View of Data, Data Abstraction, Internal/External Schema


View of Data


A database system is a collection of interrelated data and a set of programs that allow users to access and modify these data. A major purpose of a database system is to provide users with an abstract view of the data. That is, the system hides certain details of how the data are stored and maintained.




Data Abstraction

For the system to be usable, it must retrieve data efficiently. The need for efficiency has led designers to use complex data structures to represent data in the database. Since many database-system users are not computer trained, developers hide the complexity from users through several levels of abstraction, to simplify users’ interactions with the system:



Figure 1.2 : Levels of Abstraction in a DBMS


Physical level (or Internal View / Schema): The lowest level of abstraction describes how the data are actually stored. The physical level describes complex low-level data structures in detail.


Logical level (or Conceptual View / Schema): The next-higher level of abstraction describes what data are stored in the database, and what relationships exist among those data. The logical level thus describes the entire database in terms of a small number of relatively simple structures. Although implementation of the simple structures at the logical level may involve complex physical-level structures, the user of the logical level does not need to be aware of this complexity. This is referred to as physical data independence. Database administrators, who must decide what information to keep in the database, use the logical level of abstraction.


View level (or External View / Schema):  The highest level of abstraction describes only part of the entire database. Even though the logical level uses simpler structures, complexity remains because of the variety of information stored in a large database. Many users of the database system do not need all this information; instead, they need to access only a part of the database. The view level of abstraction exists to simplify their interaction with the system. The system may provide many views for the same database.  Figure 1.2 shows the relationship among the three levels of abstraction.

An analogy to the concept of data types in programming languages may clarify the distinction among levels of abstraction. Many high-level programming languages support the notion of a structured type. For example, we may describe a record as follows:

type instructor = record ID : char (5); name : char (20); dept name : char (20); salary : numeric (8,2); end;


This code defines a new record type called instructor with four fields. Each field has a name and a type associated with it. A university organization may have several such record types, including

department, with fields dept_name, building, and budget

course, with fields course_id, title, dept_name, and credits

student, with fields ID, name, dept_name, and tot_cred


At the physical level, an instructor, department, or student record can be described as a block of consecutive storage locations. The compiler hides this level of detail from programmers. Similarly, the database system hides many of the lowest-level storage details from database programmers. Database administrators, on the other hand, may be aware of certain details of the physical organization of the data.


At the logical level, each such record is described by a type definition, as in the previous code segment, and the interrelationship of these record types is defined as well. Programmers using a programming language work at this level of abstraction. Similarly, database administrators usually work at this level of abstraction.


Finally, at the view level, computer users see a set of application programs that hide details of the data types. At the view level, several views of the database are defined, and a database user sees some or all of these views. In addition to hiding details of the logical level of the database, the views also provide a security mechanism to prevent users from accessing certain parts of the database. For example, clerks in the university registrar office can see only that part of the database that has information about students; they cannot access information about salaries of instructors.

Instances and Schemas


Databases change over time as information is inserted and deleted. The collection of information stored in the database at a particular moment is called an instance of the database. The overall design of the database is called the database schema. Schemas are changed infrequently, if at all. The concept of database schemas and instances can be understood by analogy to a program written in a programming language. A database schema corresponds to the variable declarations (along with associated type definitions) in a program. 


Each variable has a particular value at a given instant. The values of the variables in a program at a point in time correspond to an instance of a database schema. Database systems have several schemas, partitioned according to the levels of abstraction. The physical schema describes the database design at the physical level, while the logical schema describes the database design at the logical level. A database may also have several schemas at the view level, sometimes called subschemas, which describe different views of the database. Of these, the logical schema is by far the most important, in terms of its effect on application programs, since programmers construct applications by using the logical schema. The physical schema is hidden beneath the logical schema, and can usually be changed easily without affecting application programs. Application programs are said to exhibit physical data independence if they do not depend on the physical schema, and thus need not be rewritten if the physical schema changes.

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