The "all-PK-must-be-surrogates" approach is not present in Codd's Relational Model or any SQL Standard (ANSI, ISO or other).

Canonical books seems to elude this restrictions too.

Oracle's own data dictionary scheme uses natural keys in some tables and surrogate keys in other tables. I mention this because these people must know a thing or two about RDBMS design.

PPDM (Professional Petroleum Data Management Association) recommend the same canonical books do:

Use surrogate keys as primary keys when:

  1. There are no natural or business keys
  2. Natural or business keys are bad ( change often )
  3. The value of natural or business key is not known at the time of inserting record
  4. Multicolumn natural keys ( usually several FK ) exceed three columns, which makes joins too verbose.

Also I have not found canonical source that says natural keys need to be immutable. All I find is that they need to be very estable, i.e need to be changed only in very rare ocassions, if ever.

I mention PPDM because these people must know a thing or two about RDBMS design too.

The origins of the "all-surrogates" approach seems to come from recommendations from some ORM frameworks.

It's true that the approach allows for rapid database modeling by not having to do much business analysis, but at the expense of maintainability and readability of the SQL code. Much prevision is made for something that may or may not happen in the future ( the natural PK changed so we will have to use the RDBMS cascade update funtionality ) at the expense of day-to-day task like having to join more tables in every query and having to write code for importing data between databases, an otherwise very strightfoward procedure (due to the need to avoid PK colisions and having to create stage/equivalence tables beforehand ).

Other argument is that indexes based on integers are faster, but that has to be supported with benchmarks. Obviously, long, varying varchars are not good for PK. But indexes based on short, fix-length varchar are almost as fast as integers.

The questions

- Is there any canonical source that supports the "all-PK-must-be-surrogates" approach ?

- Has Codd's relational model been superceded by a newer relational model ?

  • "authoritative" may be a better term than "canonical." The latter term implies that we're discussing a particular project or named philosophy, rather than a general database design rule.
    – DougM
    Jul 11, 2013 at 16:34
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    Well, I don't know a canonical source, but to my experience the "all-PK-must-be-surrogates", to be precise the "the PK should be always an autogenerated field named TablenameID" works very, very well. I have seen that working in practice with an enterprise-sized db with more than 500 tables, and since that time I use this for database modeling whenever possible.
    – Doc Brown
    Jul 11, 2013 at 16:39
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    Answers: 1) No! 2) Even bigger NO!
    – nvogel
    Jul 11, 2013 at 19:07
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    Have to give this question a big -1. That surrogate keys are not required by the dbms is an indicator that they are not a 'must'. That said, as others have pointed out, using them consistently is a smart idea and helps avoid complications down the road as data changes. Jul 11, 2013 at 19:58
  • The word "surrogate" is used in more than one sense in this context. In early usage, a natural key was described as a surrogate for an entity. Entities, like persons or airliners, do not really get entered into the database. They aren't data. The natural key identifies an entity and is data. So it can represent the entity inside the database. Provided of course that the enterprise does not mismanage the natural key. Later usage uses the word "surrogate" in the sense that an artificial key is used as a surrogate for the natural key. Aug 2, 2013 at 4:23

2 Answers 2


"All PKs are surrogates" is not a very sound strategy at all and certainly not one that you are ever likely to find an "authoritative" source for.

Firstly think about what is meant by "primary key" in this context. In the relational model there are no "primary" keys - meaning no one key which is fundamentally different from any other key of the same table. In principle all keys in a relational database can and do enjoy the same status and have the same features and function, except to the extent that the database designer chooses otherwise. The singling out of any one key in a table with multiple keys is therefore essentially arbitrary (that was the word used by E.F.Codd), subjective and purely psychological (the view of Chris Date, Codd's colleague and collaborator). Unless it is explained what distinction is being drawn between a "primary" key and any other key it is therefore pretty meaningless and of no merit at all to assert that such a key "should" or "must" be anything.

Secondly, the argument has very little to do with indexes, which are a physical storage feature. Keys are a logical matter, not a physical one and there is no absolute reason to assume that the storage considerations of a "primary" key are or should be any different to other keys (see previous paragraph). We might reasonably assume that whatever storage structures are used, the storage overhead will in some measure be greater with a surrogate key than with no such key but as always the best answer here is "it depends". Storage decisions should be made on a a case-by-case bases and blanket rules are of very little help.

Thirdly, from a logical point of view the absolute requirement of a surrogate key makes very little sense. The requirement for a natural key is exactly the same with or without a surrogate. The need for information to be identifiable in the domain of discourse (i.e. with a natural key AKA "business key", "domain key") is the same. Yes, keys may need to be updated but then that's the nature of things sometimes. Adding a surrogate doesn't in itself necessarily make key updates easier to handle and sometimes it can make them harder.

  • excellent answer. There's lots more to be said on this score, but making your answer longer would not have made it better. You summarized the essential points well. Aug 2, 2013 at 11:05

Primary and Foreign Keys do not have to be readable. Their purpose is to maintain the internal relational structure of the database, not to be read by a human.

Naturally, if there is an appropriate natural key that will never change (I claim these are as rare as hen's teeth or four-leaf clovers, but...), you can use that, and some customers will make that one of their requirements.

But why add the additional complexity to a database system, for little appreciable benefit? Primary Surrogate keys are system-generated, guaranteed to be unique, guaranteed to never change, and are the same data type for all tables. They will have the same reliable behavior under all circumstances.

If you're looking for a canonical resource that supports this practice, you won't find one. There are just as many designers on the other side of the aisle that will viciously defend their use of natural, composite keys with clustered indexes as primary keys, and all of the canonical resources say that it is the designer's choice.

See Also

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    @Bobson: I already stated in my answer that there are dissenting opinions, and I agree with your position in the paragraph below the statement you quoted, so your downvote seems... capricious. Jul 11, 2013 at 18:16
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    "Primary and Foreign Keys are not supposed to be readable." !! Who exactly is "supposing" such a thing, other than Robert? The question is about the relational model which certainly never, ever supposed such a thing.
    – nvogel
    Jul 11, 2013 at 19:43
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    @sqlvogel [sigh] Make them readable if you wish. Really, it's OK. As long as you can guarantee immutability and uniqueness, you can paint them green for all I care. My point is that readability is really low on the importance scale. Jul 11, 2013 at 19:45
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    @RobertHarvey Of course. No objection to hearing your opinions either but your first sentence reads a little too much like you are asserting some implicit property or intention of those things. Again as others already said, "immutability" is not a requirement. Stability (a relative term not an absolute one) is a useful or desirable attribute of key; immutability is not and is anyway illusory.
    – nvogel
    Jul 11, 2013 at 19:51
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    @RobertHarvey, If you aren't familiar with situations where not using a surrogate is a better option then some people might conclude you aren't best placed to advise on when or when not to use them. I've no intention of commenting on anything written on Witless-pedia.
    – nvogel
    Jul 16, 2013 at 20:22

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