Part 07: Entity–relationship model

An entity–relationship model (ER model) describes inter-related things of interest in a specific domain of knowledge. An ER model is composed of entity types (which classify the things of interest) and specifies relationships that can exist between instances of those entity types.

Entity–relationship modeling was developed for database design by Peter Chen and published in a 1976 paper. However, variants of the idea existed previously, some ER modelers show super and subtype entities connected by generalization-specialization relationships, and an ER model can be used also in the specification of domain-specific ontology.

Let´s start with the basics

An entity–relationship model is usually the result of systematic analysis to define and describe what is important to processes in an area of a business. It does not define the business processes; it only presents a business data schema in graphical form. It is usually drawn in a graphical form as boxes (entities) that are connected by lines (relationships) which express the associations and dependencies between entities. An ER model can also be expressed in a verbal form, for example: one building may be divided into zero or more apartments, but one apartment can only be located in one building.


Example of an ERM with authors, books and publishings houses 


An author writes a book. The author and the book have a name. The author owns an age as well as the book owns an ISBN. The book will be sold by a publishing house which has a name and an address. This is shown in the erm-diagram below. The “*” have to be read:

  • Author and book: an author can write more than one book and a book can have more than one author
  • Book and publishing house: a book can have more than one publishing house and a publishing house can have more than one book

The elements should be clear:

  • Entities: author, book, publishing house
  • Relationships: writes, sells
  • Attributes: name, age, ISBN, address

Entities may be characterized not only by relationships, but also by additional properties (attributes), which include identifiers called “primary keys”. Diagrams created to represent attributes as well as entities and relationships may be called entity–attribute-relationship diagrams, rather than entity-relationship models.

An ER model is typically implemented as a database. In a simple relational database implementation, each row of a table represents one instance of an entity type, and each field in a table represents an attribute type. In a relational database a relationship between entities is implemented by storing the primary key of one entity as a pointer or “foreign key” in the table of another entity

There is a tradition for ER/data models to be built at two or three levels of abstraction. Note that the conceptual-logical-physical hierarchy below is used in other kinds of specification, and is different from the three schema approach to software engineering.

Conceptual data model

This is the highest level ER model in that it contains the least granular detail but establishes the overall scope of what is to be included within the model set. The conceptual ER model normally defines master reference data entities that are commonly used by the organization. Developing an enterprise-wide conceptual ER model is useful to support documenting the data architecture for an organization. A conceptual ER model may be used as the foundation for one or more logical data models (see below). The purpose of the conceptual ER model is then to establish structural metadata commonality for the master data entities between the set of logical ER models. The conceptual data model may be used to form commonality relationships between ER models as a basis for data model integration.

Logical data model

A logical ER model does not require a conceptual ER model, especially if the scope of the logical ER model includes only the development of a distinct information system. The logical ER model contains more detail than the conceptual ER model. In addition to master data entities, operational and transactional data entities are now defined. The details of each data entity are developed and the relationships between these data entities are established. The logical ER model is however developed independent of technology into which it can be implemented.

Physical data model

One or more physical ER models may be developed from each logical ER model. The physical ER model is normally developed to be instantiated as a database. Therefore, each physical ER model must contain enough detail to produce a database and each physical ER model is technology dependent since each database management system is somewhat different.The physical model is normally instantiated in the structural metadata of a database management system as relational database objects such as database tables, database indexes such as unique key indexes, and database constraints such as a foreign key constraint or a commonality constraint. The ER model is also normally used to design modifications to the relational database objects and to maintain the structural metadata of the database.

The first stage of information system design uses these models during the requirements analysis to describe information needs or the type of information that is to be stored in a database. The data modeling technique can be used to describe any ontology (i.e. an overview and classifications of used terms and their relationships) for a certain area of interest. In the case of the design of an information system that is based on a database, the conceptual data model is, at a later stage (usually called logical design), mapped to a logical data model, such as the relational model; this in turn is mapped to a physical model during physical design. Note that sometimes, both of these phases are referred to as “physical design.”


About Tobias Riedner
Tobias Riedner foundet in 2015. He works and worked as innovator, consultant, analyst and educator in the fields of business intelligence and data warehousing. He learned a lot from the best consultants, managers und educators in the past and shares his knowledge worldwide. He works for a steady growing traditional company which is a leader in industry 4.0.