What are the top MySQL features?

Find the most important MySQL properties listed in this book excerpt from "The Definitive Guide to MySQL 5".

MySQL is a relational database system. If you can believe many diehard MySQL fans, MySQL is faster, more reliable, and cheaper -- or, simply put, better -- than any other database system (including commercial systems such as Oracle and DB2). Many MySQL opponents continue to challenge this viewpoint, going even so far as to assert that MySQL is not even a relational database system.

We can safely say that there is a large bandwidth of opinion.

  • The fact is that there is an ever increasing number of MySQL users, and the overwhelming majority of them are quite satisfied with MySQL. Thus for these users we may say that MySQL is good enough.
  • It is also the fact, however, that MySQL still lacks a number of features that are taken for granted with other database systems. If you require such features, then MySQL is (at least for the present) not the database system for you. MySQL is not a panacea.

Next we shall examine some of the possibilities and limitations of MySQL.

Features of MySQL

The following list shows the most important properties of MySQL. This section is directed to the reader who already has some knowledge of relational databases. We will use some terminology from the relational database world without defining our terms exactly. On the other hand, the explanations should make it possible for database novices to understand to some extent what we are talking about.

Relational Database System: Like almost all other database systems on the market, MySQL is a relational database system.

Client/Server Architecture: MySQL is a client/server system. There is a database server (MySQL) and arbitrarily many clients (application programs), which communicate with the server; that is, they query data, save changes, etc. The clients can run on the same computer as the server or on another computer (communication via a local network or the Internet).

Almost all of the familiar large database systems (Oracle, Microsoft SQL Server, etc.) are client/server systems. These are in contrast to the file-server systems, which include Microsoft Access, dBase and FoxPro. The decisive drawback to file-server systems is that when run over a network, they become extremely inefficient as the number of users grows.

SQL compatibility: MySQL supports as its database language -- as its name suggests – SQL (Structured Query Language). SQL is a standardized language for querying and updating data and for the administration of a database. There are several SQL dialects (about as many as there are database systems). MySQL adheres to the current SQL standard (at the moment SQL:2003), although with significant restrictions and a large number of extensions.

Through the configuration setting sql-mode you can make the MySQL server behave for the most part compatibly with various database systems. Among these are IBM DB/2 and Oracle. (The setting sql-mode changes some of the syntax conventions, and performs no miracles. More details are to be had in Chapter 14.)

A readable and entertaining article on the topic of how MySQL differs from other current database systems can be found at http://sql-info.de/mysql/gotchas.html.

SubSELECTs: Since version 4.1, MySQL is capable of processing a query in the form SELECT * FROM table1 WHERE x IN (SELECT y FROM table2) (There are also numerous syntax variants for subSELECTs.)

Views: Put simply, views relate to an SQL query that is viewed as a distinct database object and makes possible a particular view of the database. MySQL has supported views since version 5.0.

Stored procedures: Here we are dealing with SQL code that is stored in the database system.

Stored procedures (SPs for short) are generally used to simplify certain steps, such as inserting or deleting a data record. For client programmers this has the advantage that they do not have to process the tables directly, but can rely on SPs. Like views, SPs help in the administration of large database projects. SPs can also increase efficiency. MySQL has supported SPs since version 5.0.

Triggers: Triggers are SQL commands that are automatically executed by the server in certain database operations (INSERT, UPDATE, and DELETE). MySQL has supported triggers in a limited form from version 5.0, and additional functionality is promised for version 5.1.

Unicode: MySQL has supported all conceivable character sets since version 4.1, including Latin-1, Latin-2, and Unicode (either in the variant UTF8 or UCS2).

User interface: There are a number of convenient user interfaces for administering a MySQL server.

Full-text search: Full-text search simplifies and accelerates the search for words that are located within a text field. If you employ MySQL for storing text (such as in an Internet discussion group), you can use full-text search to implement simply an efficient search function.

Replication: Replication allows the contents of a database to be copied (replicated) onto a number of computers. In practice, this is done for two reasons: to increase protection against system failure (so that if one computer goes down, another can be put into service) and to improve the speed of database queries.

Transactions: In the context of a database system, a transaction means the execution of several database operations as a block. The database system ensures that either all of the operations are correctly executed or none of them. This holds even if in the middle of a transaction there is a power failure, the computer crashes, or some other disaster occurs. Thus, for example, it cannot occur that a sum of money is withdrawn from account A but fails to be deposited in account B due to some type of system error.

Transactions also give programmers the possibility of interrupting a series of already executed commands (a sort of revocation). In many situations this leads to a considerable simplification of the programming process. In spite of popular opinion, MySQL has supported transactions for a long time. One should note here that MySQL can store tables in a variety of formats. The default table format is called MyISAM, and this format does not support transactions. But there are a number of additional formats that do support transactions. The most popular of these is InnoDB, which will be described extensively in this book.

Foreign key constraints: These are rules that ensure that there are no cross references in linked tables that lead to nowhere. MySQL supports foreign key constraints for InnoDB tables.

GIS functions: Since version 4.1, MySQL has supported the storing and processing of two-dimensional geographical data. Thus MySQL is well suited for GIS (geographic information systems) applications.

Programming languages: There are quite a number of APIs (application programming interfaces) and libraries for the development of MySQL applications. For client programming you can use, among others, the languages C, C++, Java, Perl, PHP, Python, and Tcl.

ODBC: MySQL supports the ODBC interface Connector/ODBC. This allows MySQL to be addressed by all the usual programming languages that run under Microsoft Windows (Delphi, Visual Basic, etc.). The ODBC interface can also be implemented under Unix, though that is seldom necessary.

Windows programmers who have migrated to Microsoft's new .NET platform can, if they wish, use the ODBC provider or the .NET interface Connector/NET.

Platform independence: It is not only client applications that run under a variety of operating systems; MySQL itself (that is, the server) can be executed under a number of operating systems. The most important are Apple Macintosh OS X, Linux, Microsoft Windows, and the countless Unix variants, such as AIX, BSDI, FreeBSD, HP-UX, OpenBSD, Net BSD, SGI Iris, and Sun Solaris.

Speed: MySQL is considered a very fast database program. This speed has been backed up by a large number of benchmark tests (though such tests -- regardless of the source -- should be considered with a good dose of skepticism).

Chapter table of contents: What is MySQL?

Part 1: Database glossary 
Part 2: MySQL features 
Part 3: MySQL limitations 
Part 4: MySQL version numbers 
Part 5: MySQL licensing 
Part 6: MySQL version names 
Part 7: MySQL alternatives

The above tip is excerpted from from Chapter 1, "What is MySQL?" of The Definitive Guide to MySQL 5 by Michael Kofler, courtesy of Apress. Find it helpful? Purchase the book here.

About the author: Michael Kofler holds a Ph.D. in computer science from Graz Technical University. He has written a number of successful computer books on topics such as Visual Basic, Visual Basic .NET, and Linux. Michael is the author of The Definitive Guide to MySQL 5, Third Edition and Definitive Guide to Excel VBA, Second Edition from Apress.

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