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Crow's Feet Are Best

by Jim Stewart
Published: June 1, 2008
This short article examines the choices of notation styles used to draw conceptual data models and advocates use of the crow’s foot style in particular.

Peter Chen invented data modeling with his innovative way of showing data structures in terms of entities and relationships. For the first time, complex data could be modeled so it was understandable to both business users and system designers. Before long, many data diagramming notations were invented and published. Of the many choices, the approach that conveys the richest set of information and is most easily understood by a non-technical audience is the crow’s foot notation. Clive Finkelstein developed this style in his work on information engineering. Having tried different notations in modeling sessions with business users, I have found that the crow’s foot style is the one that is most readily accepted and is understood with the least amount of training. My own experience has been validated with anecdotal evidence from many other data modelers.

What is the Crow’s Foot Data Model?

All data modeling approaches attempt to show three things – data entities (or classes, if you prefer), the relationships between them and their cardinality. Cardinality rules define the allowable counts of the relationships – one to many, many to many, etc. Most techniques show entities as boxes and relationships as connecting lines, which is intuitive and effective. But when it gets to cardinality, all manner of symbols – arrows, slashes, circles, numbers and text have been tried. It is here, in the depiction of cardinality, that the crow’s foot style is so much better than the others.

Cardinality specifies two business rules – the minimum number and maximum number of each entity that can participate in the relationship. Another name for minimum cardinality is “optionality.” It tells us if the relationship is mandatory or optional (i.e., “Can entity A exist without entity B?”). Maximum cardinality sets the upper bound on the relationship – “for each A, can there be only one B, or many B’s?” The crow’s foot symbol works so well because the cardinality constraints are diagrammed clearly and intuitively. The minimum cardinality is noted toward the center of the relationship line and the maximum cardinality goes toward the ends as shown in Figure 1.

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Figure 1

The minimum cardinality is either zero or one, the symbols used are, correspondingly, a circle or a bar. Similarly, the maximum cardinality must be either one or many, shown with the bar or the crow’s foot. The crow’s foot symbol is a natural indicator for multiplicity; it really looks like the “many” end:

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Figure 2

One situation – specific cardinality – cannot be shown with the crow’s foot notation. In some business situations, the minimum is not one or zero, or the maximum is not just an open-ended “many.” An example is a telecommunications model with the relationship “DS1 Circuit Carries 1 to 24 DS0 Circuits.” These situations rare enough, however, that they are not significant problems. They can be noted in the model’s supporting documentation (something that every complete model should have).

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Figure 3

Other modeling styles use various methods to show cardinality, but none do as well. Figure 4 below shows four of the most frequently seen alternatives. OMT and IDEF use a filled or open circle to indicate optionality. UML prints the specific cardinality with numbers at each end of the relationship (for example, “0 ..1” or “0 ..*”; the asterisk indicates “many”). The disadvantage of this is that to understand the model, you have to take time to read the text on each line end. And, in a moderately complex model where many relationships are attached to the same entity, the text becomes cluttered so that you cannot tell what text goes with which relationship.

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Figure 4

The Bachman diagram style was popular in the ‘80s and is still occasionally seen. It uses double-headed arrows for the many cardinality, but has no graphic way to show minimum cardinality. Oracle Designer notation shows optionality with a broken relationship line, which is better, but still not as visible and intuitive as the bar and circle used in the crow’s foot style.

Automated Diagrammers

If you are using automated diagramming software, you may or may not get a choice of which technique to use. The most frequently used product is probably Microsoft Visio. Its data diagramming templates include an entity relational format and an object relational format. Unfortunately, both styles use the same single-arrow symbol for relationships, which misses all the advantages of crow’s feet. If you want to use crow’s feet with Visio, you must give up the automatically maintained relationships and use simple connectors, which can show crow’s feet as the line end. More advanced design tools, such as Sybase Power Designer, get high marks for fully supporting crow’s feet, among other choices.

Summary

Of the different choices available for diagramming cardinality, the crow’s foot notation is clearly the most desirable. It shows both minimum and maximum cardinality in a visible graphic format. The multiplicity symbol is intuitive and easily understood by non-technical readers. It does not use expressions that have to be carefully parsed to interpret their meaning. It places the symbols directly on the relationship line so they remain visible and unambiguous in a complex diagram. The crow’s foot notation should be used in all conceptual data model diagrams that are to be reviewed by business users. It is also appropriate to use in physical database design models and object-oriented class models, although it is less accepted in those disciplines.

In the quarter-century since Mr. Chen showed us the way, we have seen a bunch of different ways of diagramming data. Although the crow’s foot style is popular, other techniques are still unfortunately in use. The modeling “wars” of the early methodologists should long be over. It is time to kill off the competitors, declare “Crow’s Feet Are Best!” and make it the standard! Now, if we can just get Microsoft to see the light...

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Jim Stewart - Jim has performed data and project management work in the private sector, the public sector and as a national practice consultant. He has worked at all levels in data management, from strategic planning and enterprise governance, to OLTP database design. His data modeling experience includes ocean transport, financial accounting, property appraisal and taxation, public utilities and telecommunications. Jim is a DAMA member and data management techniques instructor.