Entity Types, Entity Sets, Attributes, and Keys-1

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The ER model describes data as entities,relationships, and attributes. In this Section  we introduce the concepts of entities and their attributes. We discuss entity types and key attributes in other Section Then, in next Section  we specify the initial conceptual design of the entity types for the COMPANY database. Relationships are described in next topic.

  • Entities and Attributes

Entities and Their Attributes. The basic object that the ER model represents is an entity, which is a thing in the real world with an independent existence. An entity may be an object with a physical existence (for example, a particular person, car, house, or employee) or it may be an object with a conceptual existence (for instance, a company, a job, or a university course). Each entity has attributes—the particular properties that describe it. For example, an EMPLOYEE entity may be described by the employee’s name, age, address, salary, and job. A particular entity will have a value for each of its attributes. The attribute values that describe each entity become a major part of the data stored in the database.

Entity Types, Entity Sets, Attributes, and Keys-1

Figure shows two entities and the values of their attributes. The EMPLOYEE entity e1 has four attributes: Name, Address, Age, and Home_phone; their values are ‘John Smith,’ ‘2311 Kirby, Houston, Texas 77001’, ‘55’, and ‘713-749-2630’, respectively. The COMPANY entity c1 has three attributes: Name, Headquarters, and President; their values are ‘Sunco Oil’, ‘Houston’, and ‘John Smith’, respectively. Several types of attributes occur in the ER model: simple versus composite, singlevalued versus multivalued, and stored versus derived. First we define these attribute types and illustrate their use via examples. Then we discuss the concept of a NULL value for an attribute.

Entity Types, Entity Sets, Attributes, and Keys-1

Composite versus Simple (Atomic) Attributes:. Composite attributes can be divided into smaller subparts, which represent more basic attributes with independent meanings. For example, the Address attribute of the EMPLOYEE entity shown in Figure  can be subdivided into Street_address, City, State, and Zip, 3 with the values ‘2311 Kirby’, ‘Houston’, ‘Texas’, and ‘77001.’ Attributes that are not divisible are called simple or atomic attributes. Composite attributes can form a hierarchy; for example, Street_address can be further subdivided into three simple component attributes: Number, Street, and Apartment_number, as shown in Figure  The value of a composite attribute is the concatenation of the values of its component simple attributes. Composite attributes are useful to model situations in which a user sometimes refers to the composite attribute as a unit but at other times refers specifically to its components. If the composite attribute is referenced only as a whole, there is no need to subdivide it into component attributes. For example, if there is no need to refer to the individual components of an address (Zip Code, street, and so on), then the whole address can be designated as a simple attribute.


Single-Valued versus Multivalued Attributes: Most attributes have a single value for a particular entity; such attributes are called single-valued. For example, Age is a single-valued attribute of a person. In some cases an attribute can have a set of values for the same entity—for instance, a Colors attribute for a car, or a College_degrees attribute for a person. Cars with one color have a single value, whereas two-tone cars have two color values. Similarly, one person may not have a college degree, another person may have one, and a third person may have two or more degrees; therefore, different people can have different numbers of values for the College_degrees attribute. Such attributes are called multivalued. A multivalued attribute may have lower and upper bounds to constrain the number of values allowed for each individual entity. For example, the Colors attribute of a car may be restricted to have between one and three values, if we assume that a car can have three colors at most.

Stored versus Derived Attributes. In some cases, two (or more) attribute values are related—for example, the Age and Birth_date attributes of a person. For a particular person entity, the value of Age can be determined from the current (today’s) date and the value of that person’s Birth_date. The Age attribute is hence called a derived attribute and is said to be derivable from the Birth_date attribute, which is called a stored attribute. Some attribute values can be derived from related entities; for example, an attribute Number_of_employees of a DEPARTMENT entity can be derived by counting the number of employees related to (working for) that department.


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NULL Values. In some cases, a particular entity may not have an applicable value for an attribute. For example, the Apartment_number attribute of an address applies only to addresses that are in apartment buildings and not to other types of residences, such as single-family homes. Similarly, a College_degrees attribute applies only to people with college degrees. For such situations, a special value called NULL is created. An address of a single-family home would have NULL for its Apartment_number attribute, and a person with no college degree would have NULL for College_degrees. NULL can also be used if we do not know the value of an attribute for a particular entity—for example, if we do not know the home phone number of ‘John Smith’ in Figure The meaning of the former type of NULL is not applicable, whereas the meaning of the latter is unknown. The unknown category of NULL can be further classified into two cases. The first case arises when it is known that the attribute value exists but is missing—for instance, if the Height attribute of a person is listed as NULL. The second case arises when it is not known whether the attribute value exists—for example, if the Home_phone attribute of a person is NULL.


Complex Attributes. Notice that, in general, composite and multivalued attributes can be nested arbitrarily. We can represent arbitrary nesting by grouping components of a composite attribute between parentheses () and separating the components with commas, and by displaying multivalued attributes between braces { }. Such attributes are called complex attributes. For example, if a person can have more than one residence and each residence can have a single address and multiple phones, an attribute Address_phone for a person can be specified as shown in Figure  Both Phone and Address are themselves composite attributes.


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