Meaning of "n:m" and "1:n" in database design

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In database design what do n:m and 1:n mean?

Does it have anything to do with keys or relationships?

m:n is used to denote a many-to-many relationship (m objects on the other side related to n on the other) while 1:n refers to a one-to-many relationship (1 object on the other side related to n on the other).

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1:n means 'one-to-many'; you have two tables, and each row of table A may be referenced by any number of rows in table B, but each row in table B can only reference one row in table A (or none at all).

n:m (or n:n) means 'many-to-many'; each row in table A can reference many rows in table B, and each row in table B can reference many rows in table A.

A 1:n relationship is typically modelled using a simple foreign key - one column in table A references a similar column in table B, typically the primary key. Since the primary key uniquely identifies exactly one row, this row can be referenced by many rows in table A, but each row in table A can only reference one row in table B.

A n:m relationship cannot be done this way; a common solution is to use a link table that contains two foreign key columns, one for each table it links. For each reference between table A and table B, one row is inserted into the link table, containing the IDs of the corresponding rows.

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n:m --> if you dont know both n and m it is simply many to many and it is represented by a bridge table between 2 other tables like

   -- This table will hold our phone calls.
CREATE TABLE dbo.PhoneCalls
   CallerPhoneNumber CHAR(10) NOT NULL

-- This table will hold our "tickets" (or cases).
CREATE TABLE dbo.Tickets
   Subject VARCHAR(250) NOT NULL,
   Notes VARCHAR(8000) NOT NULL,

this is the bridge table for implementing Mapping between 2 tables

CREATE TABLE dbo.PhoneCalls_Tickets
   PhoneCallID INT NOT NULL,

One to Many (1:n) is simply one table which has a column as primary key and another table which has this column as a foreign key relationship

Kind of like Product and Product Category where one product Category can have Many products

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To explain the two concepts by example, imagine you have an order entry system for a bookstore. The mapping of orders to items is many to many (n:m) because each order can have multiple items, and each item can be ordered by multiple orders. On the other hand, a lookup between customers and order is one to many (1:n) because a customer can place more than one order, but an order is never for more than one customer.

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In a relational database all types of relationships are represented in the same way: as relations. The candidate key(s) of each relation (and possibly other constraints as well) determine what kind of relationship is being represented. 1:n and m:n are two kinds of binary relationship:

C {Employee*,Company}
B {Book*,Author*}

In each case * designates the key attribute(s). {Book,Author} is a compound key.

C is a relation where each employee works for only one company but each company may have many employees (1:n): B is a relation where a book can have many authors and an author may write many books (m:n):

Notice that the key constraints ensure that each employee can only be associated with one company whereas any combination of books and authors is permitted.

Other kinds of relationship are possible as well: n-ary (having more than two components); fixed cardinality (m:n where m and n are fixed constants or ranges); directional; and so on. William Kent in his book "Data and Reality" identifies at least 432 kinds - and that's just for binary relationships. In practice, the binary relationships 1:n and m:n are very common and are usually singled out as specially important in designing and understanding data models.

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  • Ah ok ok , so "m" and "n" are taken as variables I see :D, I thought "m" stood for "many" and for that reason the "n" made confusion as to what is stands for (can't stand for "none" I mean). Anyway thanks :D
  • FYI, since no one has mentioned it, the Comp Sci term for this relationship is called "cardinality" see for details.
  • "link table" also known as a "join table"
  • "None at all" -> wouldn't that be a 0/1:n relationship?(rare) My understanding of 1:n is that it must have one. Like "A city must be in one country, but countries can have n cities", "A Company can have n employees, but an Employee must work for one company", ...
  • this is what drives me crazy. Link Table, Join table. but you JOIN tables. you also have tuple, row, attributes. I mean it's like database design was never specified fully, and allows for multiple words. Also some words are highly outdated, and cause confusion. Like Domain Integrity. Why isn't it attribute Integrity. Or Column Integrity. The word domain is so vague, and used in other areas. And all of this basically means input validation, which is a term in cyber security. AHHH
  • This doesn't add anything to the many very-upvoted answers to this very old very-upvoted question. See How to Answer & the voting arrow mouseover texts. (Like other poor "not useful" answers here.)