Reference Work Entry

Encyclopedia of Database Systems

pp 1900-1906

Network Data Model

  • Jean-Luc HainautAffiliated withUniversity of Namur


CODASYL data model; DBTG data model


A database management system complies with the network data model when the data it manages are organized as data records connected through binary relationships. Data processing is based on navigational primitives according to which records are accessed and updated one at a time, as opposed to the set orientation of the relational query languages. Its most popular variant is the CODASYL DBTG data model that was first defined in the 1971 report from the CODASYL group, and that has been implemented into several major DBMSs. They were widely used in the seventies and eighties, but most of them are still active at the present time.

Historical Background

In 1962, C. Bachman of General Electric, New-York, started the development of a data management system according to which data records were interconnected via a network of relationships that could be navigated through [2]. Called Integrated Data Store (IDS), this disk-based system quickly became popular to support the storage, the management and the exploitation of corporate data.

IDS was the main basis of the work of the CODASYL Data Base Task Group (DBTG) that published its first major report in 1971 [3,6], followed by a revision in 1973 [3,9]. This report described a general architecture for DBMSs, where the respective roles of the operating system, the DBMS and application programs were clearly identified. It also provided a precise specification of languages for data structure definition (Data Description Language or Schema DDL), for data extraction and update (Data Manipulation Language or DML) and for defining interfaces for application programs through language-dependent views of data (Sub-schema DDL).

The 1978 report [7,9] clarified the model. In particular physical specifications such as indexing structures and storage were removed from the DDL and collected into the Data Storage Description Language (DSDL), devoted to the physical schema description. In 1985, the X3H2 ANSI Database Standard committee issued standards for network database management systems, called NDL and based on the 1978 CODASYL report. However, due to the increasing dominance of the relational model these proposals have never been implemented nor updated afterwards.

Some of the most important implementations were Bull IDS/II (an upgrade of IDS), NCR DBS, Siemens UDS-1 and UDS-2, Digital DBMS-11, DBMS-10 and DBMS-20 (now distributed by Oracle Corp.), Data General DG/DBMS, Philips Phollas, Prime DBMS, Univac DMS 90 and DMS 1100 and Culliname IDMS, a machine-independent rewriting of IDS (now distributed by Computer Associates). Other DBMSs have been developed, that follow more or less strictly the CODADYL specifications. Examples include Norsk-Data SYBAS, Burroughs DMS-2, CDC IMF, NCR IDM-9000, Cincom TOTAL and its clone HP IMAGE (which were said to define the shallow data model), and MDBS and Raima DbVista that both first appeared on MS-DOS PCs.

In the seventies, IBM IMS was the main competitor of CODASYL systems [11]. From the early eighties, they both had to face the increasing influence of relational DBMSs such as Oracle (from 1979) and IBM SQL/DS (from 1982 [8]). Nowadays, most CODASYL DBMSs provide an SQL interface, sometimes through an ODBC API. Though the use of CODASYL DBMSs is slowly decreasing, many large corporate databases are still managed by network DBMSs. This state of affairs will most probably last for the next decade. Network databases, as well as hierarchical databases, are most often qualified legacy, inasmuch as they are often expected to be replaced, sooner or later, by modern database engines.


The presentation of the network model is based on the specifications published in the 1971 and 1973 reports, with which most CODASYL DBMSs comply.

The Languages

The data structures and the contents of a database can be created, updated and processed by means of four languages, namely the Schema DDL and Sub-schema DDL, through which the global schema and the sub-schemas of the database are declared, the Data Storage Description Language or DSDL (often named DMCL) that allows physical structures to be defined and tuned, and the DML through which application programs access and update the contents of the database.

Gross Architecture of a CODASYL DBMS

The CODASYL reports define the interactions between client application programs and the database. The resulting architecture actually laid down the principles of modern DBMSs. The DBMS includes (at least) three components, namely the DDL compiler, the DML compiler and the database control system (DBCS, or simply system). The DDL compiler translates the data description code into internal tables that are stored in the database, so that they can be exploited by the DML compiler at program compile time and by the DBCS at program run time. Either the DML compiler is integrated into the host language compiler (typically COBOL) or it acts as a precompiler. It parses applications programs and replaces DML statements with calls to DBMS procedures. The DBCS receives orders from the application programs and executes them. Each program includes a user working area (UWA) in which data to and from the database are stored. The UWA also comprises registers that inform the program on the status of the last operations, and in particular references to the last records accessed/updated in each record type, each area, each set type and globally for the current process. These references, called currency indicators, represent static predefined cursors that form the basis for the navigational facilities across the data.

The Data Structures

The pictorial representation of a schema, or Data Structure Diagram [1], looks like a graph, where the nodes are the database record types and the edges are set types, that is, binary 1:N relationship types between record types, conventionally directed from the one side to the many side. Both record types and set types are named (Fig. 1). In this popular representation, record fields as well as various characteristics of the data structures are ignored.
Network Data Model. Figure 1

Diagram representation of the schema of a sample database.

Records and Record Types

A record is the data unit exchanged between the database and the application program. A program reads one record at a time from the database and stores one record at a time in the database. Records are classified into record types that define their common structure and default behavior. The intended goal of a record type is to represent a real world entity type. A database key, which is a database-wide system-controlled identifier, is associated with each record, acting as an object-id.

Each database includes the SYSTEM record type, with one occurrence only, that can be used to define access paths across user record types through SYSTEM-owned singular set types.

The schema specifies, via the record type location mode, how a record is stored and how it is retrieved when storing a dependent record. This feature is both very powerful and, when used at its full power, fairly complex. Two main variants are proposed:
  • location mode calc using field-list: the record is stored according to a hashing technique (or later through B-tree techniques) applied to the record key, composed of one or several fields of the record type (field-list); at run time, the default way to access a record will be through this record key;

  • location mode via set type S: the record is physically stored as close as possible to the current record of set type S; later on, the default way to access a record will be through an occurrence of S identified by its set selection mode.

Record Fields

A record type is composed of fields, the occurrences of which are values. Not surprisingly (CODASYL was also responsible for the COBOL specifications), their structure closely follow the record declaration of COBOL. The DDL offers the following field structures:
  • data item: elementary piece of data of a certain type (arithmetic, string, implementor defined);

  • vector: array of values of the same type; its size can be fixed or variable;

  • repeating group: a somewhat misleading name for a possibly repeating aggregate of fields of any kind.

The fields of a record type can be atomic or compound, single-valued or multi-valued, mandatory or optional (through the null value); these three dimensions allow complex, multi-level field structures to be defined.

Sets and Set Types

Basically, a CODASYL set is a list of records made up of a head record (the owner of the set) followed by zero or more other records (the members of the set). A set type S is a schema construct defined by its name and comprising one owner record type and one or more member record type(s). Considering set type S with owner type A and member type B, any A record is the owner of one and only one occurrence of S and no B record can be a member of more than one occurrence of S. In other words, a set type materializes a 1:N relationship type. The owner and the members of a set type are distinct. This limitation has been dropped in the 1978 specifications, but has been kept in most implementations (exceptions: SYBAS and MDBS). Cyclic structures are allowed provided they include at least two record types. It must be noted that a set type can include more than one member record type.

The member records of S can be ordered (first, last, sorted, application-defined). This characteristic is static and cannot be changed at run-time as in SQL. The insertion of a member record in an occurrence of S can be performed at creation time (automatic insertion mode) or later by the application program (manual insertion mode). Once a record is a member of an occurrence of S, its status is governed by the retention mode; it can be removed at will (optional), it cannot be changed (fixed) or it can be moved from an occurrence to another but cannot be removed (mandatory).

The set [occurrence] selection of S defines the default way an occurrence of S is determined in certain DML operations such as storing records with automatic insertion mode.


An area is a named logical repository of records of one or several types. The records of a definite type can be distributed in more than one area. The intended goal is to offer a way to partition the set of the database records according to real world dimensions, such as geographic, organizational or temporal. However, since areas are mapped to physical devices, they are sometimes used to partition the data physically, e.g., across disk drives.

Schema and Sub-schemas

The data structures of each database are described by a schema expressed in the DDL. Though DDL is host language independent, its syntax is reminiscent of COBOL. Views are defined by sub-schemas. Basically, a subschema is a host language dependent description of a subset of the data structures of a schema. Some slight variations are allowed, but they are less powerful than relational database capabilities. Figure 2 shows a fragment of the schema declaring the data structures of Fig. 1.
Network Data Model. Figure 2

Fragment of the DDL code defining the schema of Fig. 1.

Data Manipulation

The DML allows application programs to ask the DBCS data retrieval and update services. The program accesses the data through a sub-schema that identifies the schema objects the instances of which can be retrieved and updated as well as their properties, such as the data type of each field. Exchange between the host language and the DBCS is performed via the UWA, a shared set of variables included in each running program. This set includes the currency indicators, the process status (e.g., the error indicators) and record variables in which the data to and from the database are temporarily stored. Many DML statements use the currency indicators as implicit arguments. Such is the case for set traversal and for record storing. Based on the currency indicators, on the location mode of record types and on the set selection option of set types, sophisticated positioning policies can be defined, leading to tight application code.

Data Retrieval

The primary aim of the find statement is to retrieve a definite record on the basis of its position in a specified collection and to make it the current of all the communities which it belongs to, that is, its database, its area, its record type and each of its set types. For instance, if an ORDER record is successfully retrieved, it becomes the current of the database for the running program (the current of run unit), the current of the DOMESTIC area, the current of the ORDER record type and the current of the FROM and WITHIN set types. The variants of the find statement allow the program to scan the records of an area, of a record type and of the members and the owner of a set. They also provide selective access among the members of a set.

The get statement transfers field values from a current record in the UWA, from which they can then be processed by the program.

Data Update

A record r is inserted in the database as follows: first, field values of r are stored in the UWA, then the current of each set in which r will be inserted is retrieved and finally a store instruction is issued. The delete instruction applies to the current record. For this operation, the DBCS enforces a cascade policy: if the record to be deleted is the owner of sets whose members have a mandatory or fixed retention mode, those members are deleted as well. The modify statement transfers in the current of a record type the new values that have been stored in the UWA. Insertion and removal of the current of a record type is performed by insert and remove instructions. Transferring a mandatory member from a set to another cannot be carried out by merely removing then inserting the record. A special case of the modify statement makes such a transfer possible. Later specifications as well as some implementations propose a specific statement for this operation.

Figure 3 shows, in an arbitrary procedural pseudo-code, a fragment that processes the orders of customer C400 and another fragment that creates an ORDER record for the same customer.
Network Data Model. Figure 3

Two examples of data manipulation code.

Entity-relationship to Network Mapping

Among the many DBMS data models that have been proposed since the late sixties, the network model is probably the closest to the Entity-Relationship model [5]. As a consequence, network database schemas tend to be more readable than those expressed in any other DBMS data model, at least for simple schemas. Each entity type is represented by a record type, each attribute by a field and each simple relationship type by a set type. Considering modern conceptual formalisms, the network model suffers from several deficiencies, notably the lack of generalization-specialization (is-a) hierarchies and the fact that relationship types are limited to the 1:N category. Translating an Entity-relationship schema into the network model requires the transformation of these missing constructs into standard structures.

Is-a hierarchies. Three popular transformations can be applied to express this construct in standard data management systems, namely one record type per entity type, one record type per supertype and one record type per subtype. Representing each entity type by a distinct record type and forming a set type S with each super-type (as owner of S) and all its direct subtypes (as members of S) is an appropriate implementation of the first variant.

1:1 relationship type. This category is a special case of 1:N and can be expressed by a mere set type, together with dynamic restriction on the number of members in each set. However, merging both record types when one of them depends on the other one (e.g., as an automatic, mandatory member) is also a common option.

Complex relationship type. In most implementations, n-ary and N:N relationship types as well as those with attributes must be reduced to constructs based on 1:N relationship types only through standard transformations. A complex relationship type R is represented by a relationship record type RT and by as many set types as R has roles. The attributes of R are translated into fields of RT. Cyclic relationship types, if necessary, will be translated in the same way.

Figure 4 illustrates some of these principles.
Network Data Model. Figure 4

Partial translation of a representative Entity-relationship schema (left) into a network schema (right).


The network model offers a simple view of data that is close to semantic networks, a quality that accounts for much if its past success. The specifications published in the 1971 and 1973 reports exhibited a confusion between abstraction levels that it shared with most proposals of the seventies and that was clarified in later recommendations, notably the 1978 report and X3H2 NDL. In particular, the DDL includes aspects that pertain to logical, physical and procedural layers.

Though they were not implemented in most commercial DBMSs, the CODASYL recommendations included advanced features that are now usual in database technologies such as database procedures, derived fields, check and some kind of triggers.

Key Applications

CODASYL DBMSs have been widely used to manage large corporate databases submitted to both batch and OLTP (On-line Transaction Processing) applications. Compared with hierarchical and relational DBMS, their simple and intuitive though powerful model and languages made them very popular for the development of large and complex applications. However, their intrinsic lack of flexibility in rapidly evolving contexts and the absence of user-oriented interface made them less attractive for decisional applications, such as data warehouses.


Hierarchical Data Model

Relational Model

Database Management System

Entity-Relationship Model

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