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Database Programming: The Foreign Key Constraint

     

Introduction

Continuing with our car rental database, imagine a customer comes to rent a car. We already established that it would be redundant to create new car information every time you process a new customer order. Instead, you would get the car's information from the table that holds data for the cars, and provide that information to the table used to process orders. As we described earlier, the car table should be able to provide its data to the other tables that would need that data. To make this flow of information possible from one table to another, you must create a relationship between them.

To make it possible for a table B to receive data from a table A, the table B must have a column that represents the table A. This columns acts as an "ambassador" or a link. As a pseudo-ambassador, the column in the table B almost does not belong to that table: it primarily allows both tables to communicate. For this reason, the column in the table B is called a foreign key.

A foreign key is a column on a table whose data is coming from another table.

Creating a Foreign Key in the Table Design View

To create a foreign key in the Table Design window, in the table that will receive the key, simply create a column with the following rules:

  • The column should have the same name as the primary column of the table it represents (but this is not a requirement)
  • The column must (this is required) have the same data type as the primary column of the table it represents

Here is an example of a column named GenderID that is a foreign key:

Foreign Key

Obviously in order to have information flowing from one table to another, the table that holds the primary information must be created. You can create it before or after creating the other table, as long as you have not established any link between both tables, it does not matter what sequence you use to create them.

The table that contains a primary key and that holds the information that another table would use is called the primary table or the parent table. The table that will receive the information from the other table is called the foreign table or the child table.

Creating a Foreign Key in the Relationships Dialog Box

To create a foreign key in a table:

  1. From the Object Explorer or the Server Explorer, open the child table in Design View
  2. Right-click anywhere in the table and click Relationships...
     
  3. In the Foreign Key Relationships dialog box, click Add
  4. A default name would be suggested to you. You can accept or change it. To change the name of the foreign key, on the right side, expand Identity and edit the string in the (Name) field:
     
  5. If necessary, in the same way, you can create other foreign keys by clicking Add. To delete an existing foreign key, first select it under Selected Relationships and click Delete.
    Once you are ready, click Close

Creating a Foreign Key in SQL

You can also create a foreign key in the SQL. The basic formula to use is:

FOREIGN KEY REFERENCES ParentTableName(ForeignKeyCcolumn) 

The FOREIGN KEY expression and the REFERENCES keyword are required. In the ParentTableName placeholder, enter the name of the primary table that holds the information that will be accessed in the current table. In the parentheses of ParentTableName, enter the name of the primary column of the parent table. Here is an example:

CREATE TABLE Persons
(
    PersonID int identity(1,1) PRIMARY KEY NOT NULL,
    FirstName varchar(20),
    LastName varchar(20) NOT NULL,
    GenderID int NULL FOREIGN KEY REFERENCES Genders(GenderID)
);

The Foreign Key Constraint

Notice that the foreign key does not have an object name as we saw for the primary key. If you do not specify a name for the foreign key, the SQL interpreter would automatically create a default name for you. Otherwise, to create a name, after creating the column, enter the CONSTRAINT keyword followed by the desired name and continue the rest as we saw above. Her is an example:

CREATE TABLE Persons
(
    PersonID int identity(1,1) PRIMARY KEY NOT NULL,
    FirstName varchar(20),
    LastName varchar(20) NOT NULL,
    GenderID int NULL CONSTRAINT FKGenders
                       FOREIGN KEY REFERENCES Genders(GenderID)
);

Establishing a Relationship

 

Introduction

As mentioned already, a relational database is one in which information flows from one table to another. To prepare the tables for this, you create primary and foreign keys, which we have done so far. Once the tables are ready, you can link them, which is referred to as creating a relationship between two tables. If you did not create a foreign key with SQL code, you can create it when establishing a relationship between two tables.

Creating a Relationship

To create a relationship between two tables

  1. Open the child table in the design view
  2. Right-click (anywhere in) the table and click Relationships...
    If the (necessary) foreign key does not exist, click Add and specify its name under Identity) on the right side
  3. Under Selected Relationships, click the foreign key that will hold the relationship
  4. On the right side, expand Tables And Columns Specification
  5. Click its ellipsis button
  6. In the Primary Key Table combo box, select the parent table that holds the primary data
  7. Under the parent table, click and select its primary key column
  8. Under Foreign Key Table, make sure the name of the current table is set.
    Under the name of the child table, click and select the name of the foreign key column. Here is an example:
     
  9. Click OK.
    When a relationship has been created, it would show in the Tables And Column Specification section:
     
    Foreign Key
  10. In the same way, you can create other relationships by clicking Add and configuring the link.
    Once you have finished, click Close

Diagrams

A diagram is a window that visually displays the relationships among the tables of a database. To create a diagram:

  1. In the Object Explorer in Microsoft SQL Server Management Studio or in the Server Explorer in Microsoft Visual Studio, in the database node, you can click Database Diagrams
  2. A dialog box will inform you that this database does not have a diagram. Read the message and click Yes
  3. Right-click Database Diagrams and click New Database Diagram
  4. In the Add Table dialog box, click each table and click the Add.
    Alternatively, you can double-click a table to add it
  5. In the Add Table dialog box, you can click Close.
    On the toolbar, you can click the Zoom button and select a larger or smaller value.
    To move a table, you can drag its title bar. Here is an example:
     
    Diagram
  6. To establish a relationship, you can click the gray box on the left of any column from the parent table and drop it on any column in the child table. A better way is to click gray box of the primary key column from the parent table, drag that box then drop it on the foreign key column of the child table. Here is an example:
     
    Diagram
  7. A Tables and Columns dialog box would come up. It would display the column that was dragged and the column on which you dropped.
    If you had selected just any column, it would show but it may not be the one you wanted to drag; that is, it may not be the actual column that is supposed to manage the relationship.
    Regardless, under Primary Key Table, you should select the parent table
  8. Under the parent table, select its primary column
  9. Under Foreign Table, select the foreign key column. Here is an example:
     
  10. Once you are ready, click OK. A link would be created between the tables
     
    Diagram
  11. In the same way, you can create other relationships.
    When you have finished, you can save and close the database

Adding a Foreign Key

Just as you add a primary key to an already created table, you can also add a new column that is a foreign key. Consider the following table named Persons:

CREATE TABLE Genders
(
    GenderID int identity(1, 1) not null PRIMARY KEY,
    Gender nvarchar(20)
);

CREATE TABLE Persons
(
    PersonID int identity(1,1) PRIMARY KEY NOT NULL,
    FirstName nvarchar(20),
    LastName nvarchar(20) NOT NULL
);

The formula to add a foreign key to an existing table is:

ALTER TABLE TableName
ADD NewColumnName DataType Options
    FOREIGN KEY REFERENCES ParentTableName(ColumnNameOfOtherTable);

Here is an example of adding a foreign key to the above Persons table:

ALTER TABLE Persons
ADD GenderID int NULL FOREIGN KEY REFERENCES Genders(GenderID);
 

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