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Apology of NULL

S. Moiseenko

The meaning of the value NULL is an absence of information or inapplicability of the current attribute in the current tuple.

You can ask:For what to have an attribute if its value is inapplicable? The answer to this question lies in a field of modeling of the enterprise. Let's consider, for example, the database schema Computers. It represents the relational model of the association type-supertype. The models of computer production are the entries of the enterprise here; under this every type of production (PC, laptop or printer) represents an individual table with relations many-to-one with the Product table.

Such a model provides a high degree of normalization (3NF). However this is not the only way. We would have stored all information in one table, which could contain both mutual attributes for all models (for example, price) and attributes, which have sense only for models of certain types (for example, color for printer defining). The value NULL is fully justified for this schema just in the meaning of an inapplicability of characteristic, that is NULL in the column color tells that this characteristic doesn't refer, let us say, to PC models.

Let's get back to the second aspect of null values absence of information. If we decide to refuse the using of null values, we will have to offer an alternative. The natural way is using of the default value that will be substituted in the appropriate column under the absence of information. We should note that such default values should be at least so many as different data types that are supported by DBMS (integer, strings, datetime , ).

Let's consider, for example, the Laptop table and the price column. Let the enterprise to be so that at the moment of information input about the models of laptops their price is sometimes unknown. In choosing the default value we should be bounded by permissible values for the price column. Data type for the column (money) makes us to be bounded by numerical values, compatible with current type and domain constraints (constraint of the CHECK type), imposed on permissible values for this column. Any positive value as a default value will cause a confusion, because it is impossible to differ true value of price from the substitution of the absent price. That is why we should choose zero or any negative value. And now let's speak about disadvantages of such a substitute.

For example, let's consider the information about the models 1298 in the Laptop table. Let's carry out the query to learn the data:

SELECT * FROM laptop WHERE model=1298

Here are the results of carrying out of this query:





























Let's consider the task of getting the average price of the model 1298. While all prices are known the solution of this task doesn't cause any doubts:

SELECT model, AVG( price) avg_price
FROM laptop
WHERE model=1298
GROUP BY model





Let now the price of the model with code 4 is unknown. If, as it was decided earlier, we substitute an unknown value, say, with zero (UPDATE laptop SET price=0 WHERE code=4), then we will get knowingly the wrong average price value 550.0

If we use the value NULL, the result will be quite right 825.0, because null values will be ignored under grouping, in the result of which the average value will be calculated only by the models with the known price (that is the average value by two models).

So, as I tried to show, the value NULL is the inherent peculiarity of the relational model, and instead of critics I offer to learn correctly working with such values.

Given examples here can be done directly on the website by selecting the check box Without checking on the page with SELECT exercises.

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