Composite primary keys vs unique object ID field

Most of the commonly used engines (MS SQL Server, Oracle, DB2, MySQL, etc.) would not experience noticeable issues using a surrogate key system. Some may even experience a performance boost from the use of a surrogate, but performance issues are highly platform-specific.

In general terms, the natural key (and by extension, composite key) verses surrogate key debate has a long history with no likely “right answer” in sight.

The arguments for natural keys (singular or composite) usually include some the following:

1) They are already available in the data model. Most entities being modeled already include one or more attributes or combinations of attributes that meet the needs of a key for the purposes of creating relations. Adding an additional attribute to each table incorporates an unnecessary redundancy.

2) They eliminate the need for certain joins. For example, if you have customers with customer codes, and invoices with invoice numbers (both of which are “natural” keys), and you want to retrieve all the invoice numbers for a specific customer code, you can simply use "SELECT InvoiceNumber FROM Invoice WHERE CustomerCode = 'XYZ123'". In the classic surrogate key approach, the SQL would look something like this: "SELECT Invoice.InvoiceNumber FROM Invoice INNER JOIN Customer ON Invoice.CustomerID = Customer.CustomerID WHERE Customer.CustomerCode = 'XYZ123'".

3) They contribute to a more universally-applicable approach to data modeling. With natural keys, the same design can be used largely unchanged between different SQL engines. Many surrogate key approaches use specific SQL engine techniques for key generation, thus requiring more specialization of the data model to implement on different platforms.

Arguments for surrogate keys tend to revolve around issues that are SQL engine specific:

1) They enable easier changes to attributes when business requirements/rules change. This is because they allow the data attributes to be isolated to a single table. This is primarily an issue for SQL engines that do not efficiently implement standard SQL constructs such as DOMAINs. When an attribute is defined by a DOMAIN statement, changes to the attribute can be performed schema-wide using an ALTER DOMAIN statement. Different SQL engines have different performance characteristics for altering a domain, and some SQL engines do not implement DOMAINS at all, so data modelers compensate for these situations by adding surrogate keys to improve the ability to make changes to attributes.

2) They enable easier implementations of concurrency than natural keys. In the natural key case, if two users are concurrently working with the same information set, such as a customer row, and one of the users modifies the natural key value, then an update by the second user will fail because the customer code they are updating no longer exists in the database. In the surrogate key case, the update will process successfully because immutable ID values are used to identify the rows in the database, not mutable customer codes. However, it is not always desirable to allow the second update – if the customer code changed it is possible that the second user should not be allowed to proceed with their change because the actual “identity” of the row has changed – the second user may be updating the wrong row. Neither surrogate keys nor natural keys, by themselves, address this issue. Comprehensive concurrency solutions have to be addressed outside of the implementation of the key.

3) They perform better than natural keys. Performance is most directly affected by the SQL engine. The same database schema implemented on the same hardware using different SQL engines will often have dramatically different performance characteristics, due to the SQL engines data storage and retrieval mechanisms. Some SQL engines closely approximate flat-file systems, where data is actually stored redundantly when the same attribute, such as a Customer Code, appears in multiple places in the database schema. This redundant storage by the SQL engine can cause performance issues when changes need to be made to the data or schema. Other SQL engines provide a better separation between the data model and the storage/retrieval system, allowing for quicker changes of data and schema.

4) Surrogate keys function better with certain data access libraries and GUI frameworks. Due to the homogeneous nature of most surrogate key designs (example: all relational keys are integers), data access libraries, ORMs, and GUI frameworks can work with the information without needing special knowledge of the data. Natural keys, due to their heterogeneous nature (different data types, size etc.), do not work as well with automated or semi-automated toolkits and libraries. For specialized scenarios, such as embedded SQL databases, designing the database with a specific toolkit in mind may be acceptable. In other scenarios, databases are enterprise information resources, accessed concurrently by multiple platforms, applications, report systems, and devices, and therefore do not function as well when designed with a focus on any particular library or framework. In addition, databases designed to work with specific toolkits become a liability when the next great toolkit is introduced.

I tend to fall on the side of natural keys (obviously), but I am not fanatical about it. Due to the environment I work in, where any given database I help design may be used by a variety of applications, I use natural keys for the majority of the data modeling, and rarely introduce surrogates. However, I don’t go out of my way to try to re-implement existing databases that use surrogates. Surrogate-key systems work just fine – no need to change something that is already functioning well.

There are some excellent resources discussing the merits of each approach:





Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s