Data dictionary

Data dictionary

A data dictionary, as defined in the IBM Dictionary of Computing is a "centralized repository of information about data such as meaning, relationships to other data, origin, usage, and format. The term may have one of several closely related meanings pertaining to databases and database management systems (DBMS):

  • a document describing a database or collection of databases
  • an integral component of a DBMS that is required to determine its structure
  • a piece of middleware that extends or supplants the native data dictionary of a DBMS

Data dictionary documentation

Database users and application developers can benefit from an authoritative data dictionary document that catalogs the organization, contents, and conventions of one or more databases. This typically includes the names and descriptions of various tables and fields in each database, plus additional details, like the type and length of each data element. There is no universal standard as to the level of detail in such a document, but it is primarily a distillation of metadata about database structure, not the data itself. A data dictionary document also may include further information describing how data elements are encoded. One of the advantages of well-designed data dictionary documentation is that it helps to establish consistency throughout a complex database, or across a large collection of federated databases.

Data dictionary middleware

In the construction of database applications, it can be useful to introduce an additional layer of data dictionary software, i.e. middleware, which communicates with the underlying DBMS data dictionary. Such a "high-level" data dictionary may offer additional features and a degree of flexibility that goes beyond the limitations of the native "low-level" data dictionary, whose primary purpose is to support the basic functions of the DBMS, not the requirements of a typical application. For example, a high-level data dictionary can provide alternative entity-relationship models tailored to suit different applications that share a common database. Extensions to the data dictionary also can assist in query optimization against distributed databases.

Software frameworks aimed at rapid application development sometimes include high-level data dictionary facilities, which can substantially reduce the amount of programming required to build menus, forms, reports, and other components of a database application, including the database itself. For example, PHPLens includes a PHP class library to automate the creation of tables, indexes, and foreign key constraints portably for multiple databases. Another PHP-based data dictionary, part of the RADICORE toolkit, automatically generates program objects, scripts, and SQL code for menus and forms with data validation and complex JOINs. For the ASP.NET environment, Base One's data dictionary provides cross-DBMS facilities for automated database creation, data validation, performance enhancement (caching and index utilization), application security, and extended data types.

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