Chapter 7. Integrity Constraints and Data Validation

Table of Contents

1. Introduction
2. Integrity Constraints
2.1. String Length Constraints
2.2. Mandatory Value Constraints
2.3. Range Constraints
2.4. Interval Constraints
2.5. Pattern Constraints
2.6. Cardinality Constraints
2.7. Uniqueness Constraints
2.8. Standard Identifiers (Primary Keys)
2.9. Referential Integrity Constraints
2.10. Frozen and Read-Only Value Constraints
2.11. Beyond property constraints
3. Responsive Validation
4. Constraint Validation in MVC Applications
5. Adding Constraints to a Design Model
6. Summary
7. Criteria for Evaluating the Validation Support of Frameworks
8. Quiz Questions
8.1. Question 1: Where to check constraints
8.2. Question 2: Where to define constraints
8.3. Question 3: Counting constraints
8.4. Question 4: Constraint names
8.5. Question 5: Compliant objects

1. Introduction

For detecting non-admissible and inconsistent data and for preventing such data to be added to an application's database, we need to define suitable integrity constraints that can be used by the application's data validation mechanisms for catching these cases of flawed data. Integrity constraints are logical conditions that must be satisfied by the data entered by a user and stored in the application's database.

For instance, if an application is managing data about persons including their birth dates and their death dates, then we must make sure that for any person record with a death date, this date is not before that person's birth date.

Since integrity maintenance is fundamental in database management, the data definition language part of the relational database language SQL supports the definition of integrity constraints in various forms. On the other hand, however, there is hardly any support for integrity constraints and data validation in common programming languages such as PHP, Java, C# or JavaScript. It is therefore important to take a systematic approach to constraint validation in web application engineering, like choosing an application development framework that provides sufficient support for it.

Unfortunately, many web application development frameworks do not provide sufficient support for defining integrity constraints and performing data validation. Integrity constraints should be defined in one (central) place in an app, and then be used for configuring the user interface and for validating data in different parts of the app, such as in the user interface and in the database. In terms of usability, the goals should be:

  1. To prevent the user from entering invalid data in the user interface (UI) by limiting the input options, if possible.

  2. To detect and reject invalid user input as early as possible by performing constraint validation in the UI for those UI widgets where invalid user input cannot be prevented by limiting the input options.

  3. To prevent that invalid data pollutes the app's main memory state and persistent database state by performing constraint validation also in the model layer and in the database.

HTML5 provides support for validating user input in an HTML-forms-based user interface (UI). Here, the goal is to provide immediate feedback to the user whenever invalid data has been entered into a form field. This UI mechanism of responsive validation is an important feature of modern web applications. In traditional web applications, the back-end component validates the data and returns the validation results in the form of a set of error messages to the front-end. Only then, often several seconds later, and in the hard-to-digest form of a bulk message, does the user get the validation feedback.