A "flat file" database allows the user to specify data attributes (columns, datatypes, etc) for one table at a time, storing those attributes independantly of an application. dBase III and Paradox were good examples of this kind of database in the CP/M and MS-DOS environments, and the original FileMaker was a good Mac O/S example.
A relational database takes this "flat file" approach several logical steps further, allowing the user to specify information about multiple tables and the relationships between those tables, and often allowing much more declarative control over what rules the data in those tables must obey (constraints).
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This was first published in December 2002