What is SQL?

What is SQL

SQL, or Structured Query Language, is a programming language used to manage and manipulate data in a relational database. It is the standard language for accessing and manipulating databases, and is used by developers, database administrators, and data analysts worldwide.

SQL allows users to perform a wide range of operations on relational databases, including creating, modifying, and removing tables and records, as well as retrieving and updating data. It is a powerful tool for managing and analyzing large volumes of data, and is essential for organizations that rely on databases to store and retrieve information.

History of SQL

Structured Query Language (SQL) has a long and rich history that dates back to the 1970s. It was first developed by Donald D. Chamberlin and Raymond F. Boyce at IBM, as a part of their research project on database management systems. The initial version, called SEQUEL (Structured English Query Language), was designed to provide a standardized way to manage and retrieve data from relational databases.

In the 1980s, the American National Standards Institute (ANSI) recognized the need for a standardized database language and SQL was adopted as the standard language for relational database management systems. This helped to popularize SQL and led to its widespread use in the industry.

Over the years, SQL has continued to evolve and improve. In 1987, the International Organization for Standardization (ISO) published the first SQL standard, known as SQL-87. This was followed by SQL-89, SQL-92, SQL:1999, SQL:2003, and so on, each introducing new features and capabilities to the language.

The development of SQL has been closely intertwined with the rise of relational databases, such as Oracle, MySQL, Microsoft SQL Server, and PostgreSQL, which have all adopted SQL as their standard language. This has contributed to the widespread adoption of SQL and its continued relevance in the field of database management.

In recent years, there has been a growing demand for new and improved versions of SQL that can handle the ever-increasing volumes of data generated by modern applications and systems. As a result, new SQL standards and extensions have been developed to incorporate features like advanced analytics, XML support, and improved performance optimization.

Today, SQL remains one of the most widely used and important languages in the field of database management. Its history is a testament to its enduring significance and the critical role it plays in managing and querying data in relational databases. As technology continues to evolve, SQL will undoubtedly continue to evolve as well, ensuring its place as a fundamental tool for managing data in the digital age.

Calculating statistics

Using SQL, it only takes 11 lines of code to evaluate changes in the popularity of the name Jessie between 1920 and 2000 based on census data. This simplifies aggregating data and calculating statistics.

The census table:

census table

The query:

  year, gender, COUNT(*) as cnt
  year BETWEEN 1920 and 2000
  AND name = 'Jessie'
  year, gender
  year, gender DESC

The query evaluation result:

query evaluation result

SQL is the standard data manipulation language used by data-driven companies worldwide. 

S is for Structured

SQL is a language to extract and update data structured as tables. This data appears in various application areas, such as Excel spreadsheets containing accounting data or census statistics in Google BigQuery. Another example is an online store that utilizes a special software system to store and access tables, a Relational Database Management System (RDBMS). These can help to process the information on goods, orders, and customers.

SQL is intended for use with tables that have a particular structure:

Data structures

The tables contain rows and columns. Each row is an object or entity that has a set of properties or attributes. For instance, the third row contains data about a man named Willie, born in 1985.

Data is often organized into tables, known as a database. Then, it's possible to access these tables using their names. In an online store's database, the Customers table would probably contain general information about the company's customers: their names and contact details. The Orders table would store information about their orders: customer names, goods, and payment details.

Q is for Query

SQL is a programming language with a large set of data-processing features. It is declarative, meaning that a statement written in SQL can be a query that tells the system what should be done or evaluated but doesn't specify how.

In the following example, a query extracts all rows and columns from the Census table:


With the * symbol, we select all the columns from the table.

It is imperative to conclude every SQL statement with a semicolon, a statement terminator. Failure to do so may result in an error. The sole exception is when executing one query at a time, but even then, adding it at the end of your query is recommended.

Keywords such as SELECT are not case-sensitive in the SQL language. They can be in any lettercase but are often written in all caps to make them more visible.

L is for Language

SQL was designed to resemble natural language, making it easier to specify requirements without being hindered by the task's complexities. The query undergoes analysis, the appropriate control flow is chosen, and the operation is carried out, all thanks to SQL's declarative nature.

The American National Standards Institute (ANSI) initially adopted SQL as a standard in the 1980s. There are many dialects implemented by software vendors that support it. Dialects are based on the ANSI standard but have some technical differences. For example, they might process dates or strings differently. This means that SQL queries written in different dialects are not compatible.

Advantages of Using SQL

One of the main advantages of SQL is its simplicity and ease of use. The language is relatively easy to learn and understand, especially for those with a background in programming or data management. This makes it an accessible and highly valuable tool for both beginner and experienced database administrators and developers.

Another advantage of SQL is its flexibility. The language allows users to perform a wide range of tasks, including querying, updating, and managing data within a database. With SQL, users can easily retrieve specific data, make changes to existing data, and even create new tables and databases. This flexibility makes SQL a versatile and invaluable tool for data management.

In addition to its simplicity and flexibility, SQL is also highly efficient. The language is designed to process and manipulate large amounts of data quickly and effectively. This makes it an ideal choice for organizations and businesses that deal with complex and extensive databases.

Furthermore, SQL is a standardized language, meaning that it can be used across different database platforms and systems. This allows for seamless integration and compatibility, making it easier for users to work with multiple databases and systems.

Disadvantages of Using SQL

One of the major drawbacks of using SQL is its lack of scalability. As data volumes grow, SQL databases can become slow and cumbersome to manage. This can lead to performance issues and make it difficult to handle large amounts of data efficiently.

Another disadvantage of SQL is its complexity. Writing complex queries and managing large databases can be daunting for those who are not well-versed in SQL. This can lead to errors and inefficient code, which can be time-consuming to troubleshoot and fix.

Additionally, SQL can be limited in terms of its flexibility. While it excels at managing structured data, it may not be the best option for handling unstructured or semi-structured data. This can be a significant drawback for organizations that deal with a variety of data types.

Security is another concern when it comes to using SQL. While SQL databases offer security features such as user authentication and access controls, they are still susceptible to security breaches and vulnerabilities. This can be a major concern, especially for businesses that handle sensitive or confidential data.

Finally, SQL databases can be costly to maintain and scale. Licensing fees, hardware costs, and the need for specialized IT personnel can add up quickly, making it a potentially expensive option for businesses with limited resources.

Components of an SQL Database

First and foremost, tables are the building blocks of an SQL database. They are used to store and organize data in a structured format, with each table consisting of rows and columns. Tables define the structure of the data, including the data types and constraints that apply to each column.

Indexes are another important component of an SQL database. They are used to improve the performance of data retrieval operations by allowing for quicker access to specific rows or columns of a table. Indexes are created on one or more columns of a table and are used to speed up data retrieval operations and enhance the overall efficiency of the database.

Stored procedures are a valuable component of an SQL database, as they allow for the creation of reusable and customizable code that can be executed within the database. Stored procedures are stored in the database and can be called and executed by various applications and users. They are often used to perform complex data manipulation and processing tasks, and can greatly enhance the functionality and efficiency of the database.

Triggers are yet another important component of an SQL database. They are special types of stored procedures that are automatically executed in response to specific events or actions within the database. Triggers are often used to enforce data integrity and maintain consistency within the database, and are a key component of any robust and reliable database system.

 Tables & Fields

Tables and fields are fundamental components of a database management system. They are used to organize, store, and manage data in a structured manner.

A table is a collection of related data organized in rows and columns. Each row represents a record, while each column represents a specific field or attribute of that record. For example, in a table of employee data, each row could represent a different employee, and each column could represent their name, age, job title, and other relevant information.

Fields, on the other hand, are the individual pieces of data within a table. They define the type and format of the data that can be stored in a particular column. For example, a field for a date of birth column would typically be set to accept only date values in a specific format.

Tables and fields are vital for ensuring the integrity and consistency of a database. They help to standardize and organize data in a way that makes it easy to retrieve, update, and analyze. Without them, databases would be chaotic and difficult to manage.

In addition to storing data, tables and fields can also be used to establish relationships between different sets of data. This is often done through the use of primary and foreign keys, which link related records in different tables. These relationships help to maintain data integrity and ensure that related information remains consistent and accurate.

Database Objects

Database Objects are the building blocks of a database system. They are entities that are used to store, manipulate, and retrieve data within a database. There are several types of database objects, each with its own specific purpose and functionality.

One of the most common types of database objects is the table. A table is a collection of data organized into rows and columns. Each column represents a specific attribute of the data, while each row represents a specific instance of that data. Tables are used to store and organize a variety of data, from customer information to product inventory.

Another important type of database object is the index. An index is a data structure that is used to improve the speed of data retrieval operations on a table. By creating an index on a specific column or set of columns, database systems can quickly locate the relevant data without having to scan the entire table.

Views are another type of database object that provide a way to present data in a specific format without actually storing the data itself. A view is essentially a virtual table that is based on the result set of a SELECT query. Views are useful for simplifying complex queries and providing a layer of security by limiting the access to certain data.

Stored Procedures and Functions are database objects that contain a set of SQL statements that can be executed as a single unit. These objects are useful for performing complex data manipulation tasks, and they can be reused across multiple applications.

Triggers are database objects that are automatically executed in response to certain events, such as data modification, deletion, or insertion. Triggers can be used to enforce data integrity, implement business rules, and automate certain tasks.

Primary Keys & Foreign Keys

Primary Keys & Foreign Keys in a Relational Database

In a relational database, primary keys and foreign keys are essential for establishing and maintaining relationships between tables. They play a crucial role in ensuring data integrity and maintaining the referential integrity of the database.

A primary key is a unique identifier for each record in a table. It is a column or a set of columns that uniquely identifies each row in the table. The primary key ensures that there are no duplicate records in the table, and it is used to enforce entity integrity. By defining a primary key, the database management system (DBMS) can ensure that each record in the table is uniquely identified and that the data remains consistent and accurate.

On the other hand, a foreign key is a column or a set of columns in one table that references the primary key in another table. It establishes a relationship between the two tables, allowing data in one table to refer to data in another table. The foreign key ensures that the linked data in the two tables remains consistent and valid, and it is used to enforce referential integrity.

When a foreign key is defined in a table, it ensures that the values in the foreign key column(s) must exist in the referenced table's primary key column(s). This means that any data entered into the foreign key column must already exist in the referenced table's primary key column, preventing the creation of orphaned records and maintaining the integrity of the database.

Level up your tech skills for free with Hyperskill

Wide range of learning tracks for beginners and experienced developers
Study at your own pace with your personal study plan
Focus on practice and real-world experience
JetBrains is delighted how Hyperskill platform helps people learn programming worldwide. We are excited to see how they work and how their technologies push education forward.
Sergey Dmitriev
Co-founder, President @ JetBrains

Master SQL by choosing your ideal learning track

View all tracks