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Assuring Data Integrity in DB2 - Part 1

by Craig S. Mullins

Part 1  |  Part 2

DB2 provides mechanisms to automatically enforce and maintain the integrity of data as it is added to, and modified within, DB2 tables. The simplest form of data integrity enforcement available to DB2 is with data typing. By choosing the appropriate data types, DB2 will force columns to contain only the proper form of data (e.g., character, numeric, date). Of course, DB2 offers more sophisticated forms of ensuring data integrity, too. Features such as referential integrity, check constraints, triggers, validation routines, and edit procedures all can be used to ensure the integrity of DB2 data.

Automatically enforcing DB2 data integrity is usually a wise choice of action because it offloads such work from application programs. Additionally, DB2-enforced data integrity will be applied for both planned and ad-hoc modifications.

Referential Integrity

When translating a logical model to a physical DB2 database, the relationships are implemented as referential constraints. To define a referential constraint, you must create a primary key in the parent table, and a foreign key in the dependent table. The referential constraint ties the primary key to the foreign key. The table with the primary key is called the parent table and the table with the foreign key is called the dependent table (or child table).

Referential integrity (RI), therefore, can be defined as a method of ensuring data integrity between tables related by primary and foreign keys. When RI is implemented between tables, DB2 will guarantee that an acceptable value is always in each foreign key column based on the data values of the primary key columns.

RI defines the integrity and usability of a relationship by establishing rules that govern that relationship. The combination of the relationship and the rules attached to that relationship is referred to as a referential constraint. The rules that accompany the RI definition are just as important as the relationship to ensure correct and useful DB2 databases.

The RI rules defined for each referential constraint are specified to determine how DB2 will handle dependent rows when a primary key row is deleted or updated. For example, when a primary key is deleted that refers to existing foreign-key values, the rule specifies whether DB2 should void the primary-key deletion, delete the foreign-key values too, or set the foreign-key values to null.

The concept of RI can be summarized by the following “quick and dirty” definition: RI is a guarantee that an acceptable value is always in each foreign key column. “Acceptable” is defined in terms of an appropriate value as recorded in the corresponding primary key, or a null.

Two other important RI terms are parent and child tables.  For any given referential constraint, the parent table is the table that contains the primary key, and the child table is the table that contains the foreign key. Refer to figure 1 below.  The parent table in the “employs” relationship is the DEPT table. The child table is the EMP table.  So, the primary key (say DEPTNO) resides in the DEPT table, and a corresponding foreign key of the same data type and length, but not necessarily with same column name (say, WORKDEPT), exists in the EMP table.

Figure 1: A relationship between two tables.

As a general rule of thumb it is a good physical design practice to implement referential integrity using database constraints instead of trying to program integrity into application programs. Using database RI will ensure that integrity is maintained whether data is changed in a planned manner through an application program or in an ad-hoc manner through SQL statements or query tools.

Additionally, it is almost always a good idea to define a primary (or unique) key to prohibit duplicate table rows. This should be done to ensure entity integrity regardless of whether dependent tables are related to the table being defined. Entity integrity ensures that each row in a table represents a single, real-world entity.

Of course, there are exceptions to every rule.

Defining DB2 Referential Constraints

Referential constraints are defined using the FOREIGN KEY clause. A referential constraint consists of three components: a constraint name, the columns comprising the foreign key, and a references clause. The same constraint name cannot be specified more than once for the same table. If a constraint name is not explicitly coded, DB2 will automatically create a unique name for the constraint derived from the name of the first column in the foreign key.

For example, consider the relationship between the DSN8810.DEPT and DSN8810.EMP tables:

(PHONENO >= '0000' AND
PHONENO <= '9999'),


The primary key of EMP is EMPNO; the primary key of DEPT is DEPTNO. Several foreign keys exist, but let's examine the foreign key that relates EMP to DEPT. The foreign key, named RDE, in the DEPT table relates the MGRNO column to a specific EMPNO in the EMP table. This referential constraint ensures that no MGRNO can exist in the DEPT table before the employee exists in the EMP table. The MGRNO must take on a value of EMPNO. Additionally, the foreign key value in DEPT cannot subsequently be updated to a value that is not a valid employee value in EMP, and the primary key of EMP cannot be deleted without the appropriate check for corresponding values in the DEPT foreign key column or columns.

To ensure that this integrity remains intact, DB2 has a series of rules for inserting, deleting, and updating:

      • When inserting a row with a foreign key, DB2 checks the values of the foreign key columns against the values of the primary key columns in the parent table. If no matching primary key columns are found, the insert is disallowed.
      • A new primary key row can be inserted as long as the primary key is unique for the table.
      • When updating foreign key values, DB2 performs the same checks as when it is inserting a row with a foreign key.
      • If a primary key value is updated, DB2 does not allow there to be any existing foreign keys that refer back to the primary key that is changing. All foreign key rows first must be either deleted or be set to NULL before the value of the primary key can be changed.
      • Deleting a row with a foreign key is always permitted.
      • When deleting a row with a primary key, DB2 takes action as indicated in the DDL; it either restricts deletion, cascades deletes to foreign key rows, or sets all referenced foreign keys to null.

Each referential constraint must define the action that will be taken on foreign key rows when a primary key is deleted. There are four options that can be specified:

      • RESTRICT: disallows the deletion of the primary key row if any foreign keys relate to the row.
      • CASCADE: allows the deletion of the primary key row and also deletes the foreign key rows that relate to it.
      • SET NULL: allows the deletion of the primary key row and, instead of deleting all related foreign key rows, sets the foreign key columns to NULL.
      • NO ACTION: the behavior of NO ACTION is similar to RESTRICT. The only difference between RESTRICT and NO ACTION is when the referential constraint is enforced. RESTRICT enforces the delete rule immediately; NO ACTION enforces the delete rule at the end of the statement.

The processing needs of the application dictate which delete option should be specified in the Table Create statements. All of these options are valid depending on the business rules that apply to the data.

If efficiency is your primary goal, the RESTRICT option usually uses fewer resources because data modification of dependent tables is not performed. If data modification is necessary, however, allowing DB2 to perform it is usually preferable to writing cascade or set null logic in a high-level language (e.g. COBOL, C, Java).

Referential Sets

A “referential set” is a group of tables that are connected together by referential constraints. It is a wise course of action to avoid very large referential sets. Try not to tie together all tables in a large system; otherwise, recovery, quiesce, and other utility processing will be difficult to develop and administer. You should follow some general rules when deciding how to limit the scope of DB2-defined referential integrity:

      • Consider removing code and reference tables from your referential structures. These tables are usually static and easy to control within your programs. Adding them to your referential sets can complicate administrative tasks.
      • Reduce the size of very large referential sets by breaking them apart into smaller structures. Referential sets of more than a dozen (or so) tables can become unwieldy to manage. Consider breaking up referential sets into groups that have a dozen or so related tables. Doing so makes it easier to keep track of the RI defined to DB2 and the rules that are in effect. However, it also opens the door to data integrity problems caused by updates outside the scope of the application programs that enforce the integrity. Weigh the performance impact against the possible loss of integrity before deciding to bypass DB2-enforced RI.
      • Try to control the number of cycles in a referential set. A “cycle” is a referential path that connects a table to itself. In the cycle shown in figure 2, Table A is connected to itself.
      • Furthermore, a table cannot be delete-connected to itself in a cycle. A table is delete-connected to another table if it is a dependent of a table specified with a CASCADE delete rule.

Figure 2: A cycle.

      • Whether DB2 or another application program checks RI, overhead is incurred. Simply moving RI from DB2 to the program cannot increase efficiency. Be sure that the application program can achieve better performance than DB2 (by taking advantage of innate knowledge of the data that DB2 does not have) before eliminating DB2-enforced RI.
      • If updates to tables are permitted in an uncontrolled environment (for example, QMF, SPUFI, or third-party table editors like File-Aid for DB2), implement DB2-enforced RI if data integrity is important. Otherwise, you cannot ensure that data is correct from a referential integrity standpoint.

Referential Integrity Guidelines

The general rule for implementing referential integrity is to use DB2’s inherent features instead of coding RI with application code. DB2 usually has a more efficient means of implementing RI than the application. Also, why should a programmer code what already is available in the DBMS?

Exceptions to this rule are the subject of the subsequent guidelines in this section.

Consider Programmatic RI for Efficiency

DB2 does a referential integrity check for every row insertion. You can increase efficiency if your application does a single check of a row from the parent table and then makes multiple inserts to the child table. Of course, you should not allow any data modifications to be made outside the control of your programs if DB2 RI is not used.

Sometimes the flow of an application can dictate whether RI is more or less efficient than programmatic RI. If the application processing needs are such that the parent table is always (or usually) read before even one child is inserted, consider implementing programmatic RI instead of DB2 RI. DB2 RI would repeat the read process that the application must do anyway to satisfy its processing needs.

Of course, DB2 RI may still be preferable in both of these situations because it enforces data integrity for both planned and ad-hoc updates, something that programmatic RI cannot do.

Consider Avoiding RI for Intact, Stable Data

When tables are built from an existing source system and are populated using existing data, and that source system is referentially intact, you may want to avoid using DB2 RI on those tables. This is especially so if data is propagated from the existing system and the new tables will not be modified in any other manner.

However, if the new tables will be modified, DB2 RI is the best way to ensure the on-going consistency and integrity of the data.

Avoid RI for Read-only Systems

Do not use DB2 RI if tables are read only. Tables containing static data that is loaded and then never (or even rarely) modified are not good candidates for RI. The data should be analyzed and scrubbed prior to loading so that it is referentially intact. Because of the stability of the data, there is no need for on-going referential constraints to be applied to the data. For data that is updated, but rarely, using application programs to enforce integrity is usually preferable to DB2 RI.

Sometimes, to scrub the data when loading, you may want to use DB2 RI. Specifying ENFORCE CONSTRAINTS for the LOAD utility can save a lot of application coding to enforce RI.

If application code is used to load the tables, base your decision for implementing RI with DB2 DDL according to the other guidelines in this chapter.

Beware of Self-Referencing Constraints

A self-referencing constraint is one in which the parent table is also the dependent table. The sample table, DSN8810.PROJ contain a self-referencing constraint specifying that the MAJPROJ column must be a valid PROJNO.

Self-referencing constraints must be defined using the DELETE CASCADE rule. Exercise caution when deleting rows from these types of tables because a single delete could cause all of the table data to be completely wiped out.

Check Constraints

Check constraints can be used to place specific data value restrictions on the contents of a column through the specification of an expression. The expression is explicitly defined in the table DDL and is formulated in much the same way that SQL WHERE clauses are formulated. Any attempt to modify the column data (e.g. during INSERT or UPDATE processing) will cause the expression to be evaluated. If the modification conforms to the Boolean expression, the modification is permitted to continue. If not, the statement will fail with a constraint violation.

Check constraints consist of two components: a constraint name and a check condition. The same constraint name cannot be specified more than once for the same table. If a constraint name is not explicitly coded, DB2 will automatically create a unique name for the constraint derived from the name of the first column in the check condition.

The check condition defines the actual constraint logic. The check condition can be defined using any of the basic predicates (>, <, =, <>, <=, >=), as well as BETWEEN, IN, LIKE, and NULL. Furthermore, AND and OR can be used to string conditions together. However, please note the following restrictions:

      • The constraint can only refer to columns in the table in which it is created. Other tables cannot be referenced in the constraint.
      • Subselects, column functions, host variables, parameter markers, special registers and columns defined with field procedures cannot be specified in a check constraint.
      • The NOT logical operator cannot be used.
      • The first operand must be the name of a column contained in the table. The second operand must be either another column name or a constant.
      • If the second operand is a constant, it must be compatible with the data type of the first operand. If the second operand is a column, it must be the same data type as the first column specified.

The EMP table contains the following check constraint:

(PHONENO >= '0000' AND
PHONENO <= '9999'),

This constraint defines the valid range of values for the PHONENO column. The following are examples of check constraints which could be added to the EMP table:

CHECK (SALARY < 50000.00)



The first check constraint ensures that no employee can earn a salary greater than $50,000; the second constraint ensures that an employee's salary will always be greater than his or her commission; and the third constraint ensure that each employee will have either a commission or a bonus set up.

The primary benefit of check constraints is the ability to enforce business rules directly in each database without requiring additional application logic. Once defined, the business rule is physically implemented and cannot be bypassed. Check constraints also provide the following benefits:

      • Because there is no additional programming required, DBAs can implement check constraints without involving the application programming staff. However, the application programming staff should be consulted on check constraints because they may have more knowledge of the data. Additionally, the application programming staff must be informed when check constraints are implemented to avoid duplication of effort in the programs being developed.
      • Check constraints provide better data integrity because a check constraint is always executed whenever the data is modified. Without a check constraint critical business rules could be bypassed during ad hoc data modification.
      • Check constraints promote consistency. Because they are implemented once, in the table DDL, each constraint is always enforced. Each program that modifies the data to which the constraint applies, on the other hand, must execute constraints written in application logic. This can cause code duplication and inconsistent maintenance resulting in inaccurate business rule support.
      • Typically check constraints coded in DDL will outperform the corresponding application code.

Check Constraint Guidelines

When using check constraints the following tips and techniques can be helpful to assure effective constraint implementation.

Beware of Semantics with Check Constraints

DB2 performs no semantic checking on constraints and defaults. It will allow the DBA to define defaults that contradict check constraints. Furthermore, DB2 will allow the DBA to define check constraints that contradict one another. Care must be taken to avoid creating this type of problem. The following are examples of contradictory constraints:


In this case, no value is both greater than 10 and less than 9, so nothing could ever be inserted. However, DB2 will allow this constraint to be defined.


In this case, the default value is not one of the permitted EMP_TYPE values according to the defined constraint. No defaults would ever be inserted.

    CHECK (EMPNO > 10)

In this case, the constraints are redundant. No logical harm is done, but both constraints will be checked, thereby impacting the performance of applications that modify the table in which the constraints exist.

Other potential semantic problems could occur:

      • the parent table indicates ON DELETE SET NULL but a rule is defined on the child table stating CHECK (COL1 IS NOT NULL),
      • When two constraints are defined on the same column with contradictory conditions
      • When the constraint requires that the column be NULL, but the column is defined as NOT NULL

Code Constraints at the Table-Level

Although single constraints (primary keys, unique keys, foreign keys, and check constraints) can be specified at the column-level, avoid doing so. In terms of functionality, there is no difference between an integrity constraint defined at the table-level and the same constraint defined at the column-level. All constraints can be coded at the table-level; only single column constraints can be coded at the column-level. By coding all constraints at the table-level maintenance will be easier and clarity will be improved.

Code this (table-level):


Instead of this (column-level):


Favor Check Constraints Over Triggers

If the same data integrity rule can be achieved using a check constraint or a trigger, favor using the check constraint. Check constraints are easier to maintain and are generally more efficient than triggers.

Using DB2 Triggers for Data Integrity

DB2 triggers can be useful for enforcing complex integrity rules, maintaining redundant data across multiple tables, and ensuring proper data derivation. There are many considerations that must be addressed to properly implement triggers. For additional information on DB2 triggers, check out An Introduction to Trigger for DB2 OS/390.

Using Field, Edit, and Validation Procs for Data Integrity

Field procedures are programs that transform data on insertion and convert the data to its original format on subsequent retrieval. You can use a FIELDPROC to transform character columns, as long as the columns are 254 bytes or less in length.

No FIELDPROCs are delivered with DB2, so the DB2 user must develop them. They are ideal for altering the sort sequence of values.

An EDITPROC is functionally equivalent to a FIELDPROC, but it acts on an entire row instead of a column. Edit procedures are simply programs that transform data on insertion and convert the data to its original format on subsequent retrieval. Edit procedures are not supplied with DB2, so they must be developed by the user of DB2. They are ideal for implementing data compression routines.

A VALIDPROC receives a row and returns a value indicating whether LOAD, INSERT, UPDATE, or DELETE processing should proceed. A validation procedure is similar to an edit procedure but it cannot perform data transformation; it simply assesses the validity of the data.

A typical use for a VALIDPROC is to ensure valid domain values. For example, to enforce a Boolean domain, you could write a validation procedure to ensure that a certain portion of a row contains only T or F. In this way it is similar to a check constraint, but a VALIDPROC can apply to an entire row, as opposed to a single column.


DB2 offers a plethora of options for ensuring data integrity. Be sure to take care to use the appropriate options as you design your DB2 databases. Failing to build data integrity constraints into your database design almost certainly will result in invalid data in your tables.


Craig Mullins is an independent consultant and president of Mullins Consulting, Inc. Craig has extensive experience in the field of database management having worked as an application developer, a DBA, and an instructor with multiple database management systems including DB2, Sybase, and SQL Server. Craig is also the author of the DB2 Developer’s Guide, the industry-leading book on DB2 for z/OS, and Database Administration: Practices and Procedures, the industry’s only book on heterogeneous DBA procedures. You can contact Craig via his web site at

Contributors : Craig S. Mullins
Last modified 2006-02-09 03:43 PM
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