What's the difference between a database management system (DBMS) and relational database management system (RDBMS)?

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Ah, the great debate: DBMS vs. RDBMS. First, the abbreviation decomposition:

 

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  • DBMS: Database management system
  • RDBMS: Relational database management system
  • So, a DBMS is something and an RDBMS is a specific type of something. OK, we haven't gotten far, but it's a start and we just need to dig a little deeper.

    We'll start with DBMS and for that an analogy is very helpful, so think about the relationship between a document and a word processor.

    You want to produce a document. It might be a letter to your boss asking for a raise. So you fire up a word processor (maybe Microsoft Word) and you use it to produce your document.

    Now you want to produce a database. It might be a database to store the orders that your enterprise receives. So you fire up a DBMS (maybe Microsoft's SQL Server) and you use it to produce your database. So a DBMS is simply a bit of software that database developers use to create databases.

    Now most word processors generally work in the same way as other processors, but databases differ. There are several fundamentally different kinds of databases that have been produced over the years – hierarchical, network, relational, object and so on. That's the bad news. The good news is that today all of the major DBMSs (Oracle, DB2, SQL Server, Access) are relational. So, any DBMS that you are realistically going to meet is also going to be an RDBMS. So, all RDBMSs are also DBMSs and, in practical terms, any DBMS you are likely to meet will be an RDBMS. And of course, if you're in the market, there are guidelines to follow for how to choose a database engine.

This was first published in September 2008

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