indicates that referencing rows should be deleted along with the referenced row. Similarly, ON UPDATE SET NULL results in setting referencing key values to NULL if the referenced key value is changed; ON UPDATE CASCADE changes the referencing key values to match the changed referenced key value. Finally, if you want to use the default behavior explicitly, you can use ON DELETE RESTRICT and ON UPDATE RESTRICT.

Here is an example to try, using CASCADE for both deletions and updates (modify to try different settings):

PRAGMA foreign_keys = ON;


CREATE TABLE composers (
  name VARCHAR(30)

  (1, 'Beethoven'),
  (2, 'Mozart')

  title VARCHAR(50),
  composer_id INTEGER REFERENCES composers (id)

  ('Symphony No. 1', 1),
  ('Symphony No. 2', 1),
  ('String Quartet No. 1', 2)

DELETE FROM composers WHERE name = 'Beethoven';

UPDATE composers SET id = 4 WHERE name = 'Mozart';

SELECT * FROM composers;
SELECT * FROM works;

1.7.5. Other constraints

SQL provides some additional constraints you may find useful, which are described in this section. UNIQUE

Occasionally you may need to ensure that a column or set of columns contains unique values, but you do not want to set the column or columns as a primary key (for example, when some other set of columns is already the primary key). The UNIQUE constraint can be used for this purpose; simply add the UNIQUE keyword as part of the column definition. One difference between a UNIQUE constraint and a primary key constraint is that the UNIQUE constraint does not prevent NULL values. However, databases deal with NULL values in a unique column in different ways; some allow multiple rows to contain NULL, and others allow only a single NULL row (effectively treating NULL as a comparable value). Note that the final statement below will fail due to a violation of the UNIQUE constraint on column x.

You can also create a UNIQUE constraint as a separate entry in the table definition (this is required for a multi-column constraint):

  UNIQUE (x, y)

Note that a primary key constraint on a set of columns already implies something stronger than UNIQUE, thus there is no need to specify UNIQUE if PRIMARY KEY is already in place. NOT NULL

NULL values can be a source of many data errors. If some bug in your software incorrectly inserts NULL values into your database, the data becomes corrupt, and queries against the data may produce wrong answers. Also, since NULL values are not comparable, they tend to be “invisible” when querying, unless looked for specifically using IS NULL. This combination of factors can result in many lost hours of work trying to resolve differences between what you believe is true and what your queries are telling you.

It can be valuable, then, to constrain columns to not allow NULL values at all, using the NOT NULL constraint. In our database, one example is the authors table, which has a NOT NULL constraint on the name column - we always want a value in the name column 1. You can find other examples in the books-related tables.

Note that NOT NULL is implied on all columns in a primary key, so there is no need to specify NOT NULL for those columns. CHECK

SQL provides a general constraint form that you can use to apply simple Boolean conditions on your data. The CHECK constraint can be an expression involving a single column or multiple columns of the table. This expression is typically limited in what else it can incorporate; for example subqueries are typically not allowed, and some databases do not allow function calls (implementations vary).

Here is an example, showing both single column and table constraint forms:

  CHECK (b > a)

INSERT INTO test6 VALUES (42, 200);
INSERT INTO test6 VALUES (-1, 6);   -- error
INSERT INTO test6 VALUES (10, 5);   -- error



It is possible that we might wish to record some book for whom the author is unknown (or anonymous), which might seem like an instance in which we would want NULL; after all, one possible meaning of NULL is “unknown”. However, what does it mean for an unknown author to have an entry in the authors table in the first place? What meaning would we give, if any, to the birth and death date fields for the NULL author? And what does it mean if multiple books relate to that author record? Are they all by the same, unknown author, or by different authors, all of whom are unknown? A slightly better choice for a book with no known author may be to allow NULL values in the author_id column in books - this is closer to the desired meaning. However, this introduces problems of its own, such as the fact that an inner join of books and authors will now leave out any books with unknown authors, so we would need to be very careful in writing our queries. None of this is to say that NULL is never the right choice, only that it introduces complexity and therefore more opportunity for software bugs and data corruption. Consider your options carefully.

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