What is a database? A 500-word overview

What is a database, what are the different types, and how are they managed? 

‘Data’ refers to information collected for reference or analysis – including facts, statistics, and values. A database, then, is a way of storing, managing, and rendering that data usable.

Here’s a quick look.

An overview

A database is a computerised system that holds organised information. They make data easy to search, manipulate and filter. And in some cases, they show the relationship between different data points.

A database is not the only way to store information – but it’s one of the most prolific. This is because along with storing information, databases make it easier to manage and make sense of data.

Plus, they’re more efficient in terms of retrieving data compared to other methods. (For instance, a flat-file, where retrieving data means loading the entire document every time.)

Types of database

Another way to look at the ‘what is a database’ question is to explore some of the different types of database. The type of database to use depends on the type of data that you’re storing.

There are two main types of database: relational and non-relational.

A relational database is one that shows the relationship between the data points. The data fits nicely into structured tables with categories. To retrieve and use the data in such a database, you use something called structured query language (SQL).  

A non-relational database (also known as ‘not only SQL’ or ‘NoSQL’) doesn’t show the relationship between the data points stored in the database. They’re useful for data that isn’t easy to categorise.

These categories contain subcategories. For example:

  • Distributed databases: store data across multiple physical locations
  • Cloud databases: optimised for virtual environments, operating on a cloud platform
  • Object-oriented databases: group data points as ‘objects’
  • Graph databases: work using graph theory

In short, there are various types of databases used for storing different varieties of data and offering different functionalities.

Using a database

Databases can get huge, and — with the increasing emphasis on data privacy and security — it’s important to manage them effectively.

After capturing (or ‘ingesting’) new data, it’s transformed into the format you need, and loaded into your database. (Automation software typically acts as the tool to run this process without manual efforts — parsing data, transforming it into the desired format, and loading it into the database.)

From there, using a database involves using a database management system. This is the software that serves as the interface between the database and the end-users (i.e., your database administrator).  It’s what allows access to data, as well as enables users to manipulate, update and delete it.

What is a database?

Databases are part of the backbone of modern society. As data feeds and drives more and more aspects of our daily lives, the more important effective ways of managing data become.

So, a database is a home for your data. And using them is all about how you organise, use and manage collected data.

Useful links

The data lifecycle: explained

ELI5: the relational vs non-relational database

Using ThinkAutomation as an ETL tool