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Difference between a primary key and a surrogate key

What is the difference between a primary key and a surrogate key?

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A primary key is a special constraint on a column or set of columns. A primary key constraint ensures that the column(s) so designated have no NULL values, and that every value is unique. Physically, a primary key is implemented by the database system using a unique index, and all the columns in the primary key must have been declared NOT NULL. A table may have only one primary key, but it may be composite (consist of more than one column).

A surrogate key is any column or set of columns that can be declared as the primary key instead of a "real" or natural key. Sometimes there can be several natural keys that could be declared as the primary key, and these are all called candidate keys. So a surrogate is a candidate key. A table could actually have more than one surrogate key, although this would be unusual. The most common type of surrogate key is an incrementing integer, such as an auto_increment column in MySQL, or a sequence in Oracle, or an identity column in SQL Server.

This was first published in November 2005

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