Foreign key

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In the context of relational databases, a foreign key is a referential constraint between two tables.[1] The foreign key identifies a column or a set of columns in one (referencing) table that refers to a column or set of columns in another (referenced) table. The columns in the referencing table must be the primary key or other candidate key in the referenced table. The values in one row of the referencing columns must occur in a single row in the referenced table. Thus, a row in the referencing table cannot contain values that don't exist in the referenced table (except potentially NULL). This way references can be made to link information together and it is an essential part of database normalization. Multiple rows in the referencing table may refer to the same row in the referenced table. Most of the time, it reflects the one (master table, or referenced table) to many (child table, or referencing table) relationship.

The referencing and referenced table may be the same table, i.e. the foreign key refers back to the same table. Such a foreign key is known in SQL:2003 as self-referencing or recursive foreign key.

A table may have multiple foreign keys, and each foreign key can have a different referenced table. Each foreign key is enforced independently by the database system. Therefore, cascading relationships between tables can be established using foreign keys.

Improper foreign key/primary key relationships or not enforcing those relationships are often the source of many database and data modeling problems.


Defining Foreign Keys

Foreign keys are defined in the ANSI SQL Standard, through a FOREIGN KEY constraint. The syntax to add such a constraint to an existing table is defined in SQL:2003 as shown below. Omitting the column list in the REFERENCES clause implies that the foreign key shall reference the primary key of the referenced table.

ALTER TABLE <table identifier> 
   ADD [ CONSTRAINT <constraint identifier> ] 
      FOREIGN KEY ( <column expression> {, <column expression>}... )
      REFERENCES <table identifier> [ ( <column expression> {, <column expression>}... ) ]
      [ ON UPDATE <referential action> ]
      [ ON DELETE <referential action> ]

Likewise, foreign keys can be defined as part of the CREATE TABLE SQL statement.

CREATE TABLE table_name (
   col3  INTEGER,
      REFERENCES other_table(key_col) ON DELETE CASCADE,
   ... )

If the foreign key is a single column only, the column can be marked as such using the following syntax:

CREATE TABLE table_name (
   col3  INTEGER REFERENCES other_table(column_name),
   ... )

Referential Actions

Because the Database Management System enforces referential constraints, it must ensure data integrity if rows in a referenced table are to be deleted (or updated). If dependent rows in referencing tables still exist, those references have to be considered. SQL:2003 specifies 5 different referential actions that shall take place in such occurrences:


Whenever rows in the master (referenced) table are deleted, the respective rows of the child (referencing) table with a matching foreign key column will get deleted as well. This is called a cascade delete.

Example Tables: Customer(customer_id, cname, caddress) and Order(customer_id, products, payment)

Customer is the master table and Order is the child table, where 'customer_id' is the foreign key in Order and represents the customer who placed the order. When a row of Customer is deleted, any Order row matching the deleted Customer's customer_id will also be deleted.


A value cannot be updated when a row exists in a foreign key table that references the value in the referenced table.

Similarly, a row cannot be deleted as long as there is a reference to it from a foreign key table.


NO ACTION and RESTRICT are very much alike. The main difference between NO ACTION and RESTRICT is that with NO ACTION the referential integrity check is done after trying to alter the table. RESTRICT does the check before trying to execute the UPDATE or DELETE statement. Both referential actions act the same if the referential integrity check fails: the UPDATE or DELETE statement will result in an error.

In other words, when an UPDATE or DELETE statement is executed on the referenced table using the referential action NO ACTION, the DBMS verifies at the end of the statement execution that none of the referential relationships are violated. This is different from RESTRICT, which assumes at the outset that the operation will violate the constraint. Using NO ACTION, the triggers or the semantics of the statement itself may yield an end state in which no foreign key relationships are violated by the time the constraint is finally checked, thus allowing the statement to complete successfully.


The foreign key values in the referencing row are set to NULL when the referenced row is updated or deleted. This is only possible if the respective columns in the referencing table are nullable. Due to the semantics of NULL, a referencing row with NULLs in the foreign key columns does not require a referenced row.


Similarly to SET NULL, the foreign key values in the referencing row are set to the column default when the referenced row is updated or deleted.


Referential actions are generally implemented as implied triggers (i.e. triggers with system-generated names, often hidden.) As such, they are subject to the same limitations as user-defined triggers, and their order of execution relative to other triggers may need to be considered; in some cases it may become necessary to replace the referential action with its equivalent user-defined trigger to ensure proper execution order, or to work around mutating-table limitations.

Another important limitation appears with transaction isolation: your changes to a row may not be able to fully cascade because the row is referenced by data your transaction cannot "see", and therefore cannot cascade onto. An example: while your transaction is attempting to renumber a customer account, a simultaneous transaction is attempting to create a new invoice for that same customer; while a CASCADE rule may fix all the invoice rows your transaction can see to keep them consistent with the renumbered customer row, it won't reach into another transaction to fix the data there; because the database cannot guarantee consistent data when the two transactions commit, one of them will be forced to rollback (often on a first-come-first-served basis.)


As a first example to illustrate foreign keys, suppose an accounts database has a table with invoices and each invoice is associated with a particular supplier. Supplier details (such as address or phone number) are kept in a separate table; each supplier is given a 'supplier number' to identify it. Each invoice record has an attribute containing the supplier number for that invoice. Then, the 'supplier number' is the primary key in the Supplier table. The foreign key in the Invoices table points to that primary key. The relational schema is the following. Primary keys are marked in bold, and foreign keys are marked in italics.

  Supplier ( SupplierNumber, Name, Address, Type )
  Invoices ( InvoiceNumber, SupplierNumber, Text )

The corresponding Data Definition Language statement is as follows.

  CREATE TABLE Supplier (
     SupplierNumber  INTEGER NOT NULL,
     Name            VARCHAR(20) NOT NULL,
     Address         VARCHAR(50) NOT NULL,
     Type            VARCHAR(10),
     CONSTRAINT supplier_pk PRIMARY KEY(SupplierNumber),
     CONSTRAINT number_value CHECK (SupplierNumber > 0) )
  CREATE TABLE Invoices (
     InvoiceNumber   INTEGER NOT NULL,
     SupplierNumber  INTEGER NOT NULL,
     Text            VARCHAR(4096),
     CONSTRAINT invoice_pk PRIMARY KEY(InvoiceNumber),
     CONSTRAINT inumber_value CHECK (InvoiceNumber > 0),
     CONSTRAINT supplier_fk FOREIGN KEY(SupplierNumber)
        REFERENCES Supplier(SupplierNumber)

See also


  1. For a simpler visualization, see

External links

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