The IS-A relationship (pronounced "is a") is a
data relationship that indicates a type/subtype data relationship.
While traditional Entity/Relation modeling deals only with single
entities, the IS-A approach recognizes that many types or classes of
an individual entity can exist. In fact, the IS-A relationship is
the foundation of object-oriented programming, which allows the
designer to create hierarchies of related classes and then use
inheritance and polymorphism to control which data items will
participate in the low-level objects.
After establishing a class hierarchy with the
E/R model, the object-oriented principle of generalization is used
to identify the class hierarchy and the level of abstraction
associated with each class. Generalization implies a successive
refinement of a class, allowing the super-classes of objects to
inherit data attributes and behaviors that apply to the lower levels
of a class.
Generalization establishes taxonomy hierarchies.
Taxonomy hierarchies organize classes according to their
characteristics in increasing levels of detail. These hierarchies
begin at a very general level and then proceed to a specific level,
with each sublevel having its own unique data attributes and
In Figure 2.12, the IS-A relationship is used
to create a hierarchy within the EMPLOYEE class. The base class for
an employee has the basic data items such as name, address and phone
number. However, there are sub-classes of employees, executives and
hourly employees, each with their own special data items and
Figure 2.12 - An Entity/Relation model with
added IS-A relationships.
Let's look at another example. Consider the
application of the IS-A relationship for a vehicle dealership, as
shown in Figure 2.13. As you can see, the highest level in the
hierarchy is VEHICLE. Beneath the vehicle class, you might find car
and boat subclasses. Within the car class, the classes could be
further partitioned into classes for TRUCK, VAN, and SEDAN. The
VEHICLE class would contain the data items unique to vehicles,
including the vehicle ID and the year of manufacture. The CAR class,
because it IS-A VEHICLE, would inherit the data items of the VEHICLE
class. The CAR class might contain data items such as the number of
axles and the gross weight of the vehicle. Because the VAN class
IS-A CAR, which in turn IS-A VEHICLE, objects of the VAN class
inherit all data items and behaviors relating to the CAR and VEHICLE
Figure 2.13 - A class hierarchy for a
vehicle rental company.
These types of IS-A relationships, while valid
from a data modeling viewpoint, do not have a simple implementation
in Oracle. Because Oracle can represent hierarchies in a relational database in two ways.
Oracle has the ability to "create type"
within type and model this relationship directly, but it is not
a popular approach because the structures are hard to change.
The first technique (incorrect IMHO) is to create sub-tables for
car, boat, sedan, and so on. This encapsulates the data items within
their respective tables, but it also creates the complication of
doing unnecessary joins when retrieving a high-level item in the
hierarchy. For example, the following SQL would be required to
retrieve all the data items for a luxury sedan:
vehicle.key = car.key
car.key = sedan.key
sedan.key = luxury.key;
It is wrong, always wrong, to add fake
one-to-many relationships for different types of the same thing.
It is poor modeling and imposes a lost-data issue, clogs the schema
with tables and makes the SQL too cumbersome.
The second approach is to create a mega-table,
with each data item represented as a column (regardless of whether
it is needed by the individual row). A TYPE column could identify
whether a row represents a car, van, or sailboat. In addition, the
application must have intelligence to access only those columns
applicable to a row. For example, the sail-size column would have
meaning for a sailboat row, but would be irrelevant to a sedan row.
The IS-A relationship is best suited to the
object-oriented data model, where each level in the hierarchy has
associated data items and methods, and inheritance and polymorphism
can be used to complete the picture. It is important to note that
not all classes within a generalization hierarchy will be associated
with objects. These non-instantiated classes only serve the purpose
of passing data definitions to the lower-level classes.
object-oriented paradigm allows for abstraction, which means that a
class can exist only for the purpose of passing inherited data and
behaviors to the lower-level entities. The classes VEHICLE and CAR
probably would not have any concrete objects, while objects within
the VAN class would inherit from the abstract VEHICLE and CAR