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What is Data Modeling?

Zoha Shakoor

Content Strategist

March 22nd, 2024

Data modeling is the process of structuring and organizing data so that it’s readable by machines and actionable for organizations.

In this article, we’ll explore the concept of data modeling, including its importance, types, and best practices.

What is a Data Model?

A data model is a framework that organizes data elements and standardizes how they relate to one another.

Data shapes everything from scientific breakthroughs to the personalized experience of streaming services. It informs how businesses grow, influences public policies, and even affects the entertainment that pops up on our screens. But raw data is like an uncut diamond – valuable but needing refinement. Data models help us understand and utilize raw data within any system. They outline the various data elements, such as customer details or transaction records, and illustrate the connections between them.

Therefore, a data model is not just a visual aid that brings clarity to vast and complex data but also a strategic tool that shapes the way data is configured for optimal use. A well-designed data model can help organizations improve operations, reduce costs, and make better decisions.

What is Data Modeling?

Data modeling is the process of creating data models. It acts as the refining process for raw data as it defines its structure and attributes and transforms it into an actionable resource.

Data modeling involves creating a detailed visual representation of an information system or its components. It is designed to communicate the connections between various data points and structures. This process encompasses the analysis and definition of the diverse types of data that a business gathers and generates, focusing on their intricate relationships, groupings, and organizational structure.

With a combination of text, symbols, and diagrams, data modeling offers visualization of how data is captured, stored, and utilized within a business. It serves as a strategic exercise in understanding and clarifying the business’s data requirements, providing a blueprint for managing data from collection to application.

Data Modeling Concepts: Types of Data Models

Various Types of Data Models

The classification of data models into distinct types is a strategic approach that reflects the evolving stages of data representation and management within an organization. It serves a sequential purpose in the data modeling process; from providing a high-level abstraction to delving into specific details to translating logical structures into tangible implementations. Here are the three types of data models:

Conceptual Data Models

At the outset, conceptual data models provide a high-level representation of the organizational data, catering to a specific business audience. They focus on the overall structure of data in relation to business objectives without diving into technical specifics. It outlines the general relationships between entities and illustrates how they interact within a system.

The conceptual layer is built independently of any hardware specifications, storage capacity, or software limitations. The goal is to represent the data as viewed in the real world. For example, a conceptual model in a hospital information system could outline the relationships between patients, doctors, and appointments.

Logical Data Models

Following the conceptual model, a logical data model provides a more detailed view of data elements and their interrelationships. This layer is more complex and structured than the conceptual layer. The logical model lists the project’s requirements, but it could also integrate with other data models, depending on the scope. It is designed and developed independently from DBMS, and the data types of the data elements have a precise length.

Logical data layer contains information about how the the model should be implemented and outlines specific attributes of data elements. For instance, in a customer relationship management system, logical modeling details how customer records relate to purchase orders and support tickets, including attributes like customer ID, purchase history, and interaction logs.

Physical Data Models

Finally, physical data models focus on the technical aspects of database design, defining how the data model will be implemented in the database. The physical data model diagram helps visualize the entire structure of the database. It contains the table of relationships between the data, addressing the nullability and cardinality of said relationships. Physical data models are designed and developed specifically for a specific DBMS version, the technology used for the project, required data storage, and location.

A physical data model specifies the structure of tables, the relationships between them, and indexes for efficient data retrieval. For example, in a SQL database, physical data modeling defines how tables are structured and how they relate to each other.

Together, these data models simplify the way data is organized and understood by data professionals.

The Data Modeling Process: How to Create a Data Model

Data modeling is a structured process that involves a set of techniques for representing data comprehensively. It includes several sequential tasks conducted repetitively to ensure that the data is organized efficiently and caters to the business requirements.

As part of the process, start by engaging the relevant stakeholders to understand the purpose of the data model. It should provide answers to questions like: What data is needed? How will it be accessed? What questions should it answer? What problems will it solve? Define the scope to avoid unnecessary complexity.

Identifying Entities

The initial step of the data modeling process is to pinpoint the components or main objects, called entities. Entities are representations of actual objects, concepts, or events found in the data set which needs modeling. These could be tangible things like customers or abstract concepts like transactions. It’s important to ensure that each entity is unique and logically distinct from others, as it prevents data confusion and maintains the data model clarity.

Defining Attributes

After identifying an entity, the next step is to define its unique properties, which are called attributes. For instance, for modeling a product entity, the attributes can be product name, price, manufacturer, and description. Analysis of these attributes can give a deeper understanding of each entity’s inherent characteristics.

Specifying the Relationship

The next step in the data modeling process is defining the relationships between different entities. Different notations and conventions, such as the Unified Modeling Language (UML), are used to define these relationships and to visually represent and document the connections between entities and their attributes.

When defining relationships between entities, it is also important to consider their cardinality, i.e., whether the relationship will be one-to-one, one-to-many, many-to-one, or many-to-many. Additionally,  

For example, while modeling a student and course entity in a university database, the relationship could be such that each student can be enrolled in multiple courses (one-to-many relationship). This will depict how students and courses are interconnected in a data model.

Mapping the Attributes to Entities

Mapping the attributes to entities is all about ensuring that the data model clearly reflects how the organization will use the data. Based on their specific requirements, developers can apply formal data modeling patterns, such as analysis patterns or design patterns.

Consider, for instance, an online store with entities like customer and order. The customer entity typically has attributes like name and address, while the order entity has attributes like order date and total amount.

The attributes must be linked to the appropriate entity to demonstrate how customer information and orders are handled precisely. Depending on the situation, patterns like Customer-Order can be used to optimize the data model.

Assigning Keys

Assigning keys (numerical identifiers) is carefully selecting the appropriate type of key (primary, foreign, etc.) for each entity based on the nature of the data and the requirements of the database.

While assigning keys, it’s important to strike the right balance between reducing redundancy and meeting performance requirements. This is done through normalization, which assigns keys to data groups to represent relationships without repeating information.

For instance, while creating a data model for a library database, instead of typing out the author’s name on every book, give each author a unique number, like an author ID. Then, link this ID to each book to indicate the author. This way, the author’s name will not be repeated for every book, making it easier for readers to find books by the same author.

Keep in mind that normalization involves a trade-off between reducing redundancy and increasing complexity. In some cases, denormalization might be considered for performance reasons, but it should be done judiciously to avoid introducing data update anomalies.

Finalizing the Data Model

The data modeling process is constantly evolving to adapt to the changing needs of the business. Therefore, conducting regular reviews through scheduled assessments and feedback from stakeholders is essential. Make refinements as necessary to ensure that the data model aligns with the organization’s objectives.

For example, while managing company finances is simple at first, as the business grows, its financial data grows. In this case, updating the financial model regularly is necessary to include newer pieces of data. It ensures that the data model always reflects the complete financial picture and helps in accurate financial planning.

Types of Data Modeling Techniques

Data modeling techniques have evolved over the years with advancements in technology. The following section delves into prominent types of data modeling techniques, each offering unique perspectives and methodologies for representing the relationships between data entities and their interactions within a given system. There are various types of data modeling:

Traditional Data Modeling Techniques

These are the techniques used extensively in the early days of data modeling, but they are still in use today.

Hierarchal Data Modeling

In hierarchical data modeling, a single parent node is connected to multiple child nodes, creating a branching structure that resembles a tree. Each parent node can have multiple children, but each child node has only one parent, creating a clear and organized data hierarchy.

At the top level of the hierarchy, there is the root node, which represents the main entity, and each branch represents a different data entity that is connected to the root node.

For example, in an organization’s database, the CEO entity is the root, with Department Managers as children, who in turn have Employees as their children.

Relational Data Modeling

Relational data modeling is a method to design databases based on the principles of relational model. This model organizes data into tables having rows and columns and allows for various types of relationships such as one-to-one, one-to-many, and many-to-many. The key feature of the relational model is that it links data across tables using common data elements or keys.

This enables efficient and effective data management and easy access and retrieval of information. The relational model also facilitates data analysis and reporting, making it a valuable tool for businesses and organizations. For example, a database for a bookstore can have separate tables for ‘Books’, ‘Authors’, and ‘Publishers’, with relations established through keys like ISBN for books, author IDs, and publisher IDs.

Network Data Modeling

The network data model is another common way to structure data in a database. Extending the concepts of hierarchical data modeling, network data modeling allows entities to have multiple parent-child relationships. The resulting web-like structure is not only sophisticated but also highly flexible. Think of it as nodes (data objects) connected by edges (relationships).

For instance, in a company database, employees and projects could be nodes, with edges indicating which employee works on which project. This model offers flexibility for managing intricate data relationships.

Object Oriented Data Modeling

The object-oriented data model combines elements from object-oriented programming and relational databases. Object-oriented data modeling extends other data modeling methods by representing data as objects, thereby encapsulating data and the methods or operations that can be performed on that data. These objects have their own properties (attributes) and actions (methods), and they can be connected to each other.

Consider a Car object with properties like color and speed, and actions like start and stop. Now, for a Sports Car, it can be based on the Car object and adds specific features like turbo boost.

Widely Used Data Modeling Techniques Today

There are a few data modeling techniques which are popular and are most widely used now a days.

Dimensional Data Modeling

Dimensional data modeling is used to structure data for analytical and reporting purposes. It organizes data into two types of tables: fact tables and dimension tables. Fact tables store numerical measures, while dimension tables store descriptive information. The dimensional modeling approach enables efficient querying and analysis for business intelligence, simplifying complex data for meaningful insights.

For example, in a retail sales data model, the fact table might contain sales revenue, quantity sold, and date, while the dimension table could store details about products, customers, and stores.

Entity Relationship (E-R) Data Modeling

Entity relationship (E-R) is used to design databases by defining entities (objects) and their relationships. Entities represent real-world objects, and relationships depict how these entities interact.

For instance, in a university database, student and course are entities, and the relationship enrollment connects students to the courses they are taking.

Data Vault Modeling

It is a way to design data warehousing that’s optimal for handling large amounts of data, an organization’s changing needs (changing data sources and structures), and keeping track of past data by using hubs, links, and satellites. Data vault modeling focuses on agility and in managing and integrating enterprise data. For instance, a healthcare provider can use it to integrate patient data from multiple sources, maintaining a historical record of patient interactions.

Graph Data Modeling

Graph data modeling shows data like connected dots and lines, making it ideal for understanding and working with complicated relationships and networks. For example, a social media platform can use graph modeling to analyze and visualize the connections and interactions between millions of users.

Specialized Data Modeling Techniques

There are certain data modeling techniques that can be used for very specific use cases, each offering unique benefits.

For instance, object-relational models display advanced functionalities of their own along with the simplicity of the relational model. This type of data model is considered to be a hybrid model that allows modelers to incorporate new objects in a familiarly structured environment.

Multidimensional data modeling is used in online analytical processing systems to model data in multiple dimensions for in-depth analysis. For example, a retail business can use it to view sales data by product, region, and time, offering a comprehensive analysis of sales trends.

Temporal data modeling is ideal for handling data that changes over time. A financial institution, for example, can use temporal data modeling to track fluctuating interest rates over years, providing insights into market trends and helping in future strategy planning.

Machine learning model design is for predictive analysis. For example, a retail business can use this to predict customer purchasing behavior based on historical purchase data and improve inventory management.

Finally, conceptual blending involves combining different concepts for innovation. For instance, a tech firm can use this approach to blend concepts from different industries to create a new product, like using gaming technology in educational software.

Benefits of Data Modeling

Illustration Showing Benefits of Data Modeling

Data modeling structures data in a way that enables business owners and leaders to access and utilize it efficiently. It turns data into a valuable tool for gaining insights and making informed decisions.

Integrating Diverse Systems

Integrating disparate systems is a challenge for many organizations, especially when data silos exist across multiple platforms. Data modeling acts as a bridge that connects these isolated systems by establishing a common framework and set of rules for how data is structured and related.

Implementing a data model standardizes data formats, terminologies, and relationships across different systems. As a result, data teams can address the inconsistencies and discrepancies that hinder data integration.

Essentials of Database Design

In designing databases, data modeling serves as a fundamental framework that shapes the way databases and repositories are conceptualized and built. The process involves a detailed, multifaceted approach to describing and structuring data tailored to meet a business’s specific needs and objectives.

This way, businesses can build databases that support efficient data retrieval and analysis, essential for tasks like customer relationship management or targeted marketing.

Additionally, a well-designed data model anticipates future needs and scalability, allowing for adjustments and expansions in the database design as business needs evolve. This foresight in design ensures that the database remains an adaptable asset over time.

Effective Business Intelligence

Data modeling is a critical step in ensuring that the information a business uses is well-organized and easy for BI tools to handle. It maintains the effectiveness of BI strategies and tools by categorizing data into a format that is easily processed by BI systems.

Data modeling keeps the data relevant and logically organized, making it easier to identify patterns, analyze spending trends, and engage in predictive analysis. So, when businesses leverage BI tools, they can quickly uncover meaningful insights and make informed decisions based on a solid and comprehensible data framework.

Efficient Development

Modeling data reduces the complexity of software development as it provides a clear and detailed roadmap. Data modeling tools automate the process of creating and maintaining database schemas, streamlining the entire development process.

Developers can also share data models seamlessly, ensuring everyone is on the same page. This shared understanding is critical when changes need to be made. Whenever an alteration is made in the data model, data modeling tools automatically propagate it to the database, eliminating the risk of inconsistencies or errors.

This clarity accelerates the development process and enhances the quality of the product. In fact, systems developed under the guidance of a well-structured data model have fewer bugs and are often delivered faster.

Facilitates Cloud Migration

Data modeling helps with migrating data to the cloud smoothly by creating a clear and organized blueprint of how the data is structured. The blueprint includes details about the relationships between different pieces of data, making it straightforward to map and adapt the structure to fit the requirements of a cloud environment. In essence, it aligns the database design with the requirements of cloud environments.

Streamlines External Communication

Data modeling also enhances communication with external stakeholders by providing a visual representation of how data is structured and related with a system. Data models serve as a common language that facilitates discussions about data requirements and overall project understanding.

Sharing these models helps convey complex information in a more understandable and standardized format enhances effective communication and understanding between organizations and external stakeholders.

Integrating a data model with BI further enhances communication, both internal and external. It ensures that the data-driven insights derived from BI tools are presented in a clear, concise manner that aligns with standardized definitions and structures. This is particularly important when sharing insights with external parties who may not be familiar with the organization’s internal data systems.

Data Modeling Best Practices

There are a few best practices that can optimize the overall data modeling process and ensure that the resulting data model is effective.

Align the Process With Business Goals

Plan the data modeling process so that the data model is aligned with business objectives. Collaborate with business analysts and stakeholders to ensure the model accurately represents business processes. This way, the data model directly supports business strategies and decisions, enhancing its relevance and effectiveness.

Maintain Comprehensive Documentation

Adequate documentation of the data model is essential for clarity about the database structure and ensures its usability for developers and stakeholders. It should detail what data is stored, how it’s used, and its relationships. Comprehensive documentation simplifies the understanding and utilization of the data model, facilitating smoother onboarding of new team members and helping in future modifications.

Select The Appropriate Modeling Technique

Choose a data modeling technique that best suits the data type and use case. For instance, use relational modeling for end-user applications and dimensional modeling for analytics-focused tasks. Opting for the right technique maximizes efficiency and effectiveness, ensuring the data model is optimally structured for specific business needs and use cases.

Use Clear & Consistent Naming Conventions

Using clear and simple naming conventions makes data models easier to read and maintain. It simplifies database development and reduces confusion among team members. For example, using names like customer_id instead of confusing abbreviations like CustID makes it clear what the field means and helps with understanding and collaboration.

Strive For Simplicity

In data modeling, it is important to focus on what’s essential right now rather than creating an overly complex solution. For example, a small business should model for current scale, which involves managing gigabytes of data with moderate user traffic, instead of over-engineering for the future, which may require handling terabytes and heavy traffic.

This practice can save valuable time and resources by concentrating on immediate needs. Additionally, it ensures that the data model is not overly complicated and remains agile enough to adapt as business evolves.

Use Flexible Data Models for Future Adaptation

Creating flexible data models enables databases to adapt to changing business needs. The additional flexibility makes it easier to add new data sources or make changes to the data structure. For example, using a flexible schema in a NoSQL database allows adding new data attributes easily and without causing issues with existing data.

Incorporate Data Governance & Security

When designing data models, it is important to give data governance and security their due share of importance right from the start. Doing so ensures that data is stored, accessed, and managed in accordance with rules and security guidelines. For instance, by using role-based access control (RBAC) in the data model, access to sensitive data is limited to authorized people, making data more secure and compliant with regulations.

Final Word

Data modeling is significant in integrating systems and supporting business intelligence. Applying the right data modeling techniques can lead to improved efficiency, clearer communication within teams, and better decision-making.

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