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What Is a Database Model?

Alex Newth
Alex Newth

In the broadest definition, all databases are the same in that they store data, and the data can be manipulated or called up. At the same time, there is a defining aspect of each database called the database model. The database model is the structure of the data, and the model dictates how the data interact, and how they are displayed. There are five main database models, though some database designers create hybrids of the models to suit the needs of the entity that requires the database. These five models are the flat model, hierarchical model, network model, relational model and object model.

The flat database model is the simplest of all databases. It is used when all the database values are similar, and there is only a small amount of information that needs to be stored. This schema shows all the data in a table or spreadsheet, with each row being a different record. Commonly, to keep the database secure, each row will have a different password.

Data stewards ensure every piece of information gathered by a company is used effectively and efficiently.
Data stewards ensure every piece of information gathered by a company is used effectively and efficiently.

Early in the development of databases, the hierarchical database model was one of the most popular, and it is still commonly used in 2011. Within this database, every record has a hierarchy, from broad records to specific ones. This database is build with a parent-child relationship, meaning a broad record — or a parent — will open up to reveal specific — child — records. The network database model is almost the same as the hierarchical model, except several parents can connect to the same child, allowing this model to make more complex interactions.

The object database model concerns itself with making tables within tables to prevent database overhead. For example, in most other database models, every record will need to be coded into the database separately. In the object model, a main table can be made and each record in that table can contain other similar records. This allows those similar records to be encapsulated separately, making organization simple to maintain.

Since its inception in the 1970s, the relational database model has been the most popular model, because of its ability to group data in ways that are easy to understand and easy to call. As the name implies, this model deals primarily with the relationship between data sets and finds commonalities between records to make it easy for administrators to call similar data. These databases also use several different tables at once, and each record can have a key that separates it and allows for relationships that are more complex.

Discussion Comments


@MrMoody - I actually like the concept of the hierarchical model. I don’t know that I’ve used it. The closest I’ve come has been working with XML files, which pretty much order everything in a hierarchy.

I don’t know if you would consider XML files databases however. Regardless, the hierarchical model is intuitive. The parent-child relationship makes sense and is similar in some sense to the relational model, except that the relational model is a bit more arbitrary in its relationships from what I understand.


@NathanG - At our workplace all the analysts use Excel. That’s a flat database model. Basically everything is in a tabular format, with rows and columns.

They know a little Access but not as much as they should in my opinion. Sometimes I think that they use Excel as if it were dedicated database software, when it’s not.

Some of the gurus know how to really milk Excel for everything it’s worth, but even then, I believe the results they get are far weaker than those they would get if they just imported the data into a database applications and built a relational model.


While this is a good list of all the different models, I think from a practical standpoint the majority of users will choose either the flat model or the relational database model.

The hierarchical model is not that popular in my opinion. I tried to use a database that used this model and found it to be confusing honestly. I design data using a relational model in either Access or SQL Server.

Both of these applications have their own data modeling tools. You can create a database model diagram that shows the relationships between tables, drawing lines that connect one table to another on the appropriate fields.

I think it’s important that you model your data before you do anything else so that your queries return the correct results with the minimum effort.

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    • Data stewards ensure every piece of information gathered by a company is used effectively and efficiently.
      Data stewards ensure every piece of information gathered by a company is used effectively and efficiently.