A key is a single or combination of multiple fields. Its purpose is to access or retrieve data rows from table according to the requirement. The keys are defined in tables to access or sequence the stored data quickly and smoothly. They are also used to create links between different tables.
Types of Keys
The attribute or combination of attributes that uniquely identifies a row or record in a relation is known as primary key.
A field or combination of fields that is basis for retrieval is known as secondary key. Secondary key is a non-unique field. One secondary key value may refer to many records.
Candidate Key or Alternate key
A relation can have only one primary key. It may contain many fields or combination of fields that can be used as primary key. One field or combination of fields is used as primary key. The fields or combination of fields that are not used as primary key are known as candidate key or alternate key.
Composite key or concatenate key
A composite key consists of more than one field to uniquely identify a record. This differs from a compound key in that one or more of the attributes, which make up the key, are not simple keys in their own right. Taking the example from compound key, imagine we identified a student by their firstName + lastName. In our table representing students on modules our primary key would now be firstName + lastName + moduleCode. Because firstName + lastName represent a unique reference to a student, they are not each simple keys, they have to be combined in order to uniquely identify the student. Therefore the key for this table is a composite key.
A foreign key is an attribute or combination of attribute in a relation whose value match a primary key in another relation. The table in which foreign key is created is called as dependent table. The table to which foreign key is refers is known as parent table.
A compound key consists of more than one field to uniquely identify a record. A compound key is distinguished from a composite key because each field, which makes up the primary key, is also a simple key in its own right. An example might be a table that represents the modules a student is attending. This table has a studentId and a moduleCode as its primary key. Each of the fields that make up the primary key are simple keys because each represents a unique reference when identifying a student in one instance and a module in the other.
Any of the keys described before (ie primary, secondary or foreign) may comprise one or more fields, for example if firstName and lastName was our key this would be a key of two fields where as studentId is only one. A simple key consists of a single field to uniquely identify a record. In addition the field in itself cannot be broken down into other fields, for example, studentId, which uniquely identifies a particular student, is a single field and therefore is a simple key. No two students would have the same student number.