Data Relationships of Spreadsheets: Relational Database vs. Heterogenous Data Tables

This blog post is development in process. Will fill in the details missing details (especially pandas) later. Some of the MATLAB syntax are inaccurate in the sense that it’s just a description that is context dependent (such as column names can be cellstr, char string or linear/logical indices).

From data relationship point of view, relation database (RDMBS), heterogenous data tables (MATLAB’s dataset/table or Python Panda’s Dataframe) are the same thing. But a proper database have to worry about concurrency issues and provide more consistency tools (ACID model).

Heterogenous data tables are almost always column-oriented database (mainly for analyzing data) where MySQL and Postgres are row-store database. You can think of column-store database as Struct of Arrays (SoA) and row-store database as Array of Struct (AoS). Remember locality = performance: in general, you want to put the stuff you frequently want to access together as close to each other as possible.


ConceptsSQLMATLAB tablePandas Dataframe
tablesFROM(work with T)(work with df)
SELECT T.(field)
T(:, cols/varnames)

T( cond(T), : )

T_grp( cond(T_grp), : )
==, isequal*()
a<=b & b<=c
Inject table to
another table
WHERE rows
T2(end+(1:#rows), vars) = T1(rows, vars)
(Doable, throws warning)

Insert record/rowINSERT INTO t (c1, c2, ..)
VALUES (v1, v2, ..)
T=[T; {v1, v2, ...}]
(Cannot default for unspecified column*)
update records/elementsUPDATE table
SET column = content
WHERE row_cond
T.(col)(row_cond) = content
New table
from selection
WHERE rows
T2 = T1(rows, vars)
clear tableTRUNCATE TABLE tT( :, : )=[]
delete rowsDELETE FROM t WHERE cond
(if WHERE is not specified, it kills all rows one by one with consistency checks. Avoid it and use TRUNCATE TABLE instead)
T( cond, : ) = []
* I developed sophisticated tools to allow partial row insertion, but it’s not something TMW supports right out of the box. This involves overloading the default value generator for each data type then extract the skeleton T( [], : ) to identify the data types.

Core database concepts:

ConceptsSQLMATLAB (table/dataset)Pandas (Dataframe)
linear indexCREATE INDEX idx ON T (col)T.idx = (1:size(T,1))'
group indexCREATE UNIQUE INDEX idx ON T (cols)[~, T.idx] = sortrows(T, cols)
(old implementation is grp2idx())
set operationsUNION
setdiff(), setxor()
sortORDER BYsortrows()
uniqueSELECT DISTINCTunique()
groupingGROUP BYSpecifying ‘GroupingVariables’ in varfun(), rowfun(), etc.
partitioning(set partition option in Table Definition)T1=T(:, {'key', varnames_1})
T2=T(:, {'key', varnames_2})
joins[type] JOIN*join(T1, T2, ...)df.join(df2, …)
cartesian productCROSS JOIN
(misnomer, no keys)
T_cross = [repelem(T1, size(T2,1), 1), repmat(T2, [size(T1,1), 1])]
Function programming concepts map (linear index), filter (logical index), reduce (summary & group) are heavily used with databases

Formal databases has a Table Definition (Column Properties) that must be specified ahead of time and can be updated in-place later on (think of it as static typing). Heterogenous Data Tables can figure most of that out on the fly depending on context (think of it as dynamic typing). This impacts:

  • data type (creation and conversion)
  • unspecified entries (NULL).
    Often NaN in MATLAB native types but I extended it by overloading relevant data types with a isnull() function and consistently use the same interface
  • default values
  • keys (Indices)

SQL features not offered by heterogenous data tables yet:

  • column name aliases (AS)
  • wildcard over names (*)
  • pattern matching (LIKE)

SQL features that are unnatural with heterogeneous data tables’ syntax:

  • implicitly filter a table with conditions in another table sharing the same key.
    It’s an implied join(T, T_cond)+filter operation in MATLAB. Often used with ANY, ALL, EXISTS

Fundamentally heterogenous data types expects working with snapshots that doesn’t update often. Therefore they do not offer active checking (callbacks) as in SQL:

  • Invariant constraints (CHECK, UNIQUE, NOT NULL, Foreign key).
  • Auto Increment
  • Virtual (dependent) tables (CREATE VIEW)

Know these database/spreadsheet concepts:

  • Tall vs wide tables

Language logistics (not related to database)

ConceptsSQLMATLAB (table/dataset)Pandas (Dataframe)
Partial displayMySQL: LIMIT
T( 1:10, : )df.head()
Comments-- or /* */% or %{ %}# or """"""
functionCREATE PROCEDURE fcnfunction [varargout{:}]=fcn(varargin{:})def fcn:
caseCASE WHEN THEN ELSE ENDswitch case end(no case structure, use dictionary)
Null if no resultsIFNULL ( statement )function X=null_if_empty(T, cond)
X=T( cond, : );
if( isempty(X) ) X=NaN;
Replace nullsISNULL(col, target_val)T.col(isnan(T.col)) = target_val
T = standardizeMissing( T, ... )

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MATLAB assign index for unique rows

MATLAB’s dataset/table objects’ internals often involves identifying unique contents and assigning a unique (grouping) index to it so the indices can be mapped or joined without actually going through the contents of each row.

In the old days when I were using dataset(), the first generation of table() objects before the rewrite, there is a tool called grp2idx() which assigns the same number to identical items regardless of data types. It was part of Statistics Toolbox (needs to pay extra for it) and it does not work if you have multiple columns that you want to assign an unique index unless the ROWS are identical.

Upon inspection. grp2idx() is overrated. There are two ways to get it without paying for the toolbox:

  • double(categorical(X)): cast a categorical type (technically you can use nominal/ordinal, but it’s part of statistics toolbox)
  • Use the 2nd output argument for sort() or sortrows() function. I recommend sortrows() because it’s can be overloaded on table() objects and it works on multiple rows.

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