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ADO.NET and Relational Databases

This chapter is excerpted from Learning C# 3.0: Master the fundamentals of C# 3.0 by Jesse Liberty, Brian MacDonald, published by O'Reilly Media

Most of the applications that you've written so far in this book have been short-lived things. They do their thing and end, and any information they need is either hardcoded or supplied by the user. That's to be expected when you're learning a language, but in the real world, many applications deal with large quantities of data, derived from somewhere else. That data could be in a database, or a text document, or an XML file, or one of tons of other storage methods. Dealing with data is another complex topic that can fill whole books on its own, but we're going to give you a taste of it in this chapter and the next, starting with the traditional ADO.NET, and then introducing you to the brand-new Language Integrated Query (LINQ).

ADO.NET was designed to provide a disconnected data architecture, though it does have a connected alternative. In a disconnected architecture, data is retrieved from a database and cached (stored) on your local machine. You manipulate the data on your local computer and connect to the database only when you wish to alter records or acquire new data.

There are significant advantages to disconnecting your data architecture from your database. The biggest advantage is that your application, whether running on the Web or on a local machine, will create a reduced burden on the database server, which may help your application to scale well; that is, it doesn't impose a substantially greater burden as the number of users increases. Database connections are resource-intensive, and it is difficult to have thousands (or hundreds of thousands) of simultaneous continuous connections. A disconnected architecture is resource-frugal, though there are times that all you want to do is connect to the database, suck out a stream of data, and disconnect; and ADO.NET has a Reader class that allows for that as well.

ADO.NET typically connects to the database to retrieve data, and connects again to update data when you've made changes. Most applications spend most of their time simply reading through data and displaying it; ADO.NET provides a disconnected subset of the data for your use while reading and displaying, but it is up to you as the developer to keep in mind that the data in the database may change while you are disconnected, and to plan accordingly.

Relational Databases and SQL

Although one can certainly write an entire book on relational databases, and another on SQL, the essentials of these technologies aren't hard to understand, and you'll understand the chapter better if we spend a little time on the basics. A database is a repository of data. A relational database organizes your data into tables. In this chapter, we'll use the Northwind database, which is available as a free download from Microsoft. It was originally intended for a much older version of SQL Server, but it works well for our examples in this chapter without requiring too much installation work on your part.

Installing the Northwind Database

The Northwind database is a database file that's intended for testing and practice purposes. To use the database, you'll need to make sure that you have SQL Server Express edition. If you're using Visual Studio, it was installed by default. If you're using C# Express, installing SQL Server was optional, and if you followed the instructions in Chapter 1, C# and .NET Programming, you already have it installed. If not, head back to Chapter 1, C# and .NET Programming and check out the installation instructions there.

If you're using Windows Vista, you're going to need to do a bit of extra work (if not, you can skip the next few paragraphs). Vista requires that only an administrator can install and access databases, but your default user isn't automatically added to the SQL Server Administrators group. Fortunately, there's an easy fix for this problem:

  1. Go to C:\Program Files\Microsoft SQL Server\90\Shared (assuming you installed SQL Server to its default location).

  2. Run the SqlProv.exe application.

  3. You'll see the usual Windows Vista confirmation window. Click Confirm.

  4. This starts the User Provisioning Tool, shown in Figure 20.1, "The User Provisioning Tool allows you to grant SQL Server administrative permissions to a Vista user account, which will save you a lot of headaches.". In the "User to provision" box, make sure the computer name and the username of the user you want to grant permissions to are entered; they should be there automatically. The "Available permissions" box looks like it should have a long list, but there's really only one permission available, and it should be selected already.

  5. Click the >> button to grant permission to that user, and then click OK to close the tool.

Next, download the Northwind database from this location:

You'll download an .msi file, which you can then run to install the databases on your hard drive. By default, they install to c:\SQL Server 2000 Sample Databases.

Figure 20.1. The User Provisioning Tool allows you to grant SQL Server administrative permissions to a Vista user account, which will save you a lot of headaches.

The User Provisioning Tool allows you to grant SQL Server administrative permissions to a Vista user account, which will save you a lot of headaches.
If you're using Windows Vista Home Edition, use Windows Explorer to navigate to the folder where the files are installed. Right-click anywhere in the folder and select Properties. The Properties window will likely show you that this folder is read-only. Clear that checkbox, and when you're asked, apply the setting to files and subfolders as well. If you don't do this, you won't be able to access the database.

Next, open a command-line window: on Windows XP and older versions, select Start → Run, and type "cmd" in the Run dialog box. On Vista, simply click Start, then type "cmd" and press Enter. A command window will open. Change to the directory where the databases are stored:

cd c:\SQL Server 2000 Sample Databases

Then enter this command (all on one line):

sqlcmd -E -S.\sqlexpress -i instnwnd.sql

If you've done it correctly, you should see the following messages:

Changed database context to 'master'.
Changed database context to 'northwind'.

If you see that, you've succeeded. If not, go back and check the permissions in the folder, or try typing the sqlcmd command again.

Once you have Northwind installed, you should check to make sure that you can make a data connection to it from your applications.

  1. Start Visual Studio and create a new project; it doesn't matter what kind.

  2. There's a special window in the IDE that shows your database connections, but it goes by two different names. In C# Express, it's called Database Explorer; in Visual Studio, it's Server Explorer. If the window isn't open already, select View → Other Windows → Database Explorer (or Server Explorer in Visual Studio) to open it.

  3. The Database Explorer will probably contain a single item, Data Connections. To add a connection to the Northwind database, right-click Data Connections and select Add Connection.

  4. The Choose Data Source box opens, looking like Figure 20.2, "You'll be using a SQL Server database, so select Microsoft SQL Server Database File.". Select Microsoft SQL Server Database File, and click Continue.

    Figure 20.2. You'll be using a SQL Server database, so select Microsoft SQL Server Database File.

    You'll be using a SQL Server database, so select Microsoft SQL Server Database File.
  5. The Add Connection dialog box opens next, shown in Figure 20.3, "Use the Add Connection dialog box to select the Northwind database and test the connection.". Click the Browse button and navigate to the Northwind.mdf file. If you installed Northwind to the default directory, the file should be in C:\SQL Server 2000 Sample Databases.

  6. After you've selected the .mdf file, it should be listed in the "Database file name (new or existing)" field. If it isn't, you may need to reinstall Northwind. Click the Test Connection button to make sure everything worked (this may take awhile to respond, so be patient).

  7. Click OK. The Northwind.mdf database now appears in the Database Explorer, and you're ready to go.

Figure 20.3. Use the Add Connection dialog box to select the Northwind database and test the connection.

Use the Add Connection dialog box to select the Northwind database and test the connection.

Tables, Records, and Columns

The Northwind database describes a fictional company buying and selling food products. The data for Northwind is divided into 13 tables, or broad sets of data, including Customers, Employees, Orders, Order Details, Products, and so forth.

Every table in a relational database is organized into rows, where each row represents a single record-say, the data for a single product order. The rows are organized into columns, which represent categories of data. All the rows in a table have the same column structure. For example, the Orders table has these columns: OrderID, CustomerID, EmployeeID, OrderDate, and so on.

For any given order, you need to know the customer's name, address, contact name, and so forth. You could store that information with each order, but that would be very inefficient. Instead, you use a second table called Customers, in which each row represents a single customer. In the Customers table is a column for the CustomerID. Each customer has a unique ID, and that field is marked as the primary key for that table. A primary key is the column or combination of columns that uniquely identifies a record in a given table.

The Orders table uses the CustomerID as a foreign key. A foreign key is a column (or combination of columns) that is a primary (or otherwise unique) key from a different table. The Orders table uses the CustomerID (the primary key used in the Customers table) to identify which customer has placed the order. To determine the address for the order, you can use the CustomerID to look up the customer record in the Customers table.

This use of foreign keys is particularly helpful in representing one-to-many or many-to-one relationships among tables. By separating information into tables that are linked by foreign keys, you avoid having to repeat information in records. A single customer, for example, can have multiple orders, but it is inefficient to place the same customer information (name, phone number, credit limit, and so on) in every order record. The process of removing redundant information from your records and shifting it to separate tables is called normalization.


Normalization not only makes your use of the database more efficient, but it also reduces the likelihood of data corruption. If you kept the customer's name in both the Customers table and the Orders table, you would run the risk that a change in one table might not be reflected in the other. Thus, if you changed the customer's address in the Customers table, that change might not be reflected in every row in the Orders table (and a lot of work would be necessary to make sure that it was reflected). By keeping only the CustomerID in Orders, you are free to change the address in Customers, and the change is automatically reflected for each order.

Just as C# programmers want the compiler to catch bugs at compile time rather than at runtime, database programmers want the database to help them avoid data corruption. The compiler helps avoid bugs in C# by enforcing the rules of the language (for example, you can't use a variable you haven't defined yet). SQL Server and other modern relational databases avoid bugs by enforcing constraints that you define. For example, the Customers database marks the CustomerID as a primary key. This creates a primary key constraint in the database, which ensures that each CustomerID is unique. If you were to enter a customer named Liberty Associates, Inc., with the CustomerID of LIBE, and then tried to add Liberty Mutual Funds with a CustomerID of LIBE, the database would reject the second record because of the primary key constraint.

Declarative Referential Integrity

Relational databases use declarative referential integrity (DRI) to establish constraints on the relationships among the various tables. For example, you might declare a constraint on the Orders table that dictates that no order can have a CustomerID unless that CustomerID represents a valid record in Customers. This helps avoid two types of mistakes. First, you can't enter a record with an invalid CustomerID. Second, you can't delete a customer record if that CustomerID is used in any order. The integrity of your data and its relationships is thus protected.


The most popular language for querying and manipulating databases is Structured Query Language (SQL), usually pronounced "sequel." SQL is a declarative language, as opposed to a procedural language, and it can take awhile to get used to working with a declarative language when you are used to languages such as C#.

The heart of SQL is the query. A query is a statement that returns a set of records from the database. The queries in Transact-SQL (the version used by SQL Server) are very similar to the queries used in LINQ (as you'll see in the next chapter), though the actual syntax is slightly different.

For example, you might like to see all the CompanyNames and CustomerIDs of every record in the Customers table in which the customer's address is in London. To do so, you'd write this query:

Select CustomerID, CompanyName from Customers where city = 'London'

This returns the following six records as output:

CustomerID CompanyName
---------- ----------------------------------------
AROUT      Around the Horn
BSBEV      B's Beverages
CONSH      Consolidated Holdings
EASTC      Eastern Connection
NORTS      North/South
SEVES      Seven Seas Imports

You can also sort the results based on a field:

Select CustomerID, CompanyName from Customers where city = 'London'
order by CompanyName

SQL is capable of much more powerful queries. For example, suppose the Northwind manager would like to know what products were purchased in July 1996 by the customer "Vins et alcools Chevalier." This turns out to be somewhat complicated. The Order Details table knows the ProductID for all the products in any given order. The Orders table knows which CustomerIDs are associated with an order. The Customers table knows the CustomerID for a customer, and the Products table knows the product name for the ProductID. How do you tie all this together? Here's the query:

select o.OrderID, productName
from [Order Details] od
join orders o on o.OrderID = od.OrderID
join products p on p.ProductID = od.ProductID
join customers c on o.CustomerID = c.CustomerID
where c.CompanyName = 'Vins et alcools Chevalier'
and orderDate >= '7/1/1996' and orderDate < '8/1/1996'

This asks the database to get the OrderID and the product name from the relevant tables. This line:

from [Order Details] od

creates an alias od for the Order Details table. The rest of the statement says that the database should look at od, and then join that with the Orders table (aliased to o) for every record in which the OrderID in the Order Details table (od.OrderID) is the same as the OrderID in the Orders table (o.OrderID).

When you join two tables, you can say, "Get every matching record that exists in either table" (this is called an outer join), or, as we've done here, "Get only those matching records that exist in both tables" (called an inner join). That is, an inner join states to get only the records in Orders that match the records in Order Details by having the same value in the OrderID field (on o.Orderid = od.Orderid).

SQL joins are inner joins by default. Writing join statements is the same as writing inner join statements.

The SQL statement then goes on to ask the database to create an inner join with Products (aliased to p), getting every row in which the ProductID in the Products table is the same as the ProductID in the Order Details table.

Then, create an inner join with customers for those rows where the CustomerID is the same in both the Orders table and the Customers table.

Finally, tell the database to constrain the results to only those rows in which the CompanyName is the one you want, and the dates are in July:

where c.CompanyName = 'Vins et alcools Chevalier'
and orderDate >= '7/1/1996' and orderDate <= '7/31/1996'

The collection of constraints finds only three records that match:

OrderID     ProductName
----------- ----------------------------------------
10248       Queso Cabrales
10248       Singaporean Hokkien Fried Mee
10248       Mozzarella di Giovanni

This output shows that there was only one order (10248) in which the customer had the right ID and in which the date of the order was July 1996. That order produced three records in the Order Details table, and using the product IDs in these three records, you got the product names from the Products table.

You can use SQL not only for searching for and retrieving data, but also for creating, updating, and deleting tables, and generally for managing and manipulating both the content and the structure of the database.

The ADO.NET object model is rich, but at its heart it is a fairly straightforward set of classes. The most important of these is the DataSet. The DataSet represents a subset of the entire database, cached on your machine without a continuous connection to the database.

Periodically, you'll reconnect the DataSet to its parent database, update the database with changes you've made to the DataSet, and update the DataSet with changes in the database made by other users or processes. That's how ADO.NET maintains its disconnected nature that we mentioned at the start of the chapter.

This is highly efficient, but to be effective, the DataSet must be a robust subset of the database, capturing not just a few rows from a single table, but also a set of tables with all the metadata necessary to represent the relationships and constraints of the original database. This is, not surprisingly, what ADO.NET provides.

The DataSet is composed of DataTable objects as well as DataRelation objects. These are accessed as properties of the DataSet object. The Tables property returns a DataTableCollection, which in turn contains all the DataTable objects.

DataTables and DataColumns

You can create a DataTable programmatically or as a result of a query against the database. The DataTable has a number of public properties, including the Columns collection, which returns the DataColumnCollection object, which in turn consists of DataColumn objects. Each DataColumn object represents a column in a table.


In addition to the Tables collection, the DataSet has a Relations property, which returns a DataRelationCollection consisting of DataRelation objects. Each DataRelation represents a relationship between two tables through DataColumn objects. For example, in the Northwind database, the Customers table is in a relationship with the Orders table through the CustomerID column.

The nature of this relationship is one-to-many, or parent-to-child. For any given order, there will be exactly one customer, but any given customer might be represented in any number of orders.


The Rows collection of the DataTable returns a set of rows for that table. You use this collection to examine the results of queries against the database, iterating through the rows to examine each record in turn, typically with a foreach loop. You'll see this in the example in this chapter.


The DataSet is an abstraction of a relational database. ADO.NET uses a DataAdapter as a bridge between the DataSet and the data source, which is the underlying database. DataAdapter provides the Fill( ) method to retrieve data from the database and populate the DataSet.

Instead of tying the DataSet object too closely to your database architecture, ADO.NET uses a DataAdapter object to mediate between the DataSet object and the database. This decouples the DataSet from the database and allows a single DataSet to represent more than one database or other data source.

DbCommand and DbConnection

The DbConnection object represents a connection to a data source. This connection can be shared among different command objects. The DbCommand object allows you to send a command (typically, a SQL statement or a stored procedure) to the database. Often, these objects are implicitly created when you create a DataAdapter, but you can explicitly access these objects; for example, you can declare a connection string as follows:

string connectionString = "server=.\\sqlexpress;" +
"Trusted_Connection=yes; database=Northwind";

You can then use this connection string to create a connection object or to create a DataAdapter object.


An alternative to creating a DataSet (and a DataAdapter) is to create a DataReader. The DataReader provides connected, forward-only, read-only access to a collection of tables by executing either a SQL statement or stored procedures. DataReaders are lightweight objects that are ideally suited for filling controls with data and then breaking the connection to the backend database.

Enough theory! Let's write some code and see how this works. Working with ADO.NET can be complex, but for many queries, the model is surprisingly simple. In this example, you'll create a console application and list out bits of information from the Customers table in the Northwind database.

Create a new console application (we'll go back to console applications to keep things simple here). When the application opens, add the following two using statements to the top:

using System.Data;
using System.Data.SqlClient;

The first thing you're going to need in the program itself is a way to identify the location of the SQL Server instance to your program. This is commonly called the connection string. It's a simple enough string format, and once you've defined it, you can use the same string anytime you want to access Northwind. If you're using SQL Server Express, as installed with C# Express in Chapter 1, C# and .NET Programming, the access path is simple: .\sqlexpress. However, because you're defining a string, you need to escape the slash character, as we discussed in Chapter 15, Strings (or you could also use a literal string). Create the connection string like this (all on one line):

string connectionString = "server=.\\sqlexpress;

The next thing you need is a string to hold the SQL command itself. SQL Server can't understand C# directly, so you can't treat the entries in the database as though they were C# objects. (It'd be nice if you could, though, and that's why LINQ was created, as you'll see in the next chapter.) So, you need to create a string object to hold the SQL statement that will retrieve the data you want. This is called the command string. In this case, you want to retrieve (Select) the company name and the contact name columns from the Customers table. To do that, you'll use this simple SQL statement in the commandString variable (again, on one line):

string commandString = "Select CompanyName, 
                        ContactName from Customers";

Now that you have the connection string and the command string, you need to contact the database, and for that, you need a DataAdapter object, as we mentioned earlier. There are several kinds of DataAdapter objects, each for a different kind of database. In this case, you're using a SQL Server database, so you need a SqlDataAdapter object. The constructor takes two parameters, not surprisingly, the command string and the connection string. So, now create the DataAdapter (inside Main( )), like this:

SqlDataAdapter myDataAdapter =
    new SqlDataAdapter(commandString, connectionString);

You have the DataAdapter in hand now, but you need a DataSet object before you can do anything with the data. So, create a new DataSet object:

DataSet myDataSet = new DataSet( );

Then you call the Fill( ) method of the myDataAdapter, passing in your new DataSet. This fills the DataSet with the data that you obtain from the SQL select statement:


That's it. You now have a DataSet, and you can query, manipulate, and otherwise manage the data. To display the data you retrieved, you'll need a DataTable object. The DataSet object has a collection of tables, but your select statement retrieved only a single table, so you need to access only the first one, like this:

DataTable myDataTable = myDataSet.Tables[0];

Each DataTable contains a set of DataRow objects, as we mentioned, and each of those rows contains keys for each data field in the row. The two column names in the table you retrieved are CompanyName and ContactName, so you can access their values and output each company and contact name using a foreach loop, like this:

foreach (DataRow dataRow in myDataTable.Rows)
    Console.WriteLine("CompanyName: {0}. Contact: {1}", 
        dataRow["CompanyName"], dataRow["ContactName"]);

Example 20.1, "This very simple example just retrieves information from a table" contains the complete source code for this example.

Example 20.1. This very simple example just retrieves information from a table

using System;
using System.Collections.Generic;
using System.Linq;
using System.Text;
using System.Data;
using System.Data.SqlClient;

namespace Example_20_1_  _  _  _ADO.NET
    class Program
        static void Main(string[] args)
            // create the data connection
            string connectionString = "server=.\\sqlexpress;

            // create the string to hold the SQL command 
            // to get records from the Customers table
            string commandString = "Select CompanyName, 
                                    ContactName from Customers";

            // create the data adapter with the 
            // connection string and command
            SqlDataAdapter myDataAdapter = 
                new SqlDataAdapter(commandString, connectionString);

            // Create and fill the DataSet object
            DataSet myDataSet = new DataSet( );

            // Retrieve the Customers table
            DataTable myDataTable = myDataSet.Tables[0];

            // iterate over the rows collection and output the fields
            foreach (DataRow dataRow in myDataTable.Rows)
                Console.WriteLine("CompanyName: {0}. Contact: {1}", 
                      dataRow["CompanyName"], dataRow["ContactName"]);

The output is quite lengthy (it's a long table), but the first part of it looks like this:

CompanyName: Alfreds Futterkiste. Contact: Maria Anders
CompanyName: Ana Trujillo Emparedados y helados. Contact: Ana Trujillo
CompanyName: Antonio Moreno Taquería. Contact: Antonio Moreno
CompanyName: Around the Horn. Contact: Thomas Hardy
CompanyName: Berglunds snabbköp. Contact: Christina Berglund
CompanyName: Blauer See Delikatessen. Contact: Hanna Moos
CompanyName: Blondesddsl père et fils. Contact: Frédérique Citeaux
CompanyName: Bólido Comidas preparadas. Contact: Martín Sommer
CompanyName: Bon app'. Contact: Laurence Lebihan
CompanyName: Bottom-Dollar Markets. Contact: Elizabeth Lincoln
CompanyName: B's Beverages. Contact: Victoria Ashworth
CompanyName: Cactus Comidas para llevar. Contact: Patricio Simpson
CompanyName: Centro comercial Moctezuma. Contact: Francisco Chang
CompanyName: Chop-suey Chinese. Contact: Yang Wang
CompanyName: Comércio Mineiro. Contact: Pedro Afonso

  • ADO.NET provides classes that allow you to retrieve and manipulate data from databases for use in your code.

  • ADO.NET was designed to use a disconnected data architecture, meaning that information is retrieved and stored locally, to diminish use of resource-intensive database connections.

  • A database is a structured repository of information, and a relational database is a database that organizes the data into tables.

  • The tables in relational databases are further divided into rows, where each row represents a single record, and columns, which represent categories of data.

  • The primary key in a table is a column containing values that are unique for each record in that table.

  • A foreign key is a column that serves as the primary key for a different table, and helps to create one-to-many relationships among data in separate tables.

  • Normalization is the process of removing redundant information from records into separate tables, which reduces complexity and speeds up the retrieval process.

  • Constraints set limitations on data to avoid data conflicts and errors.

  • SQL is a language commonly used to access and manipulate databases. The fundamental operation in SQL is the query.

  • Defining filters with a query allows you to retrieve specific subsets of information.

  • Using a join in a query allows you to retrieve data based on membership in more than one table.

  • In C#, the DataSet object represents a subset of data retrieved from the database.

  • The DataSet object contains a collection called Tables, which in turn contains DataTable objects.

  • The DataTable object contains a collection called Columns, which contains DataColumn objects, and a collection called Rows, which contains DataRow objects.

  • The Rows collection allows you to examine the results of your query, usually by iterating over the collection with a loop.

  • The DataAdapter is a class that forms a bridge between the database and the DataSet class, using a connection string and a query string. The DataAdapter can then be used to populate the DataSet object using the Fill( ) method.

As we said at the beginning of this chapter, data access is a complex topic, and this chapter just scratches the surface of it. There's plenty more to explore, beyond the simple SQL commands we showed you here. The remarkable thing about the SQL you learned in this chapter is that it opens up a different way of thinking about data access-using a query to extract and filter just the data you want. Once you get the hang of thinking in queries, it's pretty simple. It's a methodology that could be applied outside the database, to other kinds of data objects. In fact, it has been-it's called LINQ, it's new to C# 3.0, and it's the subject of the final chapter.

Question 20-1. What makes a relational database different from any other kind of database?

Question 20-2. What's a primary key?

Question 20-3. What's a foreign key?

Question 20-4. Imagine a fictitious database for a bookseller. What query would you use to retrieve the contents of the Title column in the Books table?

Question 20-5. In the same fictitious database, what query would you use to retrieve the contents of the Author column where the value in the Publisher column is "OReilly"?

Question 20-6. Why would you want to use a join?

Question 20-7. What .NET class represents a set of data retrieved from the database?

Question 20-8. What's the most common way to view the rows in a DataTable object?

Question 20-9. What's the purpose of the DataAdapter class?

Question 20-10. What method of the DataAdapter class do you use to provide the DataSet with the retrieved data?

Exercise 20-1. Let's start with a simple exercise. The Northwind database contains a table named Orders. Write a program to retrieve the order date and shipped date of all the records in the Orders table.

Exercise 20-2. We'll try something slightly more complicated now. Write a program to display the name and ID of products with fewer than 10 units in stock.

Exercise 20-3. Now for an exercise that involves multiple tables. Write a program to display the first and last names of the employees in region 1.