Why no many-to-many relationships?

I am learning about databases and SQL for the first time. In the text I'm reading (Oracle 11g: SQL by Joan Casteel), it says that "many-to-many relationships can't exist in a relational database." I understand that we are to avoid them, and I understand how to create a bridging entity to eliminate them, but I am trying to fully understand the statement "can't exist."

Is it actually physically impossible to have a many-to-many relationship represented?

Or is it just very inefficient since it leads to a lot of data duplication?

It seems to me to be the latter case, and the bridging entity minimizes the duplicated data. But maybe I'm missing something? I haven't found a concrete reason (or better yet an example) that explains why to avoid the many-to-many relationship, either in the text or anywhere else I've searched. I've been searching all day and only finding the same information repeated: "don't do it, and use a bridging entity instead." But I like to ask why. :-)

Thanks!

Answers


Think about a simple relationship like the one between Authors and Books. An author can write many books. A book could have many authors. Now, without a bridge table to resolve the many-to-many relationship, what would the alternative be? You'd have to add multiple Author_ID columns to the Books table, one for each author. But how many do you add? 2? 3? 10? However many you choose, you'll probably end up with a lot of sparse rows where many of the Author_ID values are NULL and there's a good chance that you'll run across a case where you need "just one more." So then you're either constantly modifying the schema to try to accommodate or you're imposing some artificial restriction ("no book can have more than 3 authors") to force things to fit.


A true many-to-many relationship involving two tables is impossible to create in a relational database. I believe that is what they refer to when they say that it can't exist. In order to implement a many to many you need an intermediary table with basically 3 fields, an ID, an id attached to the first table and an id atached to the second table.

The reason for not wanting many-to-many relationships, is like you said they are incredibly inefficient and managing all the records tied to each side of the relationship can be tough, for instance if you delete a record on one side what happens to the records in the relational table and the table on the other side? Cascading deletes is a slippery slope, at least in my opinion.


Normally (pun intended) you would use a link table to establish many-to-many

Like described by Joe Stefanelli, let's say you had Authors and Books

SELECT * from Author
SELECT * from Books

you would create a JOIN table called AuthorBooks

Then,

SELECT * from Author a JOIN AuthorBooks ab on a.AuthorId = ab.AuthorId JOIN Books b on ab.BookId = b.BookId

hope that helps.


it says that "many-to-many relationships can't exist in a relational database."

I suspect the author is just being controversial. Technically, in the SQL language, there is no means to explicitly declare a M-M relationship. It is an emergent result of declaring multiple 1-M relations to the table. However, it is a common approach to achieve the result of a M-M relationship and it is absolutely used frequently in databases designed on relational database management systems.

I haven't found a concrete reason (or better yet an example) that explains why to avoid the many-to-many relationship,

They should be used where they are appropriate to be used would be a more accurate way of saying this. There are times, such as the books and authors example given by Joe Stafanelli, where any other solution would be inefficient and introduce other data integrity problems. However, M-M relationships are more complicated to use. They add more work on the part of the GUI designer. Thus, they should only be used where it makes sense to use them. If you are highly confident that one entity should never be associated with more than one of some other entity, then by all means restrict it to a 1-M. For example, if you were tracking the status of a shipment, each shipment can have only a single status at any given time. It would over complicate the design and not make logical sense to allow a shipment to have multiple statuses.


Of course they can (and do) exist. That sounds to me like a soapbox statement. They are required for a great many business applications.

Done properly, they are not inefficient and do not have duplicate data either.

Take a look at FaceBook. How many many-to-many relationships exist between friends and friends of friends? That is a well-defined business need.

The statement that "many-to-many relationships can't exist in a relational database." is patently false.


Many-to-many relationships are in fact very useful, and also common. For example, consider a contact management system which allows you to put people in groups. One person can be in many groups, and each group can have many members.

Representation of these relations requires an extra table--perhaps that's what your book is really saying? In the example I just gave, you'd have a Person table (id, name, address etc) and a Group table (id, group name, etc). Neither contains information about who's in which group; to do that you have a third table (call it PersonGroup) in which each record contains a Person ID and a Group ID--that record represents the relation between the person and the group.

Need to find the members of a group? Your query might look like this (for the group with ID=1):

SELECT Person.firstName, Person.lastName 
FROM Person JOIN PersonGroup JOIN Group 
ON (PersonGroup.GroupID = 1 AND PersonGroup.PersonID = Person.ID);

It is correct. The Many to Many relationship is broken down into several One to Many relationships. So essentially, NO many to many relationship exists!


Well, of course M-M relationship does exist in relational databases and they also have capability of handling at some level through bridging tables, however as the degree of M-M relationship increases it also increases complexity which results in slow R-W cycles and latency. It is recommended to avoid such complex M-M relationships in a Relational Database. Graph Databases are the best alternative and good at handling Many to Many relationship between objects and that's why social networking sites uses Graph databases for handling M-M relationship between User and Friends, Users and Events etc.


Let's invent a fictional relationship (many to many relationship) between books and sales table. Suppose you are buying books and for each book you buy needs to generate an invoice number for that book. Suppose also that the invoice number for a book can represent multiple sales to the same customer (not in reality but let's assume). We have a many to many relationship between books and sales entities. Now if that's the case, how can we get information about only 1 book given that we have purchased 3 books since all books would in theory have the same invoice number? That introduces the main problem of using a many to many relationship I guess. Now if we add a bridging entity between Books and sales such that each book sold have only 1 invoice number, no matter how many books are purchases we can still correctly identify each books.


In a many-to-many relationship there is obvious redundancy as well as insert, update and delete anomaly which should be eliminated by converting it to 2 one-to-many relationship via a bridge table.


M:N relationships should not exist in database design. They are extremely inefficient and do not make for functional databases. Two tables (entities) with a many-to-many relationship (aircraft, airport; teacher, student) cannot both be children of each other, there would be no where to put foreign keys without an intersecting table. aircraft-> flight <- airport; teacher <- class -> student.

An intersection table provides a place for an entity that is dependent on two other tables, for example, a grade needs both a class and a student, a flight needs both an aircraft and an airport. Many-to-many relationships conceal data. Intersection tables reveal this data and create one-to-many relationships that can be more easily understood and worked with. So, the question arises, what table should the flight be in--aircraft or airport. Neither, they should be foreign keys in the intersection table, Flight.


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