Databases: The Unseen Services

In today's modern societies we depend on many services from organizations and governments that we take for granted. Often we are not even aware of the underlying and invisible components that make these services available to us. For example, we live in houses, work and go to school in buildings, exercise in gymnasiums, and go to sports activities in stadiums. We observe and interact with the visible components of these edifices, but we seldom think about the unseen components that provide us comfort and stability.

Just as edifices contain both visible structure and an unseen infrastructure, the services that we use extensively every day also contain two separate components. We use our smartphones for all types of activities.  We also received services from our computers with the Internet or in our education activities. We receive services from people and companies as we shop, go to the doctor, or get a driver's license. The unseen component of all these activities are the databases that provide the support in our information rich, connected, and mobile world. Of course almost everything we do with an electronic device depends on some underlying databases. In most cases we do not even think about the source and format of the information that we are retrieving.

Let's examine some examples.

  • Login and use Facebook, Twitter or Instagram: Your login and personal information is kept in a database, as is the information for all of your friends, posts, and messages.

  • Make a phone call or send a text message: The lists of phone numbers and locations is maintained by databases. All the information about your phone calls and messages is maintained at a very detailed level in databases.

  • Read your email: Not only is your login information kept in a database, but all the history of incoming and outgoing emails is kept in very large databases.

  • Go shopping (Groceries, clothes, gasoline): First the product, inventory levels, and price information is kept in a database so that the checkout register can identify it correctly. Then if you use a credit or debit card, that information must be retrieved from another database.

  • Check a book out of the library: The database is checked to make sure you are a valid patron of the library. Then information about the book, its availability, and check out status is all verified and updated for your library loan. The database is used to obtain both patron information and book information.

  • Withdraw money from an ATM: First your authorization information must be verified, and then the availability of sufficient funds is also verified. Finally, your account balances must be updated. All this information is stored in the bank's databases.

  • Have a physical exam with your doctor: All of your patient information is maintained in your medical database. Your records will be updated from the results of your exam. The accounting, billing, and insurance records will also all be updated.

We seldom think about these databases, unless they become unavailable or there has been a security breach where private data has been accessed by unauthorized individuals or been made public. When they don't work correctly, we get frustrated and upset that the level of service that we expect is not being provided. The availability and integrity of databases is an important issue in the daily activities of each of our lives.