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Thoughts on Natural Keys

Mark Seemann talks keys:

Although I live in Copenhagen and mostly walk or ride my bicycle in order to get around town, I do own an old car for getting around the rest of the country. In Denmark, cars go through mandatory official inspection every other year, and I’ve been through a few of these in my life. A few years ago, the mechanic doing the inspection informed me that my car’s chassis number was incorrect.

This did make me a bit nervous, because I’d bought the car used, and I was suddenly concerned that things weren’t really as I thought. Had I unwittingly bought a stolen car?

But the mechanic just walked over to his computer in order to correct the error. That’s when a different kind of unease hit me. When you’ve programmed for some decades, you learn to foresee various typical failure modes. Since a chassis number is an obvious candidate for a natural key, I already predicted that changing the number would prove to be either impossible, or have all sorts of cascading effects, ultimately terminating in official records no longer recognizing that the car is mine.

Mark uses this as a jumping-off point on a discussion about whether to use natural keys as primary keys or whether to include surrogate keys instead. I am generally in favor of using surrogate keys in the physical data model and creating unique indexes for natural keys. But you have to use natural keys in the logical data model because surrogate keys don’t exist at the level of the logical data model. Do read the comments, though, because there’s a great debate in there.

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