Methodology: Entity-Relationship Model

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In software engineering, an entity-relationship model (ERM) is an abstract and conceptual representation of data. Entity-relationship modeling is a database modeling method, used to produce a type of conceptual schema or semantic data model of a system, often a relational database, and its requirements in a top-down fashion. Diagrams created by this process are called entity-relationship diagrams, ER diagrams, or ERDs.

The definitive reference for entity-relationship modelling is Peter Chen's 1976 paper[1]. However, variants of the idea existed previously, and have been devised subsequently.[2]

[1] "The Entity Relationship Model: Toward a Unified View of Data".

[2] A.P.G. Brown, "Modelling a Real-World System and Designing a Schema to Represent It", in Douque and Nijssen (eds.), Data Base Description, North-Holland, 1975, ISBN 0-7204-2833-5

The first stage of information system design uses these models during the requirements analysis to describe information needs or the type of information that is to be stored in a database. The data modeling technique can be used to describe any ontology (i.e. an overview and classifications of used terms and their relationships) for a certain area of interest. In the case of the design of an information system that is based on a database, the conceptual data model is, at a later stage (usually called logical design), mapped to a logical data model, such as the relational model; this in turn is mapped to a physical model during physical design. Note that sometimes, both of these phases are referred to as "physical design".

There are a number of conventions for entity-relationship diagrams (ERDs). The classical notation mainly relates to conceptual modeling. There are a range of notations employed in logical and physical database design, such as IDEF1X.

An entity may be defined as a thing which is recognized as being capable of an independent existence and which can be uniquely identified. An entity is an abstraction from the complexities of some domain. When we speak of an entity we normally speak of some aspect of the real world which can be distinguished from other aspects of the real world.[3]
An entity may be a physical object such as a house or a car, an event such as a house sale or a car service, or a concept such as a customer transaction or order. Although the term entity is the one most commonly used, following Chen we should really distinguish between an entity and an entity-type. An entity-type is a category. An entity, strictly speaking, is an instance of a given entity-type. There are usually many instances of an entity-type. Because the term entity-type is somewhat cumbersome, most people tend to use the term entity as a synonym for this term.
Entities can be thought of as nouns. Examples: a computer, an employee, a song, a mathematical theorem. Entities are represented as rectangles.

A relationship captures how two or more entities are related to one another. Relationships can be thought of as verbs, linking two or more nouns. Examples: an owns relationship between a company and a computer, a supervises relationship between an employee and a department, a performs relationship between an artist and a song, a proved relationship between a mathematician and a theorem. Relationships are represented as diamonds, connected by lines to each of the entities in the relationship.

Entities and relationships can both have attributes. Examples: an employee entity might have a Social Security Number (SSN) attribute; the proved relationship may have a date attribute. Attributes are represented as ellipses connected to their owning entity sets by a line.

Every entity (unless it is a weak entity) must have a minimal set of uniquely identifying attributes, which is called the entity's primary key.

Entity-relationship diagrams don't show single entities or single instances of relations. Rather, they show entity sets and relationship sets. Example: a particular song is an entity. The collection of all songs in a database is an entity set. The eaten relationship between a child and her lunch is a single relationship. The set of all such child-lunch relationships in a database is a relationship set. In other words, a relationship set corresponds to a relation in mathematics, while a relationship corresponds to a member of the relation.

Certain cardinality constraints on relationship sets may be indicated as well.