Entity Normalization

DataJoint uses a uniform way of representing any data. It does so in the form of entity sets, unordered collections of entities of the same type. The term entity normalization describes the commitment to represent all data as well-formed entity sets. Entity normalization is a conceptual refinement of the relational data model and is the central principle of the DataJoint model (Yatsenko et al., 2018). Entity normalization leads to clear and logical database designs and to easily comprehensible data queries.

Entity sets are a type of relation (from the relational data model) and are often visualized as tables. Hence the terms relation, entity set, and table can be used interchangeably when entity normalization is assumed.

Criteria of a well-formed entity set

  1. All elements of an entity set belong to the same well-defined and readily identified entity type from the model world.
  2. All attributes of an entity set are applicable directly to each of its elements, although some attribute values may be missing (set to null).
  3. All elements of an entity set must be distinguishable form each other by the same primary key.
  4. Primary key attribute values cannot be missing, i.e. set to null.
  5. All elements of an entity set participate in the same types of relationships with other entity sets.

Entity normalization in schema design

Entity normalization applies to schema design in that the designer is responsible for the identification of the essential entity types in their model world and of the dependencies among the entity types.

The term entity normalization may also apply to a procedure for refactoring a schema design that does not meet the above criteria into one that does. In some cases, this may require breaking up some entity sets into multiple entity sets, which may cause some entities to be represented across multiple entity sets. In other cases, this may require converting attributes into their own entity sets. Technically speaking, entity normalization entails compliance with the Boyce-Codd normal form while lacking the representational power for the applicability of more complex normal forms (Kent, 1983). Adherence to entity normalization prevents redundancies in storage and data manipulation anomalies. The same criteria originally motivated the formulation of the classical relational normal forms.

Entity normalization in data queries

Entity normalization applies to data queries as well. DataJoint’s query operators are designed to preserve the entity normalization of their inputs. For example, the outputs of operators restriction, proj, and aggr retain the same entity type as the (first) input. The join operator produces a new entity type comprising the pairing of the entity types of its inputs. Universal sets explicitly introduce virtual entity sets when necessary to accomplish a query.

Examples of poor normalization

Design choices lacking entity normalization may lead to data inconsistencies or anomalies. Below are several examples of poorly normalized designs and their normalized alternatives.

Indirect attributes

All attributes should apply to the entity itself. Avoid attributes that actually apply to one of the entity’s other attributes. For example, consider the table Author with attributes author_name, institution, and institution_address. The attribute institution_address should really be held in a separate Institution table that Author depends on.

Repeated attributes

Avoid tables with repeated attributes of the same category. A better solution is to create a separate table that depends on the first (often a part table), with multiple individual entities rather than repeated attributes. For example, consider the table Protocol that includes the attributes equipment1`, ``equipment2, and equipment3. A better design would be to create a ProtocolEquipment table that links each entity in Protocol with multiple entities in Equipment through dependencies.

Attributes that do not apply to all entities

All attributes should be relevant to every entity in a table. Attributes that apply only to a subset of entities in a table likely belong in a separate table containing only that subset of entities. For example, a table Protocol should include the attribute stimulus only if all experiment protocols include stimulation. If the not all entities in Protocol involve stimulation, then the stimulus attribute should be moved to a part table that has Protocol as its master. Only protocols using stimulation will have an entry in this part table.

Transient attributes

Attributes should be relevant to all entities in a table at all times. Attributes that do not apply to all entities should be moved to another dependent table containing only the appropriate entities. This principle also applies to attributes that have not yet become meaningful for some entities or that will not remain meaningful indefinitely. For example, consider the table Mouse with attributes birth_date and death_date, where death_date is set to NULL for living mice. Since the death_date attribute is not meaningful for mice that are still living, the proper design would include a separate table DeceasedMouse that depends on Mouse. DeceasedMouse would only contain entities for dead mice, which improves integrity and averts the need for updates.